When Gavin MacCormack posted this on LinkedIn, it really resonated with me, I loved his tale of the cardboard box classroom he made during project time with his favourite teacher, but above all it stirred my memory of my own favourite teacher, Miss Angela Felgate. You will not be surprised to hear that she was my Latin teacher. She was a marvellous teacher, highly knowledgeable, great passion for her subject, terrific sense of humour. We also shared a love of music (she had an impressive operatic alto voice) and we shared many a conversation (sometimes even in Latin, or German) about our favourites, usually of the operatic variety, but also Bing Crosby, and Tom Lehrer (in fact, it was Miss F who got me into Tom Lehrer – no Classicist should be allowed to miss out on the Oedipus Rex Song, right?).
“It is always my greatest pleasure to be reminded of him/her/them whether
by speaking of him myself or by listening to someone else.”
We all have a teacher we remember fondly, and we could all take this quotation and insert their name in place of the bold italics. It seems that fond memory of a great teacher has resonated across the ages. So (yeah, you guessed it), I am going to give a short exploration of an ancient thinker’s heartfelt and moving tribute to his teacher.
This line was put into the mouth of Phaedo by Plato in tribute to that magnificent teacher, Socrates. It comes near the opening of the Phaedo, which dramatizes the supposed philosophical conversation and exchange that preceded the great man’s execution. Laying aside the mind-melting experience of translating the long sentences of the ‘everything is born from its opposite’ argument (the translation is less the issue than keeping track of the argument, expounded in sentences worthy of Cicero in length and periodic structure), the dialogue does show why Socrates was revered by his equally famous pupil, illustrating traits that we revere in our own favourite teachers:
Passion for his subject (philosophy, that is, not being an irksome quibbler).
Belief in what he does (however much it wound up the Athenians).
Belief that he was helping his pupils and giving them a way to live a good life, a life that would be better than following the accepted trend for the Athenian citizen, instead being true to themselves.
A readiness to drop everything and listen - yes, I know that was partly because he just loved intellectual discussion and tying his interlocutors up in knots. But it was not simply for the sake of it.
Socrates’ belief that his method was genuinely important for guiding and educating young minds is nowhere clearer in Plato’s ‘report’ of his final speech in court, the Apology. Referring to his young sons, Socrates pleads with the jury thus (41e):
“However, this much I beg/demand of them*: whenever my sons come of age,
punish them, by giving them grief, just as I used to give you grief; if they seem
to you to care more for money or anything else ahead of virtue, and to think
that they are something when they are not, rebuke then, just as I did you.”
Out of context, this actually looks rather shocking and it could be read as, ‘tell my sons they are worthless’. That is not, however what Socrates means at all. Though phrased like a ‘plea’, there is an irony in this. Socrates, undoubtedly playing on the dual meaning of the verb deomai, both ‘to beg’ and ‘to demand, is in fact making his final assertion of the benefit of his approach. The teacher is having his final say. His ‘questioning’ approach (known as the elenchus, from the Greek for ‘refute’) was not about putting people down. It was about encouraging them to reflect, critique, and not to accept the status quo or the established expectations and values of society without question. Ambition for public office, money, fame, obscured what really mattered for Socrates. Admittedly, he baulked at being called a ‘teacher’ in the traditional Athenian sense of the term, that is imparting accepted ‘knowledge’ for money. Socrates advocated lifelong learning and seeking. It was necessary to being a truly good person. This is what he wants for his boys, not that they be swept up in the competitive and corrupt political life of Athens.
Teaching for Socrates was about imparting a way of and approach to life that aimed at achieving true goodness and even happiness. The quotation is his final public statement that he really does care about not only his students, but his city, even if they not realise it yet.
And this is the teacher, Plato wished to pay tribute to. The Phaedo closes with the following sad reflection:
“This then, Echecrates, was the end of our friend, a man, that we may truly
say, was of those we have known, the most wise and the most just.”