Shouting at Shadows — Facebook is Plato’s Cave

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.



“Act Your Age!” Montaigne Warns

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.

What Are the Limits of Markets

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who is interested in in the shape and direction of our society should read this book. In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides an interesting counter-point to the market fundamentalism that dominates our society today.

In the United States we have been encouraged to let markets solve every problem, but there are limitations to the market. What Sandel asks is whether or not puttting something up for sale devalues it. Using examples including human blood, time, and civic involvement, he answers that selling something can cheapen it.

This can be a difficult argument to make, because we all value things like education and community involvement differently. Still, Sandel gives examples of how valuing things with money can actually lead to counter-intuitive results.

I think the underlying thought is that if you pay someone, providing an ancillary or outside incentive for what should be done because of its intrinsic good, then that person could be induced to do the opporite if a sufficient incentive were offered.

We live in an era of market-fundamentalism, which is just as powerful as any other kind of religious fundamentalism. Economists have pushed politicians and popular discourse to think of everything as being valued only in dollars and sense. It leads to economists saying things like “price gouging is good” after disasters.

The book covers issues like naming rights, line jumping, and sky boxes. Is it right to selll advertising on cop cars? Is it right to sell advertising space on our own bodies?

There is one aspect of these kinds of questions that I don’t think Sandel adequately covers. He never talks about where markets fail. Although a market theoretically should cater to the desires of people, it can’t cover needs and desires that aren’t recognized. Markets also do not always allocate things efficiently or fairly or produce the best option. The proliferation of bad pop music is an easy example. Food deserts are another example of a market failure. Sandel talks about the moral failrues of markets, but I think that more discussion about technical failures of markets would have strengthened this book.

Nonetheless, in reading Sandel’s book, there is an underlying assumption that there are things that are good and right. All is not relative in Sandel’s world, and it is not in ours. “In adition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live.”

I think everyone should read this book and think about what kind of society we want to live in, especially as we go through a round of elections where this discussion is being brought into sharp relief. Buy a copy or visit your library and get one. The questions in this book are some of the most important we face, and this is a side of the discussion that is too seldom heard.

View all my reviews

Earl Shorris Made The Great Books Relevant To Modern Life

Earl Shorris was an author and social critic who died last month. In addition to his writing, he created the Clemente Course at  Bard College that was designed to teach low-income people about philosophy, art, and literature. The aim of his work was to show that the way out of poverty was not just skill training or financial literacy education, but was instead an education that helped people think about their world in a broad context and to understand that there is more to life than just survival.

I was fortunate to hear him speak once, and to have participated in the Odyssey Project which was the Chicago extension of the Clemente Course. I was a writing tutor and helped facilitate the classroom discussions. I enjoyed it because I learned as much as the students.

When you are working on helping someone understand philosophy or literature, it is necessary to both meet them half way and pull them into new, and sometimes uncomfortable, territory. For many of the students I worked with, their only exposure to these kinds of topics, to challenging books at all, was the bible. To get them to step into another author’s world required me to be a diplomat — respectful, yet committed to an agenda that was perhaps different from theirs.

You can’t work with people without studying them as well. There were several tutors and teachers in the course, and seeing how different personalities and students responded to the different styles taught me a lot about teaching and learning.  Sometimes you need to give people the question and the answer so they can debate it and make it their own. Sometimes you need to give people clues to what you want them to learn. Sometimes you put something out there and see what they teach you.

Discussion Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a man who has lost a son is a different experience than sitting in an undergraduate course with a bunch of kids who have no real world context that compares.

At the same time, talking about whether or not saving a drowning child is a good act if part of the reason you do it is because you know it will help you get dates with the girls on the beach can show you how much students can adopt the thinking of the things they read. (For the record, I think it would be a good act, even if you might get a date out of it. The students in the class, not so much.)

There was another reason that I felt it was critical to participate in the Odyssey project. I felt like the more educated people we could produce, the less chance there would be for demagogues and tyrants and bullies to do damage. The more people who could call shenanigans on the lies and vitriol that come at us from so many directions each day, the more likely we are to survive as a civilization. I realize this sounds a little melodramatic, but it is people who understand the humanities who prevent massacres.

Earl Shorris and Robert Maynard Hutchins both said that the education for the best — meaning the leaders of society and the upper classes — is the best education for all. That is not a very Platonic idea. That said, it is one I happen to agree with as someone who has made the journey from relative poverty into a comfortable middle class life.  I hope that in some small way, I helped make a difference and contributed to his vision.


More on Why We Need the Humanities

This column from The New York Times talks about why the humanities are important.

In today’s technical age, it is easy to focus on technical skills and knowledge as the pinnacle of knowledge. It is interesting to note that technical does not necessarily mean scientific, in that even the deniers of science, such as creationists, flat earthers, and climate change deniers have no qualms about using technology to spread their messages.

But part of the reason that we can’t have reasonable conversations, and we can’t deal well with many of the issues facing us is that we do not have the language or knowledge of ourselves and of philosophy to do so. We don’t grapple with the larger questions.

This article starts to discuss that. While there are bigger questions than can be handled in a single column, it is a start. I like to think this blog is part of exploring this question in a larger way.

“Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. ”

There are some problems in this article in that I think there is more to it in terms of what kind of work you do and what kind of person you are, but this is a start.

Stoic Interlude

Epictetus is not on the first year reading list, though I think he probably should be. I had an experience tonight that makes me think of this quote.

“Can any profit be derived from these men? Aye, from all.

“‘What, even from a reviler?’

“Why, tell me what profit a wrestler gains from him who exercises him beforehand? The very greatest: he trains me in the practice of endurance, of controlling my temper, of gentle ways. You deny it. What, the man who lays hold of my neck, and disciplines loins and shoulders, does me good,…while he that trains me to keep my temper does me none? This is what it means, not know how to gain advantage from men! Is my neighbor bad? Bad to himself, but good to me: he brings my good temper, my gentleness into play. Is my father bad? Bad to himself, but good to me. This is the rod of Hermes, touch what you will with it, they say, and it becomes gold. Nay, but bring hat you will and I will transmut eit into Good. Bring sickness, bring death, bring poverty and reproach, bring trial for lief — all these thing though the rod of Hermes shall be turned to profit.”

I had a run in with some difficult people at a jazz concert on the lawn, and nearly took a guy to the ground — I had hold of him in such a way that I could have done it — but instead held my temper. It was the right thing to do, and I dealt with the situation through words. But despite the nearly overwhleming desire I had to punch the guy, I was trained to hold my temper and not do the wrong thing.

This does not mean that I don’t think it is ever wrong to punch someone or take them to the ground. It just means that in this particular case, dropping some drunk guy was not the right thing to do. So, I have learned a good lesson and realized that in a tense situation, I can make the right the choice. I learned and will take the lesson forward. Next time, there might be a punch involved or not, but I now have more experience to judge situations.

Regardless, I think the Epictetus can benefit a lot of people in this world. He provides examples and advice on how to live that are quite practical, even more than 2,000 years later. Whether that shows how little progress we made or how the human condition endures is a question for another time.

More Epictetus to come….

Aristotle’s Politics – What Living With Other People Leads To

In the first book of the Politics, Aristotle begins with the notion that humans are political and social animals who must live together. In living together, humans all have certain roles that they must play, and these roles are determined by whether a person is a man or woman, adult or child, free person or slave.   

Aristotle’s argument is that states exist to provide people with a good life, and he points out that wealth must have limits in order for that good life to be obtained. Merely chasing after money is not useful, according to him, and despite some ideas that may not hold up under the empirical experiences of modern days, he seems to have identified a problem with modern life. Namely, we are too interested in the medium of exchange and trying to develop wealth without limits rather than natural riches.

“For natural riches and the natural art of wealth getting are a different thing; in their true form, they are part of the management of a household; whereas the retail trade is the art of producing wealth, not in every way, but by exchange.”

In considering households as the basic building block of the state, Aristotle devotes considerable time to household management and wealth creation in this first book. He posits that the household exists to provide for essential needs, villages are created to provide for something more than basic needs, and thus societies are formed. Once enough villages come together, then “the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”

Aristotle begins with the notion that people must live together.

“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not be mere accident is without a start is either a bad man or above humanity….”

He goes on to show why the state is a creation of nature.

“The proof that that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the while. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part or a state.”

Having convinced us of the necessity of living together, Aristotle wants to understand how states work by breaking them down into their constituent parts. He regards states as a collection of households, and here he begins to lay out the roles that people must play.

Aristotle looks at families, which he says are comprised of master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. The father and man of the house is the one in charge for Aristotle. He says that some people are “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” 

While slavery is a state of nature for some people, and those people serve as instruments of creating and gathering wealth, others are not meant to be slaves, and to keep them in slavery is a bad idea.

“Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have a common interest, but where it rests merely on law and force, the reverse is true.”

Slavery is an odious institution, and I cannot see a strong argument for it in anyway, but then, that stems from my belief that there is no natural relationship that could create a slave. Power tends to corrupt, and we see petty and large tyrannies everywhere that show people who try to create slaves never have a “natural” relationship with them.

Aristotle even talks about how the “meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery” and that artisans also have characteristics of slavery. If Aristotle were right that masters are sources of excellence in their slaves, the existence of slavery might be more palatable. But even middle managers routinely fail at creating excellence in this society of free people, so I fail to see how someone who is in a position to be abusive and capricious could possibly maintain excellence in themselves, much less in others they consider beneath them.

Aristotle also believes that men should rule over women and children. Even though a woman can be temperate, brave, and just, that does not mean that these qualities are the same in men and women.

“Clearly, then the moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying.”

Now, I find Aristotle an interesting read, but he and I part company here. Although men and women are different, looking at things empirically, as Aristotle would like us to do, I can’t say that this is correct. Perhaps the difference is in my time, women have be involved in all spheres of life, public and private, while in his time their roles were much more limited. It is interesting to think about what Aristotle would say today, faced with the evidence of our modern society.

However he might change his views on slavery and the roles of men and women if he were to visit modern society, I think that Aristotle would find evidence to support his belief that riches should have limits.

He divides the art of “wealth-getting” into two kinds, unnecessary and necessary. The unnecessary kind is that which is just about accumulating coin through retail trade, as he terms it. He says that virtues are corrupted through this. I think here, Aristotle is correct in that in the past twenty to thirty years, we have seen the best and brightest of our country devote themselves to creating money out of money, rather than building true wealth through the creation of valuable objects or tangible resources. Even things once designed to bring us happiness and inculcate virtue have become marketing tools. Why do Christmas decorations come out in stores during October?

Aristotle would say the United States has gotten out of hand with its search for wealth.

“Those who aim at a good life seek the means of obtaining bodily pleasures; and, since the enjoyment of these appears to depend on property, they are absorbed in getting wealth; and so there arises the second species of wealth-getting. For, as their enjoyment is in excess, they seek an art which produces the excess of enjoyment and it they are not able to supply their pleasure by the art of getting wealth, they try other arts, using in turn every faculty in a manner contrary to nature.”

There is a proper reason for gathering wealth, however, and that is to live a good life.

“Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited….”

One can only wonder what Aristotle would have thought of credit cards and subprime loans.

Next Time: Plutarch’s Lives — Learning About Ourselves Through the Biographies of Others