[T]hey bewitch our souls...so that I myself, Menexenus, when thus praised by them feel mightily ennobled, and every time I listen fascinated I am exalted and imagine myself to have become all at once taller and nobler and more handsome. And as I am generally accompanied by some strangers, who listen along with me, I become in their eyes also all at once more majestic; for they also manifestly share in my feelings with regard both to me and to the rest of our City, believing it to be more marvellous than before, owing to the persuasive eloquence of the speaker. And this majestic feeling remains with me for over three days: so persistently does the speech and voice of the orator ring in my ears that it is scarcely on the fourth or fifth day that I recover myself and remember that I really am here on earth, whereas till then I almost imagined myself to be living in the Islands of the Blessed,—so expert are our orators.--Plato, Menexenus, 235a-c*
It is odd to read about the scorn ('new infantilism') heaped by self-described friends of a humanistic or classical education -- professors and commentators alike -- on the request for trigger warnings by college students encountering poetic and graphic scenes of rape in their required courses (recall this post to which the current one is a footnote). For in their ridicule, these cosmopolitan, mature types suggest that they do not really believe the once common rhetoric of the transformative potential of literature and the other arts. From their public utterances we may infer that these false shepherds of culture appear to practice a detached, ironic stance toward the texts and material they teach and study; they seem literally unable to imagine to be swept away by poetry and rhetoric, to be un-moored from one's own identity by film, and to be captivated by another's train of thought in a work of fiction. They understand themselves as stewards of traditional learning, but they reveal that they read with detached minds and closed hearts who are unable, it seems, to learn from their students' searching questioning.
That works of art, including many thought canonical, can be dangerous to their readers and the society that permits them is an un-cool thought--one that gets suppressed by the banality that pases for a literary education. For, too many of our teachers assume that by branding a work 'fiction' we have created a convention by which it is treated as harmless speech a mere diversion without anything at stake (recall my exchange with the Dutch novelist Grunberg). But dictators and censorious religions (not to mention Plato) know better--imaginative works can inflame the soul and worse--some of them known to incite killing (cf. Charlie Hebdo).
One belittles our civic religion, which embraces a hard-won freedom of speech protected by law and people's hearts, by failing to recognize what is at stake in it: it is not just intended to protect "the language and imagery" of beautiful and harm-free speech. We do not get the (for lack of a more lovely term) freedom-enhancing effects of texts without risking incurring some of the dangerous effects; this is both why free speech is nowhere absolute and the limits of it are constantly contested as well as why the nature of responsible speech is of recurring significance in philosophy and the arts. A true educator recognizes the fragility of the experiment in living that occurs when student and teacher are receptive to (well) the demonic.
The above is not meant to deny the legitimate concern over the spread of trigger warnings if, as is likely, these become yet another instrument of the rent-seeking technocrats that run the modern university by which they curtail and intimidate professors and instructors (see here).** But if one treats the Liberal Arts as merely about lovely language and escapist fantasy, one should not be surprised if the rest of society decides one is dispensable.
*Even if we allow that Socrates is being ironic (as his interlocutor seems to suggest in context), it does not follow he denies the bewitching effect of poetry.
** UPDATE: I thank Jonathan Kramnick for recommending the piece to me.