Johnston: Less prestige for more success

The ideologue is unwilling to reconsider his fundamental premises when they no longer explain his experience. The ideologue is therefore directly opposed to the philosopher, whose articulation is a response to the experience of inadequacy. The ideologue holds the spirit of philosophy at bay by refusing to acknowledge any experience of inadequacy.

Every community resembles the ideologue in that it educates its members into holding a multitude of prejudices, the maintenance of which it will not easily abandon. The community is not wrong to do so — social order would be a fiction without shared prejudice. But the necessity of social order means the philosopher is never at home in the community. In other words, there is an ever-present tension between politics and philosophy.

No one observed this tension with greater regret than Plato, who watched the Athenian assembly convict and put to death his teacher, Socrates, for corruption of the youth and disbelief in the gods. Plato’s dramatization of Socrates’ trial and death ensured that no one would forget the terrible injustice inflicted against philosophy by the community. One potential response by the partisans of philosophy would be to make war against the community. But Plato understood that man is a political animal. That is to say, man’s nature can only be perfected in the context of a community.

Recognizing the impossibility of abolishing community for the sake of philosophy, Plato instead tried to integrate philosophy into the nature of community. He could do this because community is not a term merely descriptive of a group of people in one place. Rather, community is both descriptive and purposive. It describes an association of people constituted for the sake of some good. Plato undertook, therefore, to theorize an association of people constituted for the sake of philosophy.

This is the animating idea of Plato’s Republic, a fictional dialogue in which Socrates imagines a just city ruled by philosopher-kings. But Socrates has built his city only in the evanescent realm of speech, and by the end of the dialogue admits that, though theoretically just, the creation of such a city is probably impossible. Socrates is thus depicted to be both aware of and unable to escape the tension that will end his life. But Plato did not only write a dialogue about a community constituted for the sake of philosophy, he constituted one himself — he established a school for philosophy around a sacred grove of olive trees called Akademia.

The modern academy is one heir to the attempt to constitute the community for the sake of philosophy. At first glance, it seems that the modern academy succeeds fairly well. It is often ruled by philosophers, and though the corruption of the youth and disbelief in the gods runs rampant, the academy rarely executes the responsible parties. But it turns out the modern academy cannot be understood as a community in its own right.

The material end of a community is social order, which is achieved through the inculcation of common prejudices. The academy, far from providing social order, functions because of the prejudices instilled by the larger political community — the nation. And the purpose of the nation is not philosophy.

But the dream of Plato’s Republic is still alive. The mythology of the philosopher king animates many who pass through the academy, especially in the elite universities. In the absence of an organic confluence between political power and philosophy, these students endeavor to embody the two together in themselves. But politics is a zero-sum game. So these students are haunted by the question of their relative standing.

In this era of ascendant liberalism, Yale has an edge over Harvard precisely because it is less prestigious. The prestige of Harvard and its alignment with the nascent political order means that it will be loath to admit any inadequacy. Any inadequacy not envisioned by the dominant paradigm, in the school or in the nation, will trigger cognitive dissonance. Convinced that the prestige he values so highly must be justified, the Harvard student will hold the inadequacy at bay. He has become an ideologue.

Yale is better suited to see the inadequacy; it is better suited to philosophy. Harvard may graduate Kennedys, but Yale can graduate Buckleys.

Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.


  • Bert

    Yep. Nailed it. Harvard sucks.