Teaching Plato with Baldwin: The Aporiae of Self-Examination
This past fall I taught the philosophy senior seminar on Plato and Baldwin. I had several reasons for putting these thinkers together. One, I wanted students to see the ways that knowing oneself, individually and collectively, remains of pressing importance for producing a just world. I wanted students to see the philosophical aporiae involved in distinguishing between a true account and an ideology–an account propogated for the sake of power. I wanted them to think about how difficult it is to distinguish the two and how dangerous it is to assume the distinction is clear. I wanted them to think about how philosophers make claims to power by assuming they can make this distinction easily. I wanted them to think about how our own investments in being right make it difficult for us to change our minds. And finally, I wanted them to consider what the implications of that difficulty are for the status of our own self-evaluation. I also wanted students to think about both the individual and the collective process of self-examination, as Plato has Socrates asks of Athenians and of Athens.
From Plato, I assigned Gorgias, Apology, selections from Republic, Laches, and Charmides. The Gorgias set up the difficulty of distinguishing true accounts from ideology. The Apology showed the Socratic project of testing his interlocutors’ account of themselves to judge whether it is consistent with their lives. The Republic opened the question of whether power for its own sake was worth pursuing, and the necessary role of the good for wielding power toward one’s advantage. The image of the cave poses the question, following Arendt, of whether the structure of the cave (i.e. political life as we know it) can admit of the one who claims to know the truth among those who must judge that position as if it is equal to every other. The Laches raises the question of how we use some knowledge to prevent that knowledge from having an effect on our lives, as Nicias does in describing Socrates’ method. And the Charmides articulates the logical aporiae of self-knowledge.
From Baldwin, I assigned a series of short pieces that raised questions about self-knowledge and our lack of it specifically as it relates to race in America and what Baldwin calls white people’s “innocence.” We read, “The American Dream and the American Negro,” Introduction to Nobody Knows My Name and “Autobiographical Notes” in Notes of a Native Son alongside Plato’s Apology. I had students read “A Talk to Teachers” with Danielle Allen’s chapter on “Sacrifice and Citizenship” in Talking To Strangers. The longest piece from Baldwin was The First Next Time. They also watched I Am Not Your Negro and read some of José Medina’s work on active ignorance from The Epistemology of Resistance. I wanted them to read Medina because it gave shape to Baldwin’s discussion of how white people are innocent.
I had strategic reasons for teaching these bodies of texts together. I wanted students to think of Baldwin as an interlocutor of Plato’s. I worried about Baldwin seeming like an example of a problem that Plato articulates and analyzes, so I tried to show ways that Baldwin was offering insight into this problem and not just articulating an illustration. That is, I wanted students to think about how they learned more about the problem of self-examination by reading both of these thinkers rather than just one. And I wanted them to think about how to move back and forth between them drawing further and further insight.
I should say, I do not think there is a Platonic doctrine or position. I know a lot of people do. But I don’t think, for example, that Plato thinks knowledge means justified true belief. I think Plato sets up some problems and questions that achieve tentative but insufficient answers, and the tentativeness and insufficiency are the sites for further thinking. I think Baldwin is similarly analyzing a situation of racism in America and explaining its contradictions to show how it must work in order for people to continue to think well of themselves while they perpetuate injustice. One passage we returned to over and over was from I Am Not Your Negro, a series of passages from which I distributed to students after we watched the film. This is from his 1968 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, when Baldwin is explaining that he does not feel optimistic about race relations in America. Speaking to Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss who whitesplains to Baldwin that we all have our existential crises, we need not focus so much on color. Baldwin explains that he left the US for Paris because of a felt danger of being Black in America. Baldwin sets aside the professor’s case that most white people do not feel contemptuous of Black people, and responds:
I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me–that doesn’t matter–but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. IANYN 88-89
Baldwin thus takes the method of Socrates a step further. Where Socrates asks his interlocutors to account for their lives, as Foucault puts it in Fearless Speech, to match their account of their life with their lives, Baldwin considers the implications of asking some parts of the community to accept the account of others as consistent with their lives when the inconsistency between the account and their lives directly affects those who the accounts are about but not those who are giving them.
Teaching Baldwin and Plato together made students see the material as more urgent than reading Plato alone. I think it also led them to some frustration that the problems they thought were easily solvable (like race relations in America) involved many complex difficulties starting with people’s considerable investment in hiding themselves from themselves. Students first wanted to rush to solutions without analyzing the complexities, in ways that students of color noted had tinges of white savior complex. Students then had to reflect on their motivations for rushing to fix the problem rather than reflecting more deeply on how the problem works. But the next stage of discussion was a kind of nihilism. Recognizing that getting people to first see the collective truth of themselves and have a motivation toward justice faced numerous obstacles, students were tempted to say nothing can be done, nothing even matters anymore.
Toward the end of the course, this response led to further discussion about how the Socratic dialogues often end with Socrates and his interlocutors agreeing that knowing what is good is important and knowing that they do not yet know it. The interlocutors often rush off. In the same way, the reader closes the dialogue and walks away instead of seeking after knowledge of the good. Our own sense of superiority over the interlocutor who walks away then turns into a punch in the gut when we realize we are no different, as we walk away from the urgency of the problem, either in an effort to hurry it up and get it solved without sufficient understanding or to say nothing can be done. My goal was to get students to think more carefully about the importance of further thinking and self-reflection.
A colleague of mine at UTPA, now UTRGV, Francisco Guajardo, once encouraged me to think, as I was working on my book on Aristotle, what Aristotle might have to learn from the Rio Grande Valley. I tried to think about this course like that: what does Plato have to learn from Baldwin?