Is Higher Education Worth It—Part 2? Can It Teach Us How to Die?

So this post is, first of all, a piece of shameless self-promotion.  I’m the editor of the best journal in political philosophy and the related fields—Perspectives on Political Science.  The most recent issue is mostly devoted to a symposium on the most able, thoughtful, and comprehensive book written on Plato is a very long time—Catherine Zuckert’s Plato’s Philosophers.


One of the contributors to the symposium, Robert Kraynak, asks, in effect, whether Zuckert is more than a mere scholar:  “Is she a convinced Socratic or Platonist?”

Zuckert claims, Kraynak reports, that the Socratic view of philosophy “has lessons and applicability for us today as we face the impersonal universe of modern science yet still need to know the human good for the purpose of leading a good and noble life.”  Socratic philosophy (at least as presented by and improved upon by Plato) is “the best philosophy,” because “it alone answers the question ‘Why philosophy?’ in a way that stands independently of any cosmology, metaphysics, or scientific view of the natural universe.”

For Kraynak:  “The crucial test would be whether or not Socratic philosophy can make people happy in some reasonable sense, especially by overcoming the fear of death and cosmic insignificance….If Socrates provides the best answer for Zuckert, has she learned from him how to be happy in the crucial sense of overcoming the fear of death, or she still afraid of dying like the rest of us?”

It’s that test, Kraynak explains, that shows us whether or “great scholarship and philosophical knowledge” actually do us any good.

I will give Zuckert’s very interesting response in another post.

For now, I will self-indulgently turn to my own observations, in terms of considering whether higher education is worth it.

  • Philosophy, according to Socrates, is most of all of learning how to die.  If higher education did teach how to live well with what we can't help but know about personal death, wouldn’t it be priceless?
  • Modern philosophy—say Hobbes—reduces that fear to fear of a violent death and fear of punishment in hell after death.  The first fear can be alleviated by really good government and modern technology.  The second fear can be alleviated by propaganda or "enlightenment" that shows there is, in fact, no hell.
  • Modern philosophy—say Descartes—also promises that through technology we can push death back, way back, perhaps extending indefinitely the life of every particular human being.  If that happens, our lives will be less haunted by death, and we will be happier than maybe even Socrates himself. 
  • So a general modern hope or expectation is that with good government, prosperity, security, and technology,  religion—the illusory hope we have about death—will fade away, as people become happy enough with what they really have in this world. 
  • So a modern hope—in a way—is that both the Socratic and the religious ways of getting over fear of death will become equally irrelevant.  They were both based on illusions and didn’t work that well anyway.
  • But maybe the modern hope was misguided.  The 20th century was characterized by existentialism, by the deep perception of the absurd insignificance of the freedom that characterizes each particular human life. 
  • Existentialism isn’t about fear, but anxiety.  Sure, we fear death.  But deeper than fear is anxiety about who each of us really is, about personal significance.  When I disappear, being itself disappears (from my point of view)!  And all I am is an utterly contingent accident existing for a moment between two abysses.  The fact, that, while I’m around, I have plenty of stuff and lots of creature comforts doesn’t change THAT!  And the fact that I die peacefully in my bed at a very old age doesn’t change THAT!
  • Perhaps the most courageous person of the 20th century—the anticommunist dissident and profound author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—observed that he heard just beneath the surface of the happy-talk pragmatism of the Americans the "howl" of existentialism, the loud inarticulate sound of utterly lonely insignificance.  I hear that howl, in fact, just beneath the optimism the transhumanists have about the coming singularlity and all that.
  • So here's a big educational question:  Can Socratic philosophy teach us once again how to die?  How to get over ourselves, our self-obsessions?  However that question is answered—and leading experts disagree on the answer, isn’t it at the core of higher education?
  • For Socrates, death is a necessity we can't change.  And we don't know whether it's better or worse than life.  So it's unreasonable to fear it.
  • That means that there are things worse than death.  That explains why Socrates stood up for himself and his philosophizing before the city of Athens, even at the expense of his life.  But what would Socrates have done that day if the regenerative-medicine physician had let him know the good news that everything could be replaced, and that he could be reasonably assured of 70 or more years beyond the 70 he'd already had?
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