Periagoge: Liberal Education in the Modern University

John von Heyking

Conversation and the “Turning Around of the Soul”

One of the common criticisms of the contemporary university is that it lacks individuals unwilling or incapable of conversing. Critics such as Anthony Kronman and Stephen Miller rightly observe that there’s something about contemporary culture and the contemporary university hostile to the arts or to habits of conversation. Conversation has had a place in liberal education going back to the Platonic dialogues, if not back further, should one wish to see things this way, to the point in the evolution of bipeds that sat conversing so long that as apes, they lost their tails and became human beings.[i]  Conversation as the primary mode of liberal education is not meant to produce “results” but is an ongoing quest for understanding the human condition in all its manifold. As Kronman notes of its participants, whether scholars or great texts:  “They refer to each other, commending, correcting, disapproving, and building on the works of those who have gone before.”[ii] Michael Oakeshott captures the spirit of conversation by comparing it to gambling:  “Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. With conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.”[iii]

Conversation is the expression of human freedom. In wagering, one risks everything. In learning, one risks everything one currently is, possibly to become what one cannot presently foresee. Conversation as liberal education implies liberation from the necessities, including our felt “necessity” to yield results. For Oakeshott, conversation is free because it is not about “anything” in particular. It is about the entirety of the human condition, but no single voice is dominant and no single definitive answer is expected. Even more, whatever “answers” get uttered are not judged by their utility. The free, or liberal, conversant has been freed from necessity. Conversation is thus not simply idle chatter, but the activity of existential virtue that expresses our engagement with reality. Eric Voegelin’s comment about one’s approach to critical history illustrates this well:  “In order to write critical history, therefore, it is not enough to alter what one says; one must alter one’s very being (or, “one must be differently” [man muß anders sein]).”[iv]

Conversation thus presupposes certain virtues of openness that themselves are not the same as conversation. Voegelin identified the capacity to have free inquiry presupposes an openness toward truth that is not distorted by ideological agendas, utility, or libido dominandi.[v]  Conversation presupposes a willingness to converse. Plato famously expresses the central experience of liberation in the following way:

“Then there would be an art to this very thing,” I said, “this turning around (tes periagoges), having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected (metastrophe), not an art of implanting sight in it, but of how to contrive that for someone who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.”[vi]

Teaching, as Voegelin frequently observed, is the art of the periagoge. In a university culture characterized by the treatment of knowledge as useful commodity, careerism, and political correctness, it is difficult to have a genuine experience of periagoge because the clamoring of those voices eclipses the gentle and fragile pull that wisdom has on us. So much of our modern civilization conspires against that gentle pull that we have difficulty explaining and justifying it, and we can barely recognize it when it happens. The lover of the good and noble is considered mystical, obscure, queer, strange, and unproductive.

In this essay, I shall examine two great scholar-teachers, Eric Voegelin (1901-85) and Gerhart Niemeyer (1907-97), in my own field, of political philosophy, who navigated those clamoring voices and evoked a genuine experience of periagoge in their students (biographical introduction provided below….

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John von Heyking, and Lee Trepanier (eds) Teaching in an Age of Ideology; 2013

Alexandre Koyré: The Political Function of the Modern Lie (1943) / John Keane: Lying, journalism and democracy

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Julien Benda: Our age is the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds

Milan Kundera’s use of Kitsch