Learning and Loving the Good
Plato, the Good, and my friend Gloria.
There were five cedar trees in my backyard. They are no more. They didn’t flower. They were kind of straggly looking. And one day I had had enough. The shovel, however, was in the shed. The shed was locked. I would have to walk the 20–30 steps inside to get the key. But those trees had to come down that instance. So I laid and bounced on top of each one — the way you do if you are testing a mattress. And when each was sufficiently horizontal, I jumped up and down on them until the roots pulled up from the ground. I am an impatient person. When I want things done, I want them done. And those trees are done. Dead done.
Some people read Plato the way that I do landscaping. They just want to get to the point, to find the answer to whatever question it is that Socrates has posed. But Plato doesn’t let them. Instead he bogs you down with images of strange things, examples that seem entirely beside the point, and new questions-new questions that he doesn’t answer. So when you get to the middle of Plato’s Republic, one of his longer dialogues, an impatient person is given a gift, although it’s more of a Trojan horse kind of gift than the horse you always wanted kind of gift.
In Book 6, Socrates describes a kind of path to wisdom, or what is called the divided line. Starting in images or works of the imagination, one moves to understand the things of the world. Here’s a picture of cedar tree. Here’s an actual cedar tree. Then one is elevated to the world of mathematics. Remember that cedar tree? Well, here is a triangle. Was the cedar tree a perfect triangle? Nope. Would it always be a cedar tree? Nope-it’s dead done. But what we know about triangles will always be true. So to know a triangle is to have a more complete form of knowledge. From math, we can move to the essential nature of things — the universal truths that never change. The particular cedar tree may be dead done, but the essence or what it means to be cedar tree is always true. Or the essence of justice as fairness or mercy. Finally, one ascends to the Good itself or wisdom.
Now an impatient person would want to skip the queue, jump the line, so to speak, and just grab wisdom. But Plato doesn’t let you. Because the world or the truth doesn’t let you. You might get a moment of clarity, and then the dog barks, you notice that distracting cedar tree, you sneeze. So Plato breezes past wisdom and Socrates starts talking about doctors or horses or something else. And if you are impatient, you get very angry with both of them at that moment. You think, “If you were a cedar tree, you would be dead done.” But after a while, you realize that that’s the point. Everything we see and can think about is a particular instantiation of the Good and of truth. And there’s no getting around all of those things. In fact, all of those barking dogs, cedar trees, horses and Trojan horses alike tell you something about the nature of wisdom and goodness.
I have a friend named Gloria, who is a core member of our local L’Arche community. L’Arche builds homes and communities with people who have developmental differences. The core members are individuals who might have difficulty being recognized or taken up by mainstream society. L’Arche provides a space and opportunity for them to share their gifts. And these are real gifts. Real examples of goodness and wisdom.
Gloria was among the first friends I made when I moved to a new city about a year ago. She immediately and literally embraced me and claimed me as her own. I was her favourite friend, joining, I learned, a large group of favourite friends. I can do certain things a lot easier than Gloria can. But that doesn’t bother Gloria. She never complains. Gloria takes great joy in pretty much everything. For instance, one day someone shared that her son discovered that he, like Gloria, couldn’t eat gluten. Gloria’s response was to clap her hands, and say, “that’s wonderful!” If I buy her a cup of tea, it will be the best cup of tea she has ever had. If I ask her what kind of milk she prefers in her tea, she asks me what kind of milk I put in it. Invariably that’s the kind of milk she prefers. Everything is an opportunity for joy.
When Gloria and I work on projects together we sometimes butt heads about how to do things. Gloria, for instance, would have told me to go get the key for the shed and grab a shovel. Or, more likely, she would have gone off to get the shovel herself. But as many of you know, and the cedar trees learned, I can be very strong willed. And I’m often stupidly sure of my positions. In those moments, Gloria, just laughs at me, shakes her head, and says, “Ok, we’ll do it your way.” Because Gloria knows that whatever the thing that we are working on is, it doesn’t really matter if we use a shovel or if I jump up and down. What matters to Gloria is that in letting me have my way, she has made me happy. And that is a kind of wisdom the world could benefit from.
Gloria and I are currently participating in a fundraiser, raising money to help our L’Arche community build a new centre where members and friends can organize events and share activities with each other — the Gathering Place. If you’d like to donate to our team, Going with Gloria, that would be terrific. Here’s the link! https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/larche-london/2017walkathon/team/go-with-gloria/
Originally published at sara-macdonald.com on May 29, 2017.