Who are the teachers of virtue and inquiry?

‘If virtue can be taught,’ Socrates asks time and time again, ‘then who are the teachers of virtue?’

Yesterday I argued:

1. If we are living through unsettled time, it follows that inquiring is the most important genre of discourse.

2. We are living through unsettled time.

3. So, inquiring is the most important genre.

What makes an unsettled time unsettled, I claimed, was that the everyday taken-for-granted has been churned up and brought into question and that there is near-universal skepticism concerning the claims to good authority. (In 2011, I made the latter case at considerable length in this paper on speculative philosophy.) The result is that there are inchoate questions about the most basic subjects of everyday life, yet no trust or faith that there are any teachers who can help us move out of this state of unsettledness.

The reason I claim that inquiring is the most important genre is that it takes unsettledness seriously even as it cultivates the virtues of courage and humility. Most basically, to inquire is to be gripped by the question, ‘How do we go on?’ And the teacher replies, ‘I don’t know, exactly. But I think, between us, that we have the wherewithal to go and find out. Shall we?’

The teacher invites the pupil to set forth. But who are these teachers of virtue and inquiry? Yesterday, I said that I’d like to sketch those are not teachers. Some claim to be, and others can make no claims. Those who claim to be teachers are the charlatans and Sophists of our day–specifically, the ones who promise to do away completely and finally both with the overriding questions of how to live and with the problem of good authority. The trick is to give the other a New Worldview or Grand Narrative (e.g., neo-shamanism, West Coast Gurus, Diet Experts, occultism, etc.).

The other camp consists of experts and specialists. Yet, as Socrates makes plain in the early dialogues, the cobbler, the speech writer, and the ship-bulider have become competent in their respective arts (cobbling, speech writing, and ship-building), but not in the art of living.

Other candidate teachers do not possess virtue. Listen to the first stanza of Daodejing 24 (translated by Wenlong Lu and Keith Wayne Brown): ‘A show-off never learns / A know-it-all never shines / A braggart never achieves / A boaster never gets ahead.’ There are the know-it-alls like Euthydemus and economic advisers who take no care of words, the show-offs like Protagoras and motivational speakers who welcome large crowds to hear themselves speak, and the braggarts and boasters like the divinizer Ion and Tim Ferriss who are inspired but not knowledgeable.

We are brought back to the beginning, and we must inquire again. If ours is unsettled time and inquiring the most important way of proceeding, then who are the teachers of virtue, who the teachers of inquiry? (Or is it not clear that we are in search of lovers of wisdom?)

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