Peter Jones

Nicky Morgan vs Socrates

Understanding the mechanics of the world has nothing to say about ‘how to do what we think is right’

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After the Philae space-lab’s triumph, one can see why Education Secretary Nicky Morgan should have hymned the ‘Stem’ subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). At the heart of our service industries, they solve physical problems from vacuum cleaners to Viagra and make life more agreeable for billions. Solve the problem of finite resources and pollution, and all should be peace and light.

But will it? In Phaedo — a conversation reported by Plato between Socrates and his friends on the day of Socrates’ execution (399 bc) — Socrates talks of his enthusiasm as a young man for speculation about how the world worked. But it gradually became clear to him that understanding the mechanics of the physical world had nothing to say about ‘how to do what we think is right’. It was through this train of thought that Socrates put man at the centre of a debate about nature, the understanding of right and wrong and the pursuit of happiness, all of which the ancients came to see as inseparable. As Petrarch said of a scholastic opponent in 1368, ‘he has much to say about animals, birds, and fishes … but what is the use of knowing [this] and not knowing, or spurning, the nature of man, to what end we are born, and whence and whither we pilgrimage?’

Ancient thinkers tried to solve the problem through philosophy, theologians through revealed scriptures. They have had limited success. But there aren’t any jobs and money in that, are there, Ms Morgan? It’s just dreary old ‘education’. What a waste of time. Oh, and by the way, as Plato saw in his Republic, the world needs a variety of skills. If everyone does Stem subjects, who will do the advertising, artwork, personnel and legal side, accounting, investing (etc.) that the service industries need? Yes, Ms Morgan?

Peter Jones’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Ancient Greeks but Were Afraid to Ask (Atlantic Books) has just been published.