Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers

I recently got a letter from a former student, a factory worker, thanking me for introducing him to Schopenhauer. I was surprised, because I hadn’t assigned the German pessimist. The letter explained that I’d quoted some lines from Schopenhauer in class, and they’d sparked my student’s imagination. When he didn’t find what I’d quoted after reading all of volumes one and two of The World as Will and Representation, he started in on Parerga and Paralipomena, where he was eventually successful. Enclosing a short story that he’d recently written on a Schopenhauerian theme, he wrote me a long letter of thanks for inadvertently turning him on to a kindred mind. 

Once, during a lecture I gave about the Stoics, who argue that with the proper spiritual discipline one can be truly free and happy even while being tortured, I looked up to see one of the students in tears. I recalled that her sister in Sudan had been recently imprisoned for challenging the local authorities. Through her tears my student was processing that her sister was likely seeking out a hard Stoic freedom as I was lecturing.

I once had a janitor compare his mystical experiences with those of the medieval Sufi al-Ghazali’s. I once had a student of redneck parents—his way of describing them—who read both parts of Don Quixote because I used the word “quixotic.” A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?” A wayward veteran I once had in Basic Reasoning fell in love with formal logic and is now finishing law school at Berkeley.

The fire will always be sparked. Are we going to fan it, or try to extinguish it?

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Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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