Opening Convocation 2003: “The Socratic Challenge”

Anthony W. Marx

President of Amherst College
Johnson Chapel
Monday, September 1, 2003

Hear audio of President Marx's address

Today marks a new beginning—for me, for Amherst College, for all of us. We re-enter the traditions to pursue our core mission in scholarship and in teaching, and we re-enter the great debate and our core questions: How do we understand the world and live up to our ideals? How do we ensure opportunity and diversity of students, of faculty and of ideas? How do we live together and progress, guided by moral reasoning?

Kant reminds us that thinking is not the same as knowing, and Hannah Arendt tells us that thinking is the basis of morality. Hannah Arendt makes that argument most strongly and concisely in an article. I bring it with me tonight as an offprint that Hannah Arendt gave to a teacher of mine who, during my freshman year in college, gave it to us in her class. I have prized it since. It is my direct inheritance of the liberal arts, much as you as freshmen will also now receive a great direct inheritance from your teachers.

According to Arendt, Socrates embodied the lessons of thinking. He was a gadfly, asking hard questions in order to provoke thinking, rejecting complacency and dogma in order to arouse the citizenry from sleep. Socrates was a midwife, helping thinking to be born by purging unexamined prejudgments. And lastly, Socrates was an electric eel, who stung and thereby stopped prey long enough to force them, and enable them, to think. For, as Arendt writes, “the chief characteristic of thinking is that it interrupts all doing, all ordinary activities.”

We are Socrates for our students; and liberal arts colleges are, Amherst College is, Socrates for our society.

What do Arendt’s reflections on Socrates teach us?

Just as we are a gadfly to our students, the world is our gadfly, arousing us from our sleep. The college cannot then, and must not, be separate from the world. The world is changing in unpredictable and challenging ways, and so must we change. We live in times of new global connections, scientific breakthroughs, cultural transformations, ethical challenges—all of which force us to rethink our assumptions.

We are a great college. To remain so, and to remain relevant, we must fulfill our social role, provoked to understand and to change the world. We must be a laboratory for new solutions and new ways of thinking that will prepare us and society for our future.

Amherst College is part of the world. We must learn from it and give back to it in insight and in action. We must be provoked by the problems that face us—to study them, to be engaged by ideas, by our own experiences and by our own service in the world. Much as the world is our gadfly, we must be a gadfly to the world.

We must also be a midwife. We must teach our students to think, and we must set an example of thinking by giving it birth. To do so, we are proudly driven by the tension between teaching and research. Scholarship informs and leads our teaching, and teaching informs and broadens our scholarship. The tension is productive and essential. The research universities are less torn by this tension; there, research has become increasingly focused into narrow and self-referential specialities bound by disciplines and the supposed expertise of knowledge. The great liberal arts colleges of America are heirs to a more ancient tradition and purpose: to think, and to teach to think, without constraint.

In the words of my great predecessor, Alexander Meiklejohn, whose portrait watches over me tonight, we must “understand human endeavors”—and, I would add, nature, as well—“not in their isolation, but in relation to one another.” There is no alternative for truly understanding the complex reality that we face. We must resist narrow professionalization and commercialization. Students are not consumers. They are, you are, the future of the world that we must envision and make. In the college, we must resist balkanization by disciplines or ideology and by identity or extracurricular interests. We must recognize and encourage our diversity and our interdependence in order to forge the model community, with citizenship for all, who will learn (as we must learn from our disagreements) to refine and to see the other side of every argument. In doing so, we—the liberal arts colleges, Amherst College—must be, are, an inspiration to society, in our rhetoric, but also in our practices within and beyond our walls, to education as a whole. We must be a midwife to our own thinking and to that of society.

We must also be an electric eel, stinging and forcing our students, ourselves and our society to stop and to think again. As Alec Meiklejohn said, we must “resist the satisfaction of trivial and vulgar amusements and the irrational.” We must avoid the hostile forces of dogmatism and even of practical demands, the temptation to act, or to know or think that you know, without thinking. We must awaken the impulse and the opportunity to think, to get off the treadmill of careerism that our society has constructed so finely. We must find the breathing space to think—for us, our students and our society—for we are society’s place for reflection.

In that sense, we are perhaps separate from the world. Like the monasteries in the Dark Ages, we are, appropriately, a microcosm of the world as it should be. But we must also be looking to the world and interacting with it.

If we are, as Socrates suggested, a gadfly, a midwife and an eel for ourselves and for society, will that ensure moral reasoning and action? To a degree, Athens was dedicated to that aspiration. Athens was dedicated to learning, to philosophy, to the arts. But Athens also faltered. She sought conquest and riches, and she became self-serving and narrow-minded. She became complacent, dulled by lavish circumstance. Athens rejected Socrates as subversive and became like Aristotle, in service to power.

Was Athens’ failure due to a lack of thinking? Are moral failures always the result of a lack of thinking? Arendt thought so. In her view, thinking ensures moral reasoning; the lack of moral reasoning is the result of the lack of thinking. This was the reasoning that led her to be so impressed by the image of the banality of evil.

Indeed, thinking must be provoked, given space and time, and helped along to moral reasoning, as Socrates had argued. But that is not enough to ensure morality. Evil can be thought out, instrumental. We can, and have, thought our way into terrible evil. For one like myself, who lived through the dark days of South Africa and who, like us all, watched the World Trade Center fall, and who now reads the daily headlines in the newspapers, it is clear that we can and have thought our way into terrible evil. Arendt, the student of purposeful racism and totalitarianism, should have known better. For thinking to ensure morality (a morality that we recognize), that thinking must be based on, and an application of, ideals. In particular, in my view, it must be based on the central ideals of enlightenment that led eventually to liberalism: the ideals of openness, self-criticism, toleration and, most importantly, the ideal of the inclusive “we,” the ideal of a general interest in a solidarity that has continually expanded, despite resistance, throughout world history.

Athens failed on this front. Not everyone was considered capable of thinking, worthy of participation in the dialogues, and included in the calculus of moral reasoning. Even Socrates was limited in his interlocutors. He did not, they did not (perhaps could not) see that morality rests not just on thinking, but on who does the thinking, or, even more to the point, on who we think can think and reason with us. Athens’ fatal flaw was her failure to be so inclusive in deliberation and consideration. It is, hers was, the same flaw of intolerance towards difference and a rejection of common humanity that has been at the heart of every major conflict for two millennia since. It need not be, it must not be, our fatal flaw.

Of course, to live up to the ideal of inclusiveness in a globalizing world is all the more a stretch for our imaginations, a challenge to our prejudices and our passions, and a constraint on the temptation to see others as barbarians (even those who say they see us as barbarians). Indeed, it is all the harder to remain true to our enlightenment ideals knowing that others may not remain true to them, and knowing that our remaining true is no guarantee of protection, or even of morality. But it is our best—our only—hope.

It is difficult enough to live up to this ideal on this campus, but our task is to do that and more: to teach and embody and inspire that idealism for society at large. I will be returning to this theme, for it is our theme. But for tonight let me conclude.

We are a great liberal arts college, heir to the tradition that gave birth to this country, despite its flaws. As heirs, we must remain true to the great ideals of our critical and liberal tradition. That is our responsibility. If that proves subversive to the easy, unexamined life and to the complacency of ourselves and of society, so be it. The Athenians were right to be wary of such subversion, for, as Arendt described it, “The wind of thought is a hurricane which sweeps away all the established signs by which men orient themselves in the world.” But to survive in this world we must run that risk of disorientation. As Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.” Indeed, I suspect the past wasn’t all that quiet; and the dogmas have never been adequate, today all the more so. The world and our understandings are changing and must change. We must start afresh, learn, teach, think, act, serve and engage moral reasoning together to find right from wrong, to prevent catastrophe. Such is our ideal, our mission and our task, to which we now return.

Welcome to Amherst College.

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