Erotic Pedagogy Part 1
Updated: Feb 2
*Erotic is a technical term for the soul's desire (which transcends the sexual) and internal resource and even poverty, i.e. the fire within that is both nurturing but also destructive. This blog will attempt to unpack this Platonic idea but, for now, one should follow the advice of feminist poet and essayist Audre Lorde, do not confuse the erotic for the pornographic.
*Pedagogy simply means one's methodology for teaching.
So, the first chapter of the book (after the Intro that is) focuses on a lot of the work I do in my course entitled The Philosophy of Human Nature. In that course, I am required to equip students with a basic understanding of both the main currents of philosophical responses to the question of what it means to be human but also to prepare them to internalize the Socratic dictum "The unexamined life is not worth living." Teaching at a Jesuit university for most my career, I can say that I am, at my core, devoted to the idea that education, if it is to be called education, is about caring for the souls of the students sitting before me (yes, I said soul - I find that many people's reaction to that word reminds me of this). This is also one of the fundamental values of Platonism. What years of work on this ancient tradition have taught me, though, is that education and teaching people to live the examined life has nothing (or little) to do with the content - in the sense of simply knowing it. In other words, my goal, in each of my classes, is not to pour facts into their heads like empty chalices and then congratulate myself for having given them my wisdom. Rather, I try to mirror Socrates who, in the Phaedrus (a Platonic dialogue on the power of Erotic madness), emphasized the power of love and caring for the individual in need before them. Consequently, in my lectures (and, yes, I am still old school and sometimes find myself lecturing) I try to speak in such a way that I am talking to each student as an individual, looking for that idea that causes them to 'wake up' to what it means to be human (don't worry the answer to this is not neat or easy but I will talk about this some other day in detail). As the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said "many live as if they are asleep, turning aside to their own worlds." So, if I am to believe Heraclitus, the goal is to wake them up, help every individual see that there is a common and shared human experience, that we are all part of something altogether amazing and revelatory and that somehow the examined life, the philosophical life, is part of that. Helping students see this is not something easily done. I am never sure what the student needs to hear or what will help them recognize the wonder of what it means to be and the unending dialogue that can ensue once we truly come to grips with what it means to be human. Everyday I walk into my classroom and hope that I will find a way to inspire each and everyone of them to discover their own fire, their own internal resource, that power that will motivate them to question, create and engage with the world and others, that power that will always sustain and nurture them even in the toughest of times. As Plato wrote the highest or divine study is “suddenly brought to birth, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, it is born in the soul and thereafter it nourishes itself” (Ep. VII 341c–d). I take this idea very seriously. I do not believe I teach anything or that any teacher teaches anything. All we can do is offer what I call 'little appetizers' for inspiration. The student does the rest. I find that idea can scare some, make them feel the heavy weight of responsibility. When a professor says that they will not teach them anything, the honesty of that can be frightening and downright confusing. When my oldest son complains about a teacher, I remind him of that responsibility: "Si, learning has nothing to do with who your teacher is and everything to do with your comportment to them and the things they are trying to say to you." Honestly, Si typically rolls his eyes and mutters something under his breath when I say things like this to him. Often this dismissal makes me sad because that same piece of advice often works so well with others, mostly college students. Since Si is one of the people I love the most, more than any student in my classroom (though I do love each of them), I feel ineffective and impotent. Yet, the different response of my son helps me remember the basic truth. I am not a teacher if by teacher you mean someone who can uniformly be all things for all people, dispensing wisdom that will universally be met with aplomb. Some people just don't have ears to hear; or my voice or way of communicating doesn't work for certain individuals; or in the case of my son, I am his mother and, well, I can't say anything he won't want to rebel against. All I can do, in his case, is wait and hope and pray that one day he will meet his Socrates, one day he will be inspired to see the power and resource he has lying within. See, my own ineffectiveness before my own son reminds me of what I will be arguing for throughout this blog and book. As erotic souls we are those strange creatures who are both resourceful and impotent. As I will discuss in more detail when we examine the nature of the erotic in Plato's Symposium and Diotima's narrative regarding the birth of eros, each one of us is a both/and, a well of inspiration and fire alongside a nothingness, an emptiness, a horrific lack that can crush our very core, a destructiveness that can consume our desire to be otherwise, to be our erotic selves. Our task is to learn to live with that, to be inspired and motivated by that strange uncanny beauty in the face of pain, trauma, meaninglessness and, as philosopher F. Nietzsche said (albeit for different metaphysical reasons) "say yes to it." Affirm and transform, despair and feel joy all at the same time. Yet, how that is possible, how the philosophy of the erotic is based on a fundamental way in which we conceive of the human soul and its reality, that is a discussion for another day. For now, I am satisfied for the moment and will take a shower, get ready for the day and hopefully find a tiny piece of joy that I can share with you tomorrow. Have the fun and be the Good. until soon, D