Can Socrates Be Saved?

When Crito came to rescue his friend, an aged and imprisoned Socrates, the philosopher denied any need to be rescued. At least, he did not need the kind of rescue Crito had planned. In Plato’s telling, Crito is the last and most dramatic in a series of friends who, over Socrates’s long life of wisdom-loving, thought he needed to be saved. Some thought to save a maladroit Socrates from one or another social blunder into which he regularly stumbled. Others sought to rehabilitate his reputation, persuading his fellow citizens that he was more than just a troublemaker. Still others wanted to rescue Socrates from the dangerous enemies he had made by speaking the unvarnished truth. At last, sentenced to die, Socrates awoke in an Athenian jail to find Crito quietly watching over him, armed with plans for an escape and decampment to Thessaly. He demurred, in his insistent, philosophical way. The only rescue Socrates ever sought was from ignorance and vice.

Roosevelt Montás knows these things well. In entitling his new book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Montás cleverly plays upon a series of allusions and provocations that attentive readers will come to appreciate. Uniting memoir, defense of liberal education, and engaging interpretations of Plato, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi, Rescuing Socrates is warmly personal and at times frankly inspiring. It demonstrates the promise of good education to free us from ignorance and vice, making us fit for responsible self-understanding and democratic citizenship.

Socrates the Rescue Worker

Unlike Crito, Montás does actually rescue Socrates. He may even rescue him twice. He relates his childhood experience in Queens as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. New York was geographically, culturally, and economically distant as could be from Cambita Garabitos, the little mountain community in which he lived until age twelve with “no television, no stove, no refrigerator, and no phone.” It was almost as if he grew up “in the nineteenth century among people who had grown up in the eighteenth.” By contrast, New York exuded unimaginable prosperity and opportunity. He quickly learned “one of the many weirdnesses of Americans: they threw away perfectly good stuff.” That stuff led to a turning point in Montás’s life. In a curbside pile of books bound for the landfill, full of “hard covers and gold-edged pages,” he claimed two of the most beautiful: the second and forty-sixth volumes of the Harvard Classics. From the trash heap, he rescued not only Plato’s Socrates, but Marlowe and Shakespeare too!

The more important salvage operation, Montás’s memoir suggests, was Socrates’s rescue of him, a poor and undereducated immigrant, with limited English and little to no economic, political, or social capital. Even worse than those ills, Montás suffered from a common human malady, typical of adolescence and sometimes perniciously persistent into adulthood: a knotted tangle of agonized self-doubt, a lack of self-knowledge, and an incapacity to imagine the complexities and struggles of others’ lives. On that cold winter evening in boyhood, he perused his neighbors’ discarded books, and in “ways I could not have understood, before me was the treasure I had come to America to find.”

Socrates is an emblem of a vital tradition of Western philosophy, literature, theology, and politics. This inquiry into perennial questions ultimately saves Montás. By sharpening his attention and focusing his inquiry, in flights of imagination and poetic reverie, and through historical and literary examples of life both well and poorly lived, the influential works of Western thought and culture nurtured qualities of self-possession and self-understanding in Montás.

The autobiographical elements of Rescuing Socrates performatively illustrate the value of liberal education and “its concern with the condition of human freedom and self-determination.” Montás willingly discloses his personal story, with unaffected candor and humility. This merits commendation. As he himself points out, the living, breathing result of liberal education generally inspires wide admiration. Solemn arguments for the importance of great books may not, however necessary the latter may be.

The Arts of Free Men

To Montás, it is essential to understand liberal education as the proper heritage of all human beings. He offers a discursive defense of liberal education, interweaving his argument not only with autobiographical reflection but with an able pedagogue’s interpretation of Plato, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi—“four companions . . . [who] speak with intimate familiarity about human experiences that we all share.” Montás wants to rescue Socrates, i.e., the Western tradition, from those whose preoccupations, skepticism, or hyper-professionalization would consign liberal learning to a de facto rubbish pile.

He is far from alone in drawing attention to what may seem the waning prospects of liberal learning within American higher education. Montás mentions in passing Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, which fifteen years ago joined a spate of similar titles, such as Harry Lewis’s Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? Recent explorations of the humanities’ important, yet frequently embattled position within the modern university have appeared alongside Montás’s book: Eric Adler’s The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today, Willem B. Drees’s What are the Humanities For? and Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon’s Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age.

Beyond the personal narrative, Rescuing Socrates differs usefully from these recent books. Instead of offering meticulous historical analysis or conceptual explanation, Montás is demonstrative and illustrative. In his extended reflections on Augustine, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi, Montás both says and shows why a humanities-rich liberal education matters. He shows the transformative possibilities, indeed the liberating power, of the great books. Far from a simple rhetorical choice, he writes in this register because ultimately, “inquiry into the human good cannot be merely an intellectual exercise; it must also be a way of life that is informed and shaped by the insights that this ongoing investigation yields.” A salutary result—welcome to calamity-weary readers—is that Rescuing Socrates features less crisis-mongering than similar books. Montás does not overlook the real problems facing the humanities. But by going beyond declaiming liberal education’s credentials, and by choosing to practice liberal education alongside his readers, one finishes his book with greater confidence that the legacy of the great books will endure.

Telling anecdotes and delightful bon mots are found aplenty. For instance, in a chapter on Gandhi’s devotion to truth, Montás brings Nietzsche and his latter-day disciples Foucault and Derrida into fruitful dialogue. Having paid his proper due to their critical insights, he ends by admitting that he once had a real “crush on Deconstruction and Postmodernism.” It ended in “a falling out. I ran out of patience with the evasiveness, obfuscation, and intellectual vacuity of many of the leading voices in the field. I felt confident enough in my background in philosophy and theory to call bullshit where I saw it. And that’s mainly what I saw.”

Transcending Identity Politics

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Rescuing Socrates is its direct confrontation of critical identity and class issues that, by rending the fabric of American life, have also wrought harm upon undergraduate curricula. Montás pulls no punches. He vigorously defends the Western tradition against those who believe “liberal education based on the study of classics to be elitist and exclusivist, ”for they have “little understanding of the democratizing impulse behind it.” Motivated by a manifest commitment to justice, he writes uncompromisingly. Whether parents, high school guidance counselors, or college admissions officers, “we do minority students an unconscionable disservice when we steer them away from the traditional liberal arts curriculum—yet that is, all too often, what we are doing.”

In reflecting on the complex issues at hand, Montás draws on his youthful experience as a poor immigrant lacking the social capital to understand the classrooms and quads of an elite university. Many in his circumstances might have been—and commonly are—steered toward professional degrees or practical majors with identifiable employment prospects, rather than to courses in English literature or political theory. Indeed, Montás has taught and mentored countless minority students at Columbia and elsewhere in New York. He knows many of their circumstances, aspirations, and vulnerabilities. For these very reasons, he argues all the more adamantly “for liberal education as the common education for all—not instead of a more practical education but as its prerequisite.” The alternative, he warns, is a perilously divided system of higher education in which liberal education is the “province of a social elite . . . [in] bastions of privilege, with technical, vocational, and professional education, much of it online, for everyone else.”

Furthermore, Montás has limited patience for those who, piqued by a Western tradition “weighted toward the past and therefore toward ‘dead white males,’” would jettison canonical works and reconfigure curricula merely for the sake of affirming modern identities. He without hesitation welcomes questions raised by the relative racial homogeneity of canonical authors. Debates about diversity, inclusivity, hegemony, and representation are common among faculty and students in Columbia’s Core Curriculum, a program that he directed for a decade. Yet with equal measures of insight and sensitivity, he observes that “We condescend to [minority students] when we assume that only works in which they find their ethnic or cultural identities affirmed can really illuminate their human experience.”

Across the sweep of contemporary American culture, it is strikingly clear that we need rescue from truncated lives preoccupied with acquisition and consumption. We need to be saved from impoverished imaginations that give us no insight into others’ inner lives or daily challenges. We need remedies for rampant obliviousness to the wellsprings on which healthy political life draws. The honest message of Montás’s book is that books read by centuries of privileged, white male college students also provide intellectual, moral, and aesthetic nourishment for first-generation college students, Pell recipients, and racial minorities. In the Western tradition, Montás finds a precious wisdom to which all deserve access, not least of whom are “students from low-income households . . . [who] find in it a vision of dignity and excellence that is not constrained by material limitations.”

Rescuing Socrates turns out to be a magnificent exercise in rescuing us. In the Harvard Classics that Montás discovered on that cold night in Queens, he found both rescue and welcome into a better, fuller human life. Whether immigrant or multi-generation citizen, whether man, woman, or child, whether person of color or white, he argues that everyone stands to benefit immeasurably from the great books. Because of “its contribution to human questions of the highest order,” rescuing Socrates and the tradition of which he is an emblem promises our own deliverance as well.

Crito failed in his misguided, if well-intentioned, mission to rescue Socrates. He misunderstood the freedom to which Socrates devoted himself, and thus found himself on the losing end of Socrates’s cross-examination. Socrates longed to be liberated from ignorance and vice, and free to enjoy the wisdom and excellence of which human beings are capable. Borne along by this shared vision, so beautifully unfolded within Rescuing Socrates, Montás’s much-needed rescue mission deserves to be cheered.