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Plato and Aristotle on youth and politics

As faculty, including even philosophy professors, aid and abet student bad behavior on campus, it is worth considering what the most serious thinkers of the Western tradition would have thought about the political opinions and activities of the young.  What follows are some relevant passages from Plato and Aristotle in particular.  For purposes of the present article, I put to one side the specific subject matter of the recent protests, because it is not relevant to the present point.  What is relevant is that the manner in which the protesters’ opinions are formed and expressed is contrary to reason.  That would remain true whatever they were protesting.  Part of this is because mobs are always irrational.  But they are bound to be even more irrational when they are composed of young people.

Don’t trust anyone under thirty

Plato held that even the guardians in his ideal city should not be permitted to study philosophy, and in particular the critical back-and-form of philosophical debate, before the age of thirty.  And even then, they could do so only after acquiring practical experience in military service, the acquisition of a large body of general knowledge, and the intellectual discipline afforded by mathematical reasoning.  As he says in The Republic, “dialectic” (as he referred to this back-and-forth), when studied prematurely, “does appalling harm” and “fills people with indiscipline” (Book VII, at p. 271 of the Desmond Lee translation).  For young and inexperienced people tend to make a game of argument and criticism, a means of tearing down traditional ideas without seriously considering what might be said in favor of them or putting anything better in their place.  Describing the young person who pursues such superficial philosophizing, Plato writes:

He is driven to think that there’s no difference between honourable and disgraceful, and so on with all the other values, like right and good, that he used to revere… Then when he’s lost any respect or feeling for his former beliefs but not yet found the truth, where is he likely to turn?  Won’t it be to a life which flatters his desires? … And so we shall see him become a rebel instead of a conformer…

You must have noticed how young men, after their first taste of argument, are always contradicting people just for the fun of it; they imitate those whom they hear cross-examining each other, and themselves cross-examine other people like puppies who love to pull and tear at anyone within reach… So when they’ve proved a lot of people wrong and been proved wrong often themselves, they soon slip into the belief that nothing they believed before was true…

But someone who’s a bit older… will refuse to have anything to do with this sort of idiocy; he won’t copy those who contradict just for the fun of the thing, but will be more likely to follow the lead of someone whose arguments are aimed at finding the truth.  He’s a more reasonable person and will get philosophy a better reputation. (Book VII, at pp. 272-273)

Similarly, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that political science (by which he meant, not primarily what is today called by that name, but rather what we would today call political philosophy) is not a suitable area of study for the young.

Read more at Catholic World Report 

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