Chapter 27: Skill
“Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher
or cherish a student
May be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s a deep mystery there.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Early in the Republic, Plato offers a rough definition of philosophy, and it isn’t smoking a pipe, wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and pontificating in an armchair: it’s “love of learning.”
For Plato, human beings have three basic loves because our souls have three basic parts: pleasure (appetite), honor (thymos or “spirit), and knowledge (reason). Put simply, we want to feel good, we want to be liked, and we want to know things.
But the philosopher is not the person who knows all the things. She is the person who wants to know all the things and loves learning about them. More precisely, she is the person who knows she doesn’t know most of the things, and can only teach others because she is a student of the world. She is drawn above and beyond the lame gravity of pleasure and prestige to find out what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. She wants to see these things unwarped by the forces of fad and convention.
I always wondered: why these three? My colleague Steve McIntosh offers a brilliant way to understand this philosophical trinity. Each corresponds to a basic part of our being that grows through two complementary activities, and if we’re not exercising each, we will go astray. Think of it as the circulatory system of the soul.
Beauty is the dialectic of appreciation and creation.
Goodness is the dialectic of devotion and service.
Truth is the dialectic of learning and teaching.
The first pole of each is more passive and receptive, while the second pole is more active and generative. In the first, we fill up. In the second, we empty out. Receive, give. Inhale, exhale. Following Aristotle, the goal is to hit the sweet spot, the mean between excess and deficiency.
If you don’t appreciate the beauty around you, your senses will wither. If you don’t allow grace and gratitude to interrupt your days, you heart will harden. If you don’t follow your curiosity, you’ll become close minded.
Too much appreciation curdles into consumption. Too much service without devotion leads to burnout. Too much learning without teaching makes you a know-it-all.
Emerson wrote that ‘In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.’
In this way, the true teacher understands that the inner student is his primary pupil, and that his students are his true teachers. The more he respects his teachers, the more he will learn, and the more he will teach them to listen to their inner teacher.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”