Philosophy at Aquinas College

Philosophy of Teaching & Learning

Aquinas College Philosophers find guiding principles for the method of teaching philosophy, learning, and for understanding the relationship between teacher and student expressed by Plato (427-347 BC) in the Meno. To the major question of the dialogue, ‘is virtue teachable?,’ Plato’s Socrates gives the nuanced answer: ‘yes and no.’ A careful examination of intellectual virtue (and all the virtues, for that matter), shows that virtue is complex, that in one sense it is teachable, but in another equally important sense it is not teachable. To the extent that virtue is a form of knowledge that can be possessed and expressed by a teacher, it is teachable: its meaning can be conveyed by one who knows it to a student. To the extent, however, that virtue is a practice that must be actively and freely chosen from within, and to the extent that intellectual virtue requires that the individual seek to ‘see’ with the minds eye, as it were, it is not teachable. Of course, and as the figure of Alcibiades teaches us at the end of another Platonic dialogue—the Symposium—knowing that the intellectual life is the good and the best life, and even wanting it as such, is not the same as, nor is it sufficient for, choosing to live such a life. To choose to practice and to live the intellectual life is not merely to be passively formed by a teacher, it is to actively form one’s self in the truth and the good.

Aquinas College Philosophy professors and students seek to be bonded by their common and natural desire to satisfy wonder in the virtuous pursuit and acquisition of knowledge. The Professor has acquired the highest level of historical, textual, and systematic training, so that the just end and responsibility of the office can be obtained: to disclose the order of reason and the truth in terms of the philosophical material being studied and in terms of reality itself, and to refute error. This is, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us in the opening chapter of Summa Contra Gentiles, the purpose of the office of the philosopher. Of course, pedagogically speaking, the professor also provides helpful mechanisms that give the student the opportunity to choose to take on the intellectual virtue. But again, the student, in order to obtain the just end and responsibility of his or her office, must freely choose to engage in the activity of acquiring the order of reason, knowing the material being studied and reality itself, and refuting error. At Aquinas College, we seek to fulfill these reciprocal and complimentary ends and responsibilities in humility and with courage, obtaining the good and perfection of the teacher-student relation in disputatio style dialectic with each other and the classics of philosophical thought.

In the course of Plato’s dialogue, it becomes apparent that Meno lacks virtue. He does not seek to satisfy wonder in the humble pursuit of the truth, nor does he choose to take on the methodical use of reason that Socrates clearly and emphatically expresses to him. As with Sophists like Gorgias—who Meno admires—he wishes to use the power of speech to display himself as an authority, speaking as a fearless and great man to his audience so that he might receive honor and praise and manipulate for his own material benefit. He has memorized accounts spoken by those who impress him in manner and style, but he has not thought critically about the accounts—he has not thought them for himself or understood them so he cannot see their limitations, errors, and incoherence. Consequently, his accounts do not withstand the rational and critical ἔλεγχος (elenchus) of Socrates, who shows him with reason that, truly, he does not know what virtue is so that he could not, in principle, answer as to whether or not it is teachable. Being shown his own ignorance, in his pride, lacking the humility to be taught and the courage to proceed where he has uncertainty, Meno falsely accuses Socrates of harming him and he employs an ἐριστικός λόγος (eristikos logos) or an eristic attack in speech on the person of Socrates— contrary to reason and akin to physical violence. Lacking even basic self-knowledge of the action of his own speech, he is unaware of contradicting himself. In the end, he appears to have remained intellectually in the place that he began, without learning, without obtaining knowledge and intellectual virtue, and he is even unaware that his own servant has put him to shame by humbly and courageously taking on and displaying true intellectual virtue in his own dialogue with Socrates. 

Aquinas College Philosophy seeks to connect teacher and student in a relation of rational discourse and carry on the perennial tradition of Socratic dialogue in the pursuit of knowledge. This is education in the true sense of liberal arts, in which alone we seek freely and not for utilitarian purposes, and which alone sets us free to obtain the highest perfection of our rational faculties. Unfortunately, contemporary culture often deviates greatly from the ideal of Socratic dialogue. “Teacher” and “student” are not engaged in mutually perfective rational-discourse (λόγος/logos), but as abusing words to justify what they already want and excluding all rational challenge they are μῑσόλογοι (misologoi) or haters-of-rational-discourse (Phaedo). Now, perhaps more than at any time in the past, there is a need to depart from the oft followed, prideful path of Meno and the μῑσόλογοι (misologoi). There is a need for clear and logically coherent thinking and expression, and for the humble study and articulation of philosophy in friendship ordered to the truth about the issues most important for human existence at the individual and the communal level. Aquinas College Philosophy seeks to fulfill this need, bringing together those who would express the virtues of wisdom with those who would freely choose to form it as a virtue in dialogue to the point that students become teachers and teachers students.