Thomas Martin is the O. K. Bouwsma Chair in Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Along with his fellow colleagues who are dedicated to the study of the Great Books, he teaches the works of Plato, Aristotle, and G. K. Chesterton.
A long-time friend recently asked, "Tom, are your students in Introduction to Philosophy at UNK any better than thirty years ago when you began teaching?"
"No," I replied, "they are like students in every age - they were born ignorant." It does not matter if it's 2015, 1985 or 360 B. C. However, there are always some students who are better prepared for college than others.
(I am forever thankful for the parents and conscientious teachers who are intent on developing young peoples' minds before I have the privilege of reading philosophy with them.)
Nevertheless, freshmen are a work-in-progress. I am at the university to help them on their way to having a meaningful life by introducing them to what it means to have a well-ordered soul, guided by reason, by focusing on the moral principles introduced in Plato's Republic.
"Is it hard to keep their attention?" my friend asked.
"Not at all. Socrates knows how to awaken students through discussions on the primary things of life."
For example, in Republic, a dialogue between Socrates and several young men, who are the age of my students, takes place at Polemarchus' house. His father, Cephalus, is present, and Socrates begins the dialogue, which quickly becomes a discussion on the nature of justice - how it is good, in and of itself, for the city-state and everyman's soul.
At first the young men do not seem interested, but Socrates draws them in by asking Cephalus for advice on life - given he is old. He says that when many of his friends gather, they complain about the lost pleasures of youth, of eating, drinking and having sex.
In developing his answer he gives the example of a young man asking the playwright Sophocles, "How are you as far as sex goes, Sophocles? Can you still make love to a woman?"
(My students are all ears - "Sex on the first day!")
Sophocles answers,"Quiet, man, I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master." I thought at the time he was right, and still do, for old age brings peace and freedom from such things. When the appetites relax and cease to importune, everything Sophocles said comes to pass, and we escape many mad masters. In these matters, the real cause isn't old age, Socrates, but the way people live. If they are moderate and content, old age, too, is only moderately onerous; if they aren't, both old age and youth are hard to bear.
So begins the semester with the question: Is sex a mad master?
Socrates introduces the concept of function, as in a thing's purpose, and virtue, how well it fulfills its purpose, to the dialogue to explicate how to overcome the tyrannical master of sexual desire enslaving anyone who cannot control himself.
What is the function of my coffee cup?
To hold coffee and keep it warm.
The virtue of the coffee cup is if it does it well.
What is the function a student?
What is the virtue of a student?
To study well.
What is the function of the sexual organs?
What is the virtue of the sexual organs?
To use them well.
What happens to the function of the sexual organs when they are under the rule of the tyrannical master?
Sophocles sees that being led by sexual desires is like treating these organs (to put it in modern terms) as a PlayStation or a Game Boy with the mad master of lust controlling the buttons.
This is a form of slavery that cannot be overcome with an Emancipation Proclamation, but only through self-control.
Moral: If you cannot control yourself, you will be controlled by a tyrannical master. *