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Shouting at Shadows — Facebook is Plato’s Cave

4 Jun

I was thinking about Plato’s Republic — like you do — and wondering why the allegory of the cave is taught so often. Then it occurred to me, we are living in versions of Plato’s cave.

You would think with all the knowledge at our fingertips, we would be more enlightened, but Plato/Socrates was right:

Socrates: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: — Behold! human being living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners, there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets….

and they only see their own shadows or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave….

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing by the shadows of the images.

This is the world we live in right now. Facebook is Plato’s cave. We all sit, looking in only one direction at the digital shadows that dance in front of us. Sometimes we cast the shadows ourselves.

This led me to the question: who chained us here?

My first thought was that it was Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. We’ve been chained to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on by the owners and operators of these companies. They are the ones tending the fire that casts the shadows. And we know that they try to manipulate us to be happy or unhappy, maybe even the way we vote. But the reality is, they didn’t chain us here. We sat down.

It also occurred to me that these aren’t our only caves. As we move through our days, markets, advertisers, politicians, and even the new media try to get us to sit in their version of the cave. We all move through these caves, and we pay admission to them.

The current election cycle, with its madness, is dedicated to making us think that the shadows are the truth. I don’t mean this in the conspiracy theory sense, but more in the observation that we don’t really get to see the world as it is, because it is not perceived as the thing that sells.

In the Republic, Socrates talks about what happens to these prisoners if they are brought out of the cave and into the light.

Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects with are now shown to him?

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will be conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

We wonder why people disregard evidence that goes contrary to their belief, but Plato recognized this weird behavior over two thousand years ago. The only explanation is that we are living in these caves.

The Internet has given everyone the ability to chain themselves into the cave of their choosing. They will not need to be confronted with facts and ideas that go against their beliefs — that is unless they want to crusade against misguided shadows. If they hear a shadow somewhere saying something that is “wrong,” then they will comment. (Never read the comments.)

It is interesting  that people will say terrible things to friends, family, and strangers online, through comment threads and on message boards. they will use the worse language and imagery they can think of and treat each other terrible. You often hear people say words to the effect that they would never say those things in the physical presence of people. I think it is because on the Internet we are all shouting at shadows.

It is easy to say something terrible or hurtful to people when they are just shadows. While it would be best if we could all take off the chains and step into the light, the second best option is to remember that the shadows are cast by people, who are chained just like us.



How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

17 Aug

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.

Do It Yourself America: The Declaration of Independence

10 Jul

This entry on the Declaration of Independence means skipping ahead a little in the reading list, which can be found in the link above the picture. Sometimes, though, circumstances can change your order, even when reading the classics.

Every Fourth of July in Boston, the Declaration of Independence is read from the Old State House downtown, just as it was in 1776. In 2014, the reading was moved to Faneuil Hall because of Hurricane Arthur. I had gone down to hear the Declaration read, as I have done every year I have lived in Boston. I got to the Old State House and found that it had been moved.

After walking over to Faneuil Hall, I found that the hall was full and no one else was being admitted. There was at least one man with his kids who was very disappointed that they would not hear it this year. After thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that the rebels who started the country would not have been put off by a full hall.

I walked into the shop area of the Hall and bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were only a few drops of rain. I walked out into the area between Faneuil Hall and the shops of the marketplace, and said that since we could not get into the Hall, we could do our own reading.

I started to read, and a small group gather, with one man encouraging me to read on.

The Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of the United States, and it is a product of its times, enumerating the problems that the colonists had with England. At the same time, it sets out some of the ideas that make the country what it is, and reveals some things about human nature.

The writers of the Declaration make an observation that I think is fascinating: “accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I can’t help but read this sentence without thinking about what evils are ‘sufferable’ and how do people make that determination. Despite some of the outlandish rhetoric that finds its way into the public discourse in the United States today, we do not suffer under the same kinds of tyranny that existed then, or that exist in other parts of the world today.

It is hard to know how one can identify an insufferable evil — do we need to have a certain amount of knowledge to do so? In places like North Korea, do they realize that another way of life in possible in a totalitarian regime that offers so little to the average citizen? I have said before, one of the most important reasons to study the humanities is to recognize our own humanity and that of others. It is to give us the self-awareness to question those who would set themselves up as our leaders or try to control us. The humanities give us tools to help develop a code of honor and a wider awareness to understand how to live. While we can do it without books, they help us avoid needing to reinvent the wheel.

What the Declaration teaches us about the United States is that the founders never saw it as a heredity nation. I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, that the fundamental notion of the United States is that its people are a political people. In other words, it is our agreement on certain principles that make us Americans, not the accident of our birth location or our genetic heritage. These fundamental principles are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss these words because they were part of a document signed by slave owners. It is tempting to point to the history of the United States and the many times that it has failed to live up to these words and declare that they are empty and meaningless.

Instead, what we should realize is that the existence of these words gave the United States something to live up to, something to strive for. These words gave us something to consider as we strove with battles over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They are with us today as we deal with ongoing problems of freedom and justice for everyone.

It is worth noting too, that the language in the Declaration gives hints of what is to come, and the outlining of grievances against the British Crown provide a framework for the Constitution that was to come and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration describes how the colonists “have Petitioned for Redress int he most humble terms:” which presages the First Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ending of the  Declaration provokes some interesting thoughts as well.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

I feel like we have lost a little of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence as time has worn on. Even in our language, we have moved away from the idea of the United States as a political entity towards one of a state where people are born to it. We have a “Department of Homeland Security.” We are afraid of immigration. We hold ideas about people that run counter to the high ideals set out in the Declaration.

Our country may be in danger of falling short of those ideas again. But we still have them to guide us, and we still have the ability to live up to them. It will take work, but I think that we can do it. We just need to remember these ideas and study them.



Can Old Books Teach Us Anything?

17 Jun

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when it comes to ‘Great Books’ and ‘Classic Works’ is whether or not we can actually learn anything from these old books. Has the digital age changed everything to such an extent that we are better off learning Python and Java rather than Latin and Ancient Greek? Does the existence of the Internet and Smart Phones putting all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips mean that we are fundamentally different?

We can store our memories outside of our brains. We can navigate anywhere we can get a satellite signal. We can track and quantify nearly every aspect of our lives. We can connect with people in ways never imagined by our ancestors. Does that fundamentally change the way humans interact? Does it change the way we fundamentally are? If it does, then does that make all the ancient philosophy and literature historical artifacts rather than something that can help us live our lives today?

When it comes to philosophical matters, the only method for evaluating it is living our lives and experimenting. Human relations are a complex topic, but I have recently stumbled across an interesting comparison that I think proves we have something to learn from the writings of the past.

I stumbled across a blog written by a former police officer and self-defense writer named Loren W. Christensen that discussed how an average person should behave in places where there are a lot of street people and the potential for crime. It reminded me of an old book by a Lt. Col. Baron De Berenger in Britain who wrote a book of advice called Helps and Hints on how to Protect Life and Property. After reading it and thinking about the two writings, it seems the two pieces show both how things change and how they stay the same.

When it comes to self-defense, people like to talk about the old masters and secrets handed down through generations. In addition, there has been a revival in people studying European sword fighting and other combat arts. Of course, the growth of Mixed Martial Arts competition has led to people questioning the value of traditional martial arts. This is a microcosm of how, as new things, or old things repackaged as new, come on the scene, people begin to question the value of what has come before.

But there is a lot more to self-defense than just technique. What I want to compare is advice given to people about self-defense from 1835 and 2013.

In advising people about how to conduct themselves on the street where there might be bad people hanging around, there are some similarities between the two time periods. First, let’s look at a bit of technical advice on where to walk.

From 2013:

“Where to Walk
The old advice was to walk along the curb to avoid being grabbed by someone next to a building. The new advice, based on crime studies, suggest it’s a better to walk down the middle of the sidewalk to avoid anyone hiding between parked cars or reaching out from a building doorway. If you see street people loitering at the curb, walk next to the building but be cognizant of doorway insets and corners. If you can see street people on the sidewalk a ways in front of you, cross the street.”

From 1835:

“Avoid at all times, (but in such a case especially,) to pass too closely to gateways, mews, or lanes, or recesses in either; keep plenty of space between you and such places, and between gaps in hedge-rows, lonely barns, outbuildings, or other places from whence assailants, be it singly or in connection with others in the roads, may rush at you. Take the carriage-road, if circumstances will permit, in all hazardous or suspicious situations, and, if compelled to use the causeway, walk as close as possible to the edge nearest the road or gutter; even then it is useful to occasionally cross to the other side of the road to ascertain whether the suspect person will do the same….”

The interesting thing about these two passages is that they show how the technical advice changes to some degree because in 1835, there were not cars parked on the edge of the street. What is interesting, though is the discussion of how to deal with people. Both writers are talking about street people who might be interested in mugging someone.

From 2013:

“Eye Contact
“It was once sage advice not to look an unsavory type in the eye. But we now know that predators look for people who appear lost in their own world, oblivious to their surroundings. It’s simply amazing how some soon-to-be-victims can’t see five, filthy, freaky-looking street people gathered on a corner. But it happens all the time.
“Don’t deliberately avoid eye contact because they just might think you aren’t aware of them. If you notice one or more looking at you, make brief eye contact with one or all of them. Some street people tend to avoid someone who looks like they might make a scene or respond assertively. They prefer someone who has the victim look: eyes downcast, slumped shoulders, and a shuffling gate. Don’t stare back and don’t assume a defiant attitude. Just give them a quick look, one that communicates that you know they are there and you won’t be taken by surprise.”

From 1835:

“Make it a rule to look firmly, searchingly, and even sternly at the faces of all suspicious characters, especially if you have reason to suspect that their approaching or passing you is under the contemplation of robbery. After this test, the pickpocket, and most of the swell mob, will quit you speedily; but if a fellow on the highway hangs down his head, as if to baulk your scrutiny still to continue about you, prepare yourself instantly to make the most desperate resistance possible, for he not only has determined on attacking you, but he will conclude his robbery with ill-treatment, to continue it perhaps as long as symptoms of life appear…”

There is an earlier part of the same chapter that coincides with Christsen’s advice.

“To keep your antagonist at arm’s length is good, but to keep him at your stick’s length is infinitely better: the middle of the road facilitates both; always taking care to draw a suspected person away from the causweway, in order to prevent his securing what usually is the higher, and therefore the ‘vantage ground.’”

The technical advice is similar, but again for different technical reasons, since most people do not carry walking sticks anymore. But the examples show that even though technical adjustments may need to be made as technology advances, there are things about human nature that remain the same, which means that there is some value in the old philosophy and literature to understanding two of life’s biggest questions: why are we here, and how do we live here.

The blog mentioned can be found here:

The book is available on google books and can be found here:

Montaigne Was a Feminist

8 Jun

In his essay “On Some Versus of Virgil” Montaigne seems to be ahead of his times when it comes to the rights of women. While he remains a product of his times, he writes that the difference between men and women, especially in regards to love and lust, is mostly a product of society. He turns to some old, dead men to back up his assertions.

“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold; except for education and custom, the difference is not great. Plato invited both without discrimination to the fellowship of all studies, exercises, functions warlike and peaceful occupations, in his commonwealth. And the philosopher Antisthenes eliminated any distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much easier to accuse one sex than to excuse the other. It is the old saying: The pot calls the kettle black.”

Montaigne is thinking about love and sex in this essay and how people, mostly men, should manage their lives in regards to both. He is writing from the perspective of an old man, but does not advocate that people do not fall in love or avoid amorous affairs. He does counsel caution, however.

“Philosophy does not strive against natural pleases, provided that measure goes with them; she preaches moderation in them, not flight. The power of her resistance is employed against alien and bastard pleasures. She says that the appetites of the body are not to be augmented by the mind, and warns us ingeniously no to try to arouse our hunger by satiety, not to stuff instead of filling the bells, to avoid all enjoyment that brings us want and all meat and drink that makes us thirsty and hungry; as, in the service of love, she orders us to take an object that simply satisfies the body’s need, that doe snot stir the soul, which should not make this its business, but simply follow and assist the body.”

If that advice were followed, probably half the sites on the Internet would disappear, but I digress.

Montaigne gives additional evidence that men and women are alike in this area, but at the same time very different in their capacities.

“[Women] can allege, as we can, the inclination to variety and novelty which is common to us both; and allege, secondly, as we cannot, that they buy a cat in a bag (Joanna, queen of Naples, had Andreasso, her first husband, strangled at the bars of her window with a gold and silk cord woven by her own hand, when in matrimonial duties she found that neither his parts nor his efforts corresponded well enough with the expectations she had formed of them on seeing his build, his beauty, his youth, and agility, whereby she had bee caught and deceived); that action involved more effort than submission; and that consequently they are always able to satisfy out needs, whereas it may be otherwise when it is up to us to satisfy theirs.”

Montaigne does counsel modesty and and discretion to people, at the very least. Again, his guide is that things should be handled with measure. Despite his willingness to admit that both sexes are the same, he does acknowledge multiple differences. This one may be my favorite.

Here Montaigne is talking about how people teach their children things and how morality and good behavior gets taught. This passage refers to a lesson his daughter is being given.

“She was reading a French book in my presence. The word fouteau occurred, the name of a familiar tree [beech]. The woman she has to train her stopped her short somewhat roughly and made her skip over that perilous passage. I let her go ahead in order not to disturb their rules, for I do not involve myself at all in directing her: the government of women has a mysterious way of proceeding; we must leave it to them. But if I am not mistaken, the company of twenty lackeys could not have imprinted in her imagination in six months the understand and use and all the consequences of the sound of those wicked syllables as did this good old woman by her reprimand and interdict…”

This reminds me of two stories I have heard in my own life. One was from a friend who was at a party where a young child asked her parents if someone needed to be married to have a baby. The mother apparently froze, trying to figure out how to handle this question. The father said, “No, but it is usually better if babies have both a mommy and daddy around.” The child said okay and went back to play. It was a simple answer that didn’t over comp0licate things or open up a discussion that the little girl wasn’t really interested in and would not have answered her question. And the parents got to give a truthful answer and share their values on the whole thing, so all worked out well.

The second thing this reminds me of is the idea that “the government of women has a mysterious way of proceeding.” More than once in my life, I have seen interactions between women that make no sense to me. Social media makes it all the more puzzling because you can see the “government” proceeding and it looks all the more mysterious. Montaigne at least lets me know that that I am not alone in my occasional befuddlement. And really, isn’t that the point of a great book?

“Act Your Age!” Montaigne Warns

22 Sep

After a detour, it is time to come back to the reading list that started this whole blog. This discussion of Montaigne has taken awhile to write, since I have been distracted by other things. All the same, Montaigne likely would not mind, since he thinks it is as possible to fall too deep into wisdom as anything else.

“Now I want to be the master of myself in every direction. Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly. Thus I feel I may dry up, wither, and grow heavy with prudence…”

It is interesting that the set’s editors included this essay. It is a warning against getting lost in the books to the point that we do no thinking or living of our own.

Montaigne warns us against being too serious. This is one of those essays that should probably be read at different points in a person’s life. First of all, it would have a different meaning as people go through different stages of their lives. Second, it would serve as a reminder of some important things.

One of them is to know and act your age – but not in the traditional sense of behaving the way society expects you to behave. Instead, it is about being fully engaged in your life. I think it would be fun to see how people of different ages would react to this essay. It is interesting how for much of our lives we wish we were any age other than the one we are at that moment.

“I would rather be old less long than be old before I am old. Even the slightest occasions of pleasure that I can come upon, I seize.”

I can imagine what it would be like to present this essay to a classroom full of undergraduates, especially those who fancy themselves connoisseurs. In the digital age, it is easy to be obsessed with something and to become snobbish about whatever your particular hobby easy because more information is immediately available and more positive reinforcement can keep people in a cocoon, whether you are into being a foodie, craft beer, obscure sports, etc.

“We should take the whip to a young man who spent his time discriminating between the taste of wines and sauces.”

Montaigne quotes ancient authors and acknowledges himself that there are certain activities and pleasures suited to different stages of life. One of the advantages of living in modern times is that our increased understanding of the body and how to maintain and train it that we have a better chance of bringing wisdom and good health together than Montaigne’s contemporaries did.

That said, Montaigne did not simply surrender to the inexorable flow of time.

“Since it is the privilege of the mind to rescue itself from old age, I advise mine to do so as strongly as I can. Let it grow green, let it flourish for awhile, if it can like mistletoe on a dead tree. But I fear it is a traitor. It has such a tight brotherly bond with the body that it abandons me at every turn to follow the body in its need….There is no sprightliness in its productions if there is none in the body at the same time.”

“Our masters are wrong in that, seeking the causes of the extraordinary flights of our soul, they have attributed some to a divine ecstasy, to love, to warlike fierceness, to poetry, to wine, but have not assigned a proper share to health – an ebullient, vigorous, full lazy health, such as in the past my green years and security supplied me with now and then. The blaze of gaiety kindles in the mind, vivid, bright flashes beyond our natural capacity, and some of the lustiest, if not the most extravagant, enthusiasms.”

This is really only the first half of the essay. In the second half, Montaigne talks about love, marriage, sex, and gender equality, but those are weighty enough that we’ll save them for another entry.

Humanities and Charles Manson’s Real Name

8 Jul

In this blog, I have said that one of the values to studying the humanities is that the study leads people away from following crazy, destructive ideas. Instead, it teaches them to question authority, find better solutions to problems, and recognize their own value as human beings in solving problems.

Dan Bern, a musician with a wry sense of human, wrote a song called ‘Krautmeyer’ that I think points up to a lot of the value of being able to see humans as humans and recognize our own humanity.

Charles Manson doesn’t even know his last name anymore
Charles Manson’s real name was Charles Krautmeyer; he’s forgotten it
Charles Manson had a bunch of people
Who believed his every word
Who followed his directions to cut a bunch of rich people
Would they still have done if they’d known his name was Krautmeyer
I kinda doubt it

He talks about Marilyn Manson and how things would be different if he called himself “Marilyn Krautmeyer.”

The value in this song is that it can show us that we should not get sucked in by personalities and manipulators, regardless of their levels. Thinking about the greatest instances of man’s inhumanity to man, they come when people en masse start to follow a leader with crazy ideas. Thinking about our own lives and the way that we sometimes put ourselves in bad positions because of bosses, friends, fads, and so on, it pays to remember, as Dan Bern points out, that these people are often just picking their noses.

I was on a bus the other day, and a guy got on dressed all in black in 90-degree plus heat, with facial piercings. He was attempting to look fierce, or out side of the mainstream, or something. He was wearing a Marilyn Manson tee shirt. All I could think was “his real name is Marilyn Krautmeyer,” which changed the way I viewed him, and brought out his humanity.