The good opinion of the many

Imagine that a professor says to his students something like this: “It really does not mean anything to me if you think that I am a good teacher. It does not mean anything if you think that I am a bad one, either.” In our world, where everything seems to be based on evaluations, I presume such a statement would not be taken lightly. People would probably believe that the teacher is proud, dismissing the opinions of his students, considering them unworthy to judge him. This may be especially the case if he continues and says, “Only the opinion of my peers, who are experts in my field, counts for me.”

However, if you read the previous lines in a Platonic context, they do not sound as outrageous  as they may seem on first sight. Doesn’t Socrates always say that we should not pay attention to the opinion of the many, but rather always look for what the experts believe? If I am sick, do I ask the many to tell me what to do, or do I go to a doctor?

Of course, the example with the teacher and students is peculiar and it depends on how a teacher is defined. In fact, various universities have a slightly different approach: I know of schools where they do not ask you to give a teaching presentation for a job because, and I cite, “if you are here, we know that you should be able to teach.” In any case, the “teacher example” has too many variables. We need to first know what a teacher is: someone who is an expert in his field, someone who can communicate well with students, someone who is an expert and also communicates well? (This sounds like the beginning of the Apology, I know)

But leaving these things aside, I think the first statement of the professor in my example can be read in a different way as well, not at all Platonic. Suppose the professor does not say anything about the experts, but only says that the good or bad opinion of his students does not mean anything to him. Suppose he also believes that other people’s good opinion of him does not mean anything either. That he can never judge his life according to what others may believe of him. That when someone says to him, “You are different; you are a good guy,” he has no idea how to read this statement (and I don’t mean here that he does not know the intention of his interlocutor). Does it mean that he does not care about the people around him?

Of course, one may say so. But there is also another possibility. It may be that he is aware that the opinion of people fluctuates, that there were moments when, trusting what others believed about his life, he became too proud of himself and made mistakes. It may be that he became aware that the only thing he can do is to find a path (how difficult to follow this path is…) on which all praises and all criticisms remind him of his own nothingness. On this path, he would try to do all he can for others, regardless of whether the others may have a good opinion of him or not. He would try to do such things, however, without imposing his idea of the good–after all, he has no idea of the good, since he is aware of his nothingness, since he is aware that he is a nobody. But he would try, as much as his powers allow him, to respond to suffering, suffering that he perceives as present all around him. He receives a compliment, and he perceives that the one who gives him this compliment is in pain and that he, the man who follows this path, is the root of this suffering (do not understand this as a direct cause, but rather that he sees in his own humanity the source of all suffering). He receives a criticism, and, instead of crying and taking care of his wounds that could have been produced by this criticism, he looks at the one who is angry towards him as asks for forgiveness, for giving this person the occasion to judge another.

Such a person would be also aware that he is not to put his “trust in princes and in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” So he cannot put his trust in himself either, in the way in which he hears a compliment or a criticism. The only thing he can do is, in his own nothingness, to respond to the best of his abilities to the suffering that is all present around him.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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