Most ideas are not persuasive to us when we have mastered them, but they are persuasive when they open us up to a world that we had previously not comprehended. These openings help us grasp the depth of knowledge but at the same time, they often reveal just how much more there is to know. Plato's philosophy reflects this humility. He often claimed that his ideas were true only insofar as they were a simplified expression of incomprehensible truths that must far exceed our own understanding.
Some of the most important truths that we need to grasp are those that cannot be precisely defined. In contrast, it is in the realm of geometry and mathematics where we find entities easily given precise definition: triangle, rectangle, point, etc. Geometry is so delightful because it is within this realm that we effectively learn to discipline our mind to work in accordance with strict definitions. It is thrilling to feel the solidity of arguments made in this sphere.
Yet, when we to take a large concept, such as virtue, and attempt to subject it to strict definition, our understanding fails and disappointment with our own abilities quickly results. Plato often attempted to define virtue, but always found holes in his own definitions. Though a skeptic would attack and claim that our inability to create a satisfactory definition means that virtue is a meaningless idea, the lover of truth knows that such an important idea has meaning despite our inability to articulate it fully, or even clearly.
The philosophic life is full of grand ideas that appear very important and yet are hard to grasp. Truly, it seeks to hunt game that is far out of the league of our popguns and matchstick cages. Yet, what greater glory is there but to pursue an impossible goal? Only a coward will find his ambitions fulfilled in hunting dairy cows. Philosophy can easily be seen as the simple conviction that the world if full of many truths that are far beyond our comprehension and yet, utterly fascinating.
So how do you help a student prepare to pursue ideas that are utterly important and almost completely beyond our comprehension? At this point, we are in need of help from experience. We need to experience realities that, even though beyond our understanding, are completely evident to us. Just such a reality is beauty. We have a very difficult time being able to say exactly what it is, but it is all around us and we are often responding to its influence on us. By experiencing what is lovely, we feel one of the most beautiful ideas in life continually before us. Sensing beauty is a wonderful opportunity to grasp just how real an idea can be even when we are painfully aware that it far exceeds our mental capacities.
Though the eye of the mind can see beauty its vision is not a simple matter. The mind needs experience with the presence of beauty to gradually become accustomed to it and be more certain of its truth. The fact that the mind has difficulty grasping beauty does not mean that beauty does not exist- it is just an acquired sense. How can it be that something that exists can be hard for us to see?
Many similar examples exist in other fields. Watch a student learn geometry- at first the simplest principles are difficult to grasp, but as the mind gains experience with them, it starts to feel their certainty. Or take a student attempting to learn to sing in harmony- at first the various intervals are hard to hear, but with experience, they are heard and can be used effectively to create beautiful sound. Similarly, experience with beauty helps us to feel and understand its presence.
Beauty must be experienced to be understood and yet it is a reality that points us far beyond the experience of our senses. Beauty is a vivid example of seeing the unseen, hearing what is silent, and feeling what cannot be touched. It is a wonderful lesson in the schoolhouse of ideas.
When education is understood primarily as fulfilling the requirements found in a disjointed collection of subjects, it is easy to forget the sacred trust that lays at the foundation of education- the desire to beneficially shape the soul of the student. If a soul is a living and vibrant being, it must be fed with rich experiences that fill it with a sense of its own being. As our bodies feed upon food, so also the soul lives upon the vision of the beautiful and the good.