Education and the Liturgical Formation of Desire

I want to write on the “liturgical” character of Plato’s education program as laid out in the Republic, particularly Book VII. My thinking on this subject has been shaped primarily from three sources:

1) Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formations by James K. A. Smith — the first volume in a projected trilogy called Cultural Liturgies;
2) “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” an essay by Simone Weil;
3) Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi.

This post will be rather longer than usual, but I hesitated to divide up these confluent sources of inspiration, since their ideas overlap in interesting ways — with each other and with Plato’s thought. (I will relate Girardian mimetic theory to these later.) Such moments of agreement (homologia) are often a first sign that one may be on to something…

James K. A. Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom suggests that our tacit assumptions about the ends and means of eduction may be all wrong, that they are based on a faulty anthropology, and that instead of emphasizing the transmission of intellectual content from teacher to student we should be paying more attention to the subtle ways that embodied practices both intentionally (and unintentionally) form our characters and worldviews. (See my earlier post entitled “Avoid News” for an example.) Smith’s most vivid example of what he calls a “secular liturgy” is a description of how a visit to a shopping mall may work to shape the patterns of our our attention and notions concerning the good. Smith develops some important anthropological reflections about just how ubiquitous this type of desire formation is in our lives and what we might do about it, reflections of which every educational theorist ought take notice. Smith writes:

“Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall — the liturgies of mall and market — that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our own desires and actions. That is, visions of the good life, embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. These quasi-liturgies effect an education of desire, a pedagogy of the heart.” (Smith, p. 25)

This notion of desire formation through liturgical practice is crucial I think for understanding the aims and methods of Platonic pedagogy. (Smith works from a self-described Augustinian anthropology, so it is not surprising to find a — mostly unacknowledged — Platonic influence haunting his project as well.) Intentional liturgical practice, in Smith’s view, can serve a corrective counterweight against culturally-reinforced, perverse forms of desire-formation (such as visiting the mall or reading the newspaper) toward some better notion of what constitutes the excellent and good. (This is liturgy’s protreptic function. Liturgy can also sustain and preserve a given ordo amoris; this is its paraenetic function.) Three examples in the dialogues that both reflect and are illuminated by this notion of liturgically mediated desire formation immediately come to mind:

1) The Socratic emphasis on questions rather than answers — As I remarked in an earlier post that a question is itself a protreptic, desire-directing phenomenon, and that a pedagogy that focuses on invoking questions rather than providing information has a vastly different desire-shaping effect. The Socratic method is liturgical in Smith’s sense of the term.

(2) The stated aim of education as conversion, or periagoge —  Socrates describes it this way in the Republic: “Then there would be an art to this very thing,” I said, “this turning around (periagoge), having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected (metastrophe), not an art of implanting sight in it, but of how to contrive that for someone who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.” (Republic, trans., Joe Sachs, Focus Publishing, 518d)

(3) The role of the quadrivium of school studies as introduced in Republic, Book VII — More on this later, but it is clear that Socrates is continually trying to turn Glaucon away from an instrumental view of mathematical arts toward a understanding of their role as dianoietic “stepping stones” mediating something transcendent to the objects of study.

Moving to another strand of influence, Simone Weil, one can see a clear similarity of emphasis in both Weil and Smith about what education does (and can do) in shaping a soul. Weil was an accomplished Platonist, as well as Christian mystic, and these two strands braid together beautifully in her writing. A few quotes from her School Studies essay, linked above, will serve well without much additional comment from me:

“If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul.”

“[E]very time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit. An Eskimo story explains the origin of light as follows: ‘In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illumined.’ If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention. It is really light that is desired if all other incentives are absent. Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light which is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul. Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure which no power on earth can take away.”

Weil’s life and works remind us that the primary meaning of askesis, the Greek root of asceticism, is not self-denial but training — particularly training an embodied subject to attend to things not wholly reducible to bodies, to reshape one’s desire from a primary focus on commodities toward a *fully embodied* concern for divine mystery. Asceticism and mysticism are tightly allied. Her use of school studies is fully liturgical in Smith’s sense of the term.

Coda to this section: I am reminded in reading her essay again of a quote from Bernard Lonergan toward the end of his great book Insight: “After spending years reaching up to the mind of Aquinas, I came to a two-fold conclusion. On the one hand, this reaching had changed me profoundly. On the other hand, that change was the essential benefit.” In the flyleaf of my well-worn copy of Insight, a book consisting of what Lonergan called “five-finger exercises” for the “self-appropriation of the self as knower,” I copied down a favorite poem by Linda Pastan. Her poem served  as an icon of encouragement for me as I disciplined myself to plug away at this daunting philosophical masterpiece. Here’s the poem, in which you can notice the theme of “practicing into desire”:

My son is practicing the piano.
He is a man now, not the boy
whose lessons I once sat through,
whose reluctant practicing
I demanded — part of the obligation
I felt to the growth
and composition of a child.
Upstairs my grandchildren are sleeping,
though they complained earlier of the music
which rises like smoke up through the floorboards,
coloring the fabric of their dreams.
On the porch my husband watches the garden fade
into summer twilight, flower by flower;
it must be a little like listening to the fading
diminuendo notes of Mozart.
But here where the dining room table
has been pushed aside to make room
for this second or third-hand upright,
my son is playing the kind of music
it took him all these years,
and sons of his own, to want to make.

“Practicing,” by Linda Pastan, from The Last Uncle, W.W. Norton.

Polanyi’s founding insight is a little harder to communicate succinctly, but I will try:

Michael Polanyi was an accomplished chemist and philosopher who opposed a detached, value-free science, especially a “morally neutral account of human affairs” (Personal Knowledge, abbreviated henceforth as PK, p. 23), in favor of a personally involved, value-laden, skillful form of knowing. Just as Plato employs a craft (techne) analogy to communicate his deeper thought, so Polanyi similarly uses features of the operations of skillful performance.

Polanyi distinguishes between two kinds of awareness involved in all human activity, including knowing: focal and subsidiary. Focal awareness is that to which I explicitly attend. In skillfully driving a nail, I attend to the head of the nail, not the handle of the hammer. Focally, I “feel” the point where hammer hits nail. Subsidiary awareness on the other hand is the site of my tacit, intrinsic feeling of the hammer in my hand. It is not explicitly attended to in skillful hammering, but are those feelings by which I am able to attend focally to the nail. Other favorite examples are a blind person’s cane or a surgeon’s probe. Polanyi thought that all human knowing similarly requires a focal awareness distinct from and mediated by a prior, tacit, subsidiary awareness. There is a functional relation of experiencing through (or from) the subsidiary data toward the focal target. Polanyi calls this the “from-to relation”: we attend from the subsidiary awareness (e.g. hammer in hand) to the point of focal awareness (head striking nail). Phenomenal transformation is a chief characteristic of the from-to relation. Polanyi gives the example of the phenomenal difference between a pair of 2-D stereoscopic images that blend in awareness to produce a phenomenally different 3-D image. Polanyi writes: “The subsidiaries of from-to knowing bear on a focal target, and whatever a thing bears on may be called it’s meaning. Thus the focal target on which they bear is the meaning of the subsidiaries.” (PK, p. 35)

Sensation itself has the structure of a skill: “We attend to external objects by being
subsidiarily aware of things happening within our body.” (PK, p. 36) This mode of shifting from focal to subsidiary attendance of something with a view of grasping something else, Polanyi calls indwelling. Here are a couple of quotes that bear on the idea of indwelling:

1)  “[To] know something by relying on on our attending to something else is
to have the same kind of knowledge of it that we have of our body by living in it. It is
a manner of being or existing…When we rely on a tool or a probe, these instruments
are not handled or scrutinized as external objects. Instead, we pour ourselves into
them and assimilate them as part of ourselves.” (PK, p. 36)

2) “A theory is like a pair of spectacles; you examine things by it, and your knowledge
of it lies in this very use of it. You dwell in it as you dwell in your own body…” (PK, p. 37)

It is also notable that if we attend focally instead of subsidiarily to our instruments, the result is a kind of blindness or loss of skill. Polanyi says that we “can paralyze the performance of a skill by turning our attention away from its performance and concentrating instead on the several motions that compose the performance.” (PK, p. 38); “[Anything] serving as a subsidiary ceases to do so when focal attention is directed on it. It turns into a different kind of thing, deprived of the meaning it had while serving as a subsidiary.” (p. 39) I think this phenomenon is the source of Socrates’ “Second Sailing” as described in the Phaedo, when he realizes he must look at things through the words as a means of avoiding the blindness experienced in attending to the things themselves directly.

For Polanyi all knowing is personally engaged, skillful activity — as his long years of working in laboratories had taught him. We must remember the “long obedience in the same direction” (Nietzsche’s phrase) that allows the novice to grasp what the master already sees. Liturgical desire formation (Smith) and the training of attention (Weil) are clearly homologous concepts to Polanyi’s description of the acquisition of and proper focus of skills. Skillful practices are governed by modes of attention and standards of excellence intrinsic to the nature of a skill as such. These are the “internal goods” that only the ones indwelling within the practice are attuned. (See Alisdair McIntyre’s After Virtue for an excellent analysis of the role of internal goods in practices.)

A novice, in order to participate these inherent norms and internal goods goods specific to a skillful practice, must trust a master, maintain himself under the master’s discipline for a time sufficient to imbibe the internal norms of the practice, norms which cannot be communicated directly with mere words. This is the stage that Plato calls pistis, meaning trust, belief or faith. The master/apprentice relationship is founded on pistis. A few more quotes from Polanyi will help illustrate this relationship:

1) “We know other minds by dwelling in their acts — as the chess player comes to know the mind of the master whom he is studying. He does not reduce the master’s mind to the moves the master makes. He dwells in these moves as subsidiary clues to strategy in the master’s mind which they enable him to see. They become meaningful at last only when they are seen to be integrated into a whole strategy.” (PK, p. 48)

2) “There is nothing in any concept that points objectively or automatically to any sort of
reality. That a concept relates to a reality is established only by a tacit judgment
grounded in personal commitments, and we are unable to specify all these personal
commitments or to show how they bring a given concept to bear upon reality and
thus enable us to trust it as knowledge. We are unable to do this because we are
dwelling in these basic commitments and are unable to focus our attention upon
them without destroying their subsidiary function.” (PK, p. 61)

3) “An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription,
since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master
to apprentice. This restricts the range of diffusion to that of personal contacts, and
we find accordingly that craftsmanship tends to survive in closely circumscribed local
traditions…To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master
because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and
account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his art,
including those which are not explicitly known to the master itself. These hidden
rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent
uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of
personal knowledge must submit to tradition.” (PK, p. 53)

In my book, I would like to extend Polanyi’s insight regarding the from-to nature of embodied knowing to our use of words in mediating ideas. Just as Charles Sanders Peirce claims we have no power of thinking without signs, so we have no power of grasping the noetic without thinking through opinion (doxa). The difficultly of communicating Plato’s ideas in this regime is that the verbal formulations are attended to focally rather than thought through in a subsidiary fashion. Doxa as such is mistaken as the end rather than the means of his teaching. Thinking stops at doxa, doesn’t think-through to the noetic. Vulgar Platonism is the unfortunate result. To my mind, most criticisms of Plato miss the point, fail to indwell, rely on thinking-about rather than thinking-through his ideas. The Socratic turn from things to logos prevents the blindness caused by taking an unmediated view of things, yes, but introduces the danger that our words themselves will blind if we fail to properly indwell them. Where insight is lacking, no number of words can bridge the defect in understanding — a truth I learned from Bernard Lonergan.

So to bring an already long post to a merciful end, I will reassert a few theses that I stated in my first post on this blog: (1) that the Platonic educational program is one devoted to the liturgical shaping of philosophical desire and, (2) that the conversion (periagoge) which constitutes the end of education cannot be reduced to doxa, i.e. a statable opinion. I hope these make more sense now…


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