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Review: Roosevelt Montás’s “Rescuing Socrates”

In this rousing story, [Roosevelt] Montás concentrates on four particular ‘great authors’ that embody and encapsulate the human condition who shaped him: Saint Augustine, Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Mohandas Gandhi.”

It is an unfortunate state of affairs nowadays that we must justify the importance of the liberal arts. Despite the negative public attitude toward the liberal arts, including by guardians and teachers of the discipline who caution for a more “disinterred” rather than enthusiastic embrace of the humanist tradition, there remains a cadre of new books published every year articulating a passionate apologia for the liberal arts. Roosevelt Montás’s Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation is one of those passionate pleas for why the “great books” still matter, and it brilliantly achieves that much needed defense of the liberal arts against its many critics.

As citizens in a free country and a political system that nominally affirms the importance of an informed and engaged citizenry participating in political decision-making, the liberal arts are essential to our way of life. As Montás highlights from the very beginning of his book, “To this day, democracies depend on a citizenry capable of discharging the duties for which a liberal education prepared Athenian citizens. Indeed, the possibility of democracy hinges on the success or failure of liberal education.” In our current decade of democratic malaise and fatigue, the liberal arts take on another level of critical importance. It is not only about the wrestling with the human condition we feel to be threatened by the tyranny of technology; it is also about the continued improvement and survival of our great experiment of democratic-republican self-governance. “Far from a pointless indulgence for the elite,” Montás writes, “liberal education is, in fact, the most powerful tool we have to subvert the hierarchies of social privilege that keep those who are down, down.”

Montás’s inspiring defense of the humanities is as galvanizing as his own story. A native son of the Dominican Republic, he arrived in New York as a young immigrant fleeing political oppression and societal strife in 1985. Culturally in exile and with no knowledge of English, Montás tirelessly pursued a personal education that brought him into the halls of prestige and cultural and social capital: Columbia University. It is there that he remains as a professor of the humanities, no doubt inspiring new generations of students just as his illustrious predecessors did.

In this rousing story, Montás concentrates on four particular “great authors” that embody and encapsulate the human condition who shaped him: Saint Augustine, Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Mohandas Gandhi. From Augustine, Montás wrestles with the importance of the self and the sanctity of the intellectual life despite the array of forces arranged at assaulting the individual and the intellectual life. From Plato, Montás deals with the seminal question of intellectual identity in a world of politics and economics, expanding on and ultimately sanctifying the intellectual life offered by Augustine. From Freud, Montás wrestles with the enigma of the human mind and how it shapes self-understanding and identity. And from Gandhi, a fitting end to this book, Montás deals with the in-vogue issues dominating the zeitgeist today: colonialism, technological tyranny, and the desperate struggle to retain a sense of truth and morality in the midst of chaos and despotism through the conquering armies of relativism. Let us now, briefly, join Montás on this odyssey that is at once about him but greater than him: the odyssey we are all called to participate in.

Our venerable author begins with Augustine, the great saint of Hippo Regius whom Albert Camus described as the “‘bishop’ of North African writers.” We tend to forget it, though it is front and center in Montás, that Augustine was African—not European. Half-Berber, half-Roman, born in North Africa, Augustine straddled many cultures and personalities. At Yale, I wrote my thesis on Augustine and since then have published a couple of academic articles and numerous essays on the great North African saint. What struck me at Yale was Augustine’s deconstructionism and “postmodernism” visible in his critique of the Roman Empire and pagan philosophy in the first half of The City of God (I came from a philosophic background in my undergraduate studies). And while Montás begins with Confessions (Augustine’s most famous and most widely read work), he concludes with some ruminations on City of God.

For Montás, Augustine did three things for him as he was growing up and seeking his own identity. From reading the Confessions, we learn that Montás gained a new and deeper appreciation for his on-off faith (which includes a beautiful digression of his experiences with family and friends including a missionary pastor named Ernesto Cervantes). But, more importantly, the Confessions opened our author’s pursuit of and wrestling with identity and how Augustine offered our author a path to accept an intellectual identity which is integral to the story Augustine tells of himself in the Confessions

Moving beyond the Confessions to the City of God, we can gain a great lesson, as a young Montás did, in Augustine’s deconstruction of power in his magisterial magnum opus. Learning to embrace his identity by reading Augustine and the intellectual life the saintly bishop advocated, Montás astutely draws on Augustine’s obliteration of the pagan mythologies of politics. Reading Augustine pushed our sojourning sage to escape the confines of propaganda which had unknowingly enslaved him and held captive his intellectual maturation.

Human life, Augustine points out, is held captive by the libido dominandi: Human relations are one of power relations and in the civitas terrena human life is motivated by this lust to dominate through power. Montás, here, reflects on how he saw through the façade of his Marxist father (the Marxist regimes his father admired were also guilty of this lust to dominate), and our author also highlights how Augustine caused him to return to introspection about whether his own actions were motivated by the lust to dominate: “[Augustine] aims to show that in the City of Man all human relations are ultimately relations of power.” (This revelation from Augustine is also cited by the many 20th century deconstructionists as a founding point of their own work.) In reading Augustine, Montás informs us that his identity as a seeking-intellectual was born.

Turning from Augustine to Plato (and Socrates and Aristotle), our Virgil reflects on the importance of reflecting about the intellectual life. Augustine set Montás on the path toward an intellectual odyssey (that he is still on), and then Plato and Socrates arrived to cause our author to reflect on the goods of the “examined life” and how said examined life relates to self-identity.

One of the great joys of reading Rescuing Socrates is found in the digressive personal stories that Montás takes us on. Some may find them off-putting. I find them brilliant—in part, because they also serve a purpose in the dialogue with the great thinkers that have shaped our author’s soul. Now onto Plato and Socrates, we learn that a teenage Roosevelt saved a collection of Platonic dialogues from a trash can. He did not know then, but he knows now that this little act of curiosity was meaningfully purposeful. Likewise, in reading the eminent Greek philosophers, Montás takes the time to reflect on his father, family, and his teenage years going through high school and bonding with a Princeton graduate turned public school teacher who shepherded our young pilgrim through the Platonic dialogues he was devouring, to his own experiences teaching Greek philosophy to underprivileged high school students and the gratitude they had in having Montas as a teacher.

Augustine put Montás on the path of the intellectual life. The Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and “a little bit of Aristotle,” confirmed our guide’s identity as an aspiring intellectual (now turned intellectual). When dealing with the trio of Greek philosophers, Montás focuses in on how the pursuit of money is not the be-all-end-all. Rejecting the pursuit of material riches for the excellence of the intellectual life and leaving open the goodness of the intellectual life and the identity it cultivates was the great gift of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Offering a defense of the philosophic, examined, intellectual, life is what Socrates is proclaiming in his dialogues through the masterful rhetoric of Plato (a man who is also a great influence on me and to whom I have devoted some academic writings and public essays). To be sure, politics and economics are important, but politics and economics do not make life whole. The intellectual life offered in the humanities does, or at least according to Socrates and definitely implied by Montás, “Here was the life of the mind—a way of living that held out the possibility of absorbing the disparate parts of who I was into some kind of integrated whole.” (We must not forget on this note that Plato came from a wealthy background but forsook that economic spirit to live the life of intellectual curiosity.)

Turning next to Freud, Montás offers a much needed and robust defense of “making peace with the unconscious.” One of the great joys of my life is indebted to Freud as well. About twice a month, I hold a Skype chat with a dear friend of mine from England. We often discuss, from that unconscious (psychoanalytic) perspective pioneered by Freud, art, literature, and film. For two to three hours, we dialogue about the glorious wonders of the unconscious and subconscious in our favorite books and films. Alongside hiking, it is one of things I most look forward to whenever we have it scheduled.

Many people deride the unconscious and Freudian psychoanalysis as nonsensical blabber veiled in sophisticated language. As our pilgrim author writes, “Freud has been given a bad rap.” But in this journey into the self, the unconscious becomes a real issue to deal with. Montás’s apologia for Freud is a heartfelt, and I think it makes for a necessary and persuasive defense of the whole life (including, once more, wonderful anecdotes about his own life). Through the embrace of the “integrated whole” intellectual life, we can even begin to unpack the unconscious. (Is that not what Augustine did in the early parts of the Confessions?)

The chapter on Freud offers a concise overview of the main points of Freudian psychoanalysis intertwined with personal anecdotes. Montás concedes that much of Freud is wrong; despite this, there remains important broader strokes Freud has given us that demand our intellectual attention as part of living that intellectual life. Although much of psychology has moved beyond Freud, all of us still intuitively feel aspects of his thought are correct. More importantly, as Montás concludes, “Living with an awareness of the unconscious—that is, living alert to the clues and language of unconsciousness—re-orients our relationship to ourselves. It adds an element of humility to our self-certainties and opens vast possibilities for development, growth, and transformation.” Moreover, Montás writes, “Psychoanalysis, occurring when it did in my life, was very much about restoring my capacity for emotional thinking, for processing emotions in a more conscious way.” And seeing that this is at the heart of the conscious purpose of a liberal arts education, Freud is essential. 

Finally, Montás arrives at Gandhi. I will keep this moment brief as I hope the gentle reader will pick up this wonderful little tome in defense of the liberal arts that doubles as a writing of humanism and humanity. In our fashionable age of depreciated skepticism and nihilistic relativism, Montás intentionally—and powerfully—ends with Gandhi as an alternative to this contemporary malaise. Gandhi, after all, affirms a whole life aimed at Truth and Morality: “Truth is God.” This is not unique to Gandhi. It is also found in the Greek philosophers and in the Christian theological tradition. But if we, the inheritors of those traditions seem prejudiced against them, Montás wonderfully shows how in wrestling with a diverse counterpart from India we can still find the truth and goodness that our lives are seeking. 

In the culminating chapter on Gandhi, Montás announces his breakup with postmodernism and deconstruction—the blatant relativism and emptiness it entails, masked by the veil of sophisticated sophistry: “My crush on Deconstruction was real…But eventually we had a falling out. I ran out of patience with the evasiveness, obfuscation, and intellectual vacuity of many of the leading voices of the field. I felt confident enough in my background in philosophy and theory to call bullshit where I saw it.” (I had the same falling out too though I retain a certain distance relationship with such luminaries.) Ultimately, Gandhi offered the real alternative. The postmodernists are part of the same problem of the sterile materialism enslaving us today despite their rhetorical posturing otherwise. Gandhi’s commitment to truth and morality in an objective and meaningful sense that touches the interior life and guides the lives we live is what we ought to seek and embody. (And this is what the liberal arts tradition, from Augustine and Plato to Freud and others, implicitly tells us.)

Throughout this book Montás has been alluding to and referencing his search for meaning. Our author has been on the pilgrimage of not only the self but of the meaning and purpose of life. The liberal arts help us in this journey. It is the journey we are all on, whether we want to admit it or not. Precisely because the human condition includes this journey of the self, the liberal arts are open to us all despite the vast array of forces trying to suppress the joys of embracing this journey of self-discovery through the pilgrimages of so many souls who have come before us. If I may here give words of encouragement that Montás would approve of, “Be not afraid.”

Even if one is not fond of a liberal arts and humanistic education, he may still want to read Roosevelt Montás for the sheer humanity of his book. With poetic wisdom and grace, Montás writes “the greatest value of a liberal education [is] in turning students’ eyes inward, into an exploration of their own humanity under the provocation of works that have proven their power to inspire just such self-reflection.” What Montás has written is an invitation to that exploration. Perhaps, in time, Rescuing Socrates will join that list of works calling us home: calling us to explore ourselves. Erkenne dich selbst.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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