Reading David Axelrod’s political memoir, Believer, I came across his description of studies at the University of Chicago, which required all students to study the Greek and Roman classics, from Socrates to Seneca. Reed College, which I attended in the sixties, had adopted Chicago’s Great Ideas program, and so my very first week I was thrown into a world that seemed utterly foreign to someone who had spent the last six years in the film-and-gym culture of L.A.
I couldn’t make sense of the language of the ancient Greeks, which even in translation, sounded archaic and therefore abstruse. And all the writers as well as most of the people (and gods) they wrote about were men, macho men: warriors, conquerors, adventurers….not my kind of men at all. It all seemed like another world, a virtual reality game that had nothing to do with my experience.
Although in a basic sense, I discovered, the Greek experience defined democracy, and since I wanted to become a politician and was majoring in political science, the subject was relevant to my life goals. And Karl Marx’s Das Kapital aside (which reads better in the German, my fetal tongue), democracy is a concept driving modern civilizations (at least some of them).
More than 50 years later, I look at my notes on lectures about Plato and Socrates and Thucydides and wonder what I was thinking and how much of these Great Ideas I had absorbed. My notes, all written in elegant script with shorthand for commonly used words, seem an attempt to grasp a mass of facts by extensive outlining. It’s not obvious that I grasped anything at all until a lecture on Aristotle by the philosopher professor Marvin Levich, whose sentences were so long one sat on the edge of the pews in the chapel where our lectures were held and anticipated a derailment of this train of thought. It never came. All his sentences seemed fully formed, brilliant and conclusive, and the length of his discursions seemed to allow us inside his thought process itself.
Taking Aristotle to heart, he had us compare the function of a knife – to cut – with the function of man – to reason. A good knife cuts well, Levich, argued, but what about a good man?
To say a man’s function is to reason already assigns a value to what his or her function ought to be. Therefore, one who reasons well is a good person, whereas if the function of a person is to be happy, then our definition of a good person has nothing to do with an ability to reason.
Levich’s lectures confirmed what later a client of mine, cognitive linguist and UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff, maintains: framing the question determines the answer. It’s a valuable lesson for politics as well as marketing, which is why philosophy should be part of every college curriculum.