Teaching Plato in Palestine: Can Philosophy Save Us From Our Differences?

Imagine, for a moment, if, during the tense final hours of the recently concluded negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif decided to set aside their remaining differences regarding the inspections regime and stockpiles of enriched uranium and turn for a moment to the fundamental questions that divide the two nations. Not differences in policy but in first principles.

Imagine Secretary Kerry explaining to his Iranian counterpart the philosophical roots and anthropological assumptions of American liberalism. And imagine Foreign Minister Zarif similarly providing an account of the Islamic republic. Imagine this debate continuing, fueled by endless cups of tea, long into the night, as Kerry discusses, say, John Locke and James Madison and the American founding, and Zarif discourses on Mulla Sadra and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, as they argue about the nature of the human being, the purpose of the political community, the origin of law, and the meaning of justice.

And imagine that, as the morning sun finally rises over the city of Vienna, the two exhausted statesmen slump back to the negotiating table, now with a more sophisticated understanding of and respect for one another, and, over strong coffee, hammer out the final niggling details of the agreement in an amiable and conciliatory manner.

As I read Carlos Fraenkel’s new book, Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World, I wondered whether he himself imagined such a scenario. Fraenkel believes philosophy can save the world—or at least make us more respectful of one another. A professor at McGill University and the author of Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy, Fraenkel traveled the world to spread his gospel. His mission took him to East Jerusalem, where he co-taught a seminar on philosophical religions with the eminent Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, and to Indonesia, where he discussed democracy and religious pluralism with students at Islamic University. He led a clandestine salon with a group of Hasidic Jews in a hipster bar in New York’s SoHo neighborhood; conversed with high school students in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil; and convened a series of workshops with the Mohawk Council of Akwesanse on the US/Canadian border.

These journeys were originally inspired by a series of conversations he had in a language exchange group while he was working on his Arabic skills in Cairo. Over time, Fraenkel’s devout Muslim interlocutors became concerned about the state of his soul; fearing its eternal perdition, they strove to convince their new friend to embrace Islam. Fraenkel, a Western educated atheist, in turn attempted to convert them to secularism, “to save them,” he writes, “from wasting their real life for an illusionary afterlife.” What ensued was an extended debate over the existence of God, with Fraenkel pitting Kant’s critique of the ontological proof against the eleventh century Muslim philosopher Avicenna’s argument raised by his opponents.

“The discussion,” Fraenkel confesses, “ended inconclusively.” But that experience of intellectual debate over the one thing needful inspired him to formulate the questions that guided his later journeys across the globe. “Can doing philosophy be useful outside the confines of academia?” he wonders. “And can philosophy help turn tensions that arise from diversity (cultural, religious, and so forth) into what I propose calling a ‘culture of debate’?”

Fraenkel thinks it can indeed do so. In his often charming book, he recounts his peripatetic workshop and makes a case for the public practice of philosophy. Fraenkel wagers that philosophy can provide a common language and method of thinking that people of differing religious and ideological commitments might use to understand and appreciate one another; that a thoroughgoing Socratic examination of our fundamental beliefs will result in the dissolution of prejudices and irrational hatreds. In short, Fraenkel thinks studying philosophy can liberate us from the belief that we already grasp the truth; that it can, in other words, liberate us from “fundamentalism.”

In the first part, Fraenkel takes us into the “classroom” as he introduces his students to ideas of such philosophers as Plato, al-Faribi, Maimonides, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, and invites them to initiate a culture of debate. These chapters are lively and brisk, and Fraenkel does an admirable job at conveying the intellectual back and forth as he and his students work through the philosophical questions the texts raise. Again, one is not surprised that the conversations end inconclusively.

Students of religion will be particularly interested as Fraenkel describes his encounters with pious Muslims and secretly lapsed Jews. The Muslim students at Al-Quds University, for example, appear skeptical that the study of philosophy will alter their commitment to truth transmitted by religious tradition. Quite different is the discussion with the group of Hasidic Jews in the New York lounge. For them, philosophy served as a means of escape from the intellectual drudgery of their cloistered religious lives. While Fraenkel had these students study the medieval attempts to reconcile reason and revelation, he concedes “all attempts to integrate secular life and Jewish tradition ultimately ring false to them.”

In the second section, Fraenkel sets out to delineate his vision of “a culture of debate,” which he describes as “an institutional framework in which diversity and disagreement can be transformed into a joint search for the truth.” This is nothing short of a call for popular enlightenment. Fraenkel wants us to liberate themselves from the bonds of traditional authority and the blinders of custom, fashion, media, and ideology—what he calls “the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization”—and to ground their core convictions instead of arguments based on reason. That is, he advises us all to leave the “cave” of mere opinion that Plato famously describes in Book VII of The Republic, and step out into the light.

In making his case, Fraenkel shows the continuing relevance of medieval rationalism. For example, the Persian theologian Abú Hámid Muhammad al-Ghazálí’s spiritual memoir Deliverance from Error suggests a way in which religious believers might come to interrogate vigorously the fundamental beliefs with which they have been brought up. In that text, al-Ghazálí records how he lost faith in the traditional authority of his parents and teachers when he realized that his beliefs were based on the contingency of being raised in a Muslim environment.

(While he notes in passing that al-Ghazálí’s skepticism was only overcome by personal mystical experience, Fraenkel fails to consider its implications. In his memoir, al-Ghazálí posited an immediate, prophetic way of knowing, higher than the human faculty of reason. Al-Ghazálí’s position thus undercuts Fraenkel’s own argument in favor of the authority of reason.)

To interrogate one’s own fundamental beliefs does not necessarily entail abandoning the religion entirely, though religious beliefs, Fraenkel maintains, must conform to the dictates of reason. Averroes and Maimonides provide examples of such a synthesis of religion and reason, and Fraenkel suggests that we should follow their example: “if we are genuinely committed to a religious or cultural tradition,” he asserts, “to do justice to the truth we take this tradition to embody, we should interpret it in light of our considered beliefs.”

Such a culture of debate, Fraenkel admits, presupposes a community of fallibilists willing to concede that their most closely held beliefs might not be true, and who are open to revise them in a common pursuit of truth. That is, they must value the truth more highly than their own traditions. And, in doing so, they must recognize that others may be right.

This public philosophical demeanor may not only help us clarify our own most deeply held convictions; it may also help bring about peace by channeling potentially violent disagreements into conversation. He recommends this culture of debate as a better way of dealing with diversity than the French model of laïcité, with its public suppression of religiosity and religious difference, and a relativistic (and ultimately incoherent) multiculturalism which claims that there are no universal truths.

Fraenkel is not unaware of the challenge his vision presents; he recalls that the Athenian gadfly was sentenced to death for his attempts at popular enlightenment, which was deemed subversive by his fellow citizens. (Socrates’ student, Plato, doubted that the multitude could become wise, as did medieval philosophers such as Maimonides.) He therefore advocates that a society commit itself to this project by incorporating the study of philosophy—and the techniques and virtues of philosophical debate (that is, valuing the search for truth over winning an argument)—into the high school curriculum.

It’s a lovely vision, though I suspect that many readers of Teaching Plato in Palestine will find the author somewhat too sanguine on the possibility that such a culture of debate will emerge and take root. Fraenkel himself acknowledges that “[a] culture of debate presupposes that religious and cultural traditions are open to interpretation and that interpretations, in turn, are open to revision.” This is asking a lot, no doubt. If such an endeavor was controversial in ancient Athens, one wonders how successful it can be with, say, Hamas supporters in the occupied West Bank.

It’s a pity, then, that the professor didn’t follow up with his various students across the globe to see whether and how their study of philosophy altered their views of their own faith and made them more tolerant of diversity and disagreement. Such an endeavor would be a worthwhile follow up to this interesting and provocative volume.