Category Archives: Plato

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.


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.


Book VII: Augustine Gradually Extricated from His Errors

In Book VII, Augustine has come to believe in God, but he struggles with understanding the spiritual world. It seems to me that Augustine is working with an almost childlike conception of God in that he wants to know where God is in the world, and he wants to know where evil comes from. Augustine also talks about the need for faith to be tested.

In trying to find where God exists, Augustine first conceives of him being in everything in the world, and in proportion. So, an elephant has more of God than a sparrow. He realizes that God is immutable and so cannot be divided in such a way. It is interesting that Augustine mentions reading books written by Platonists. As we have discussed before, Platonism thinks in terms of an ultimate good. It is a philosophy that thinks in terms of ultimate forms, which fits right in, or perhaps informs, Augustine’s idea of God.

Allow me to take a detour here for a minute. Augustine conducts what may be the first twins study in history. In studies in human heredity and to determine the difference between nature and nurture, scientists often compare twins that have been separated at birth to see how much of what happens in life is due to their genes (nature) and how much is due to their environment (nurture). When he considers astrology, he notes that people born at the same time, under the same sign, can have very different lives. He compares Esau and Jacob from the Bible and says that astrology should have predicted that they ended up in the same kind of life. But even though they were born under the same astrological conditions, their lives turned out very differently.

The most interesting part of this book is when Augustine inquires into the source of evil. How could God, who is good, create anything that is evil? This is a question I imagine every thoughtful person has asked himself or herself if they have thought about God and the world with any serious reflection.

Augustine provides an interesting answer that I am not sure I am entirely satisfied with, but it makes me think all the same. The answer he provides is that nothing is evil.

“And to Thee is nothing whatsoever evil: yea, not only to Thee, but also to Thy creation as a whole, because there is nothing without, which may break in, and corrupt that order which Thou hast appointed it. But in the parts thereof some thins, because unharmonising with other some, are accounted evil: whereas those very things harmonise with others, and are good; and in themselves are good. And all these things which harmonise not together, do yet with the inferior part, which we call Earth, having its own cloudy and windy sky harmonising with it. Far be it then that I should say, ‘These things should not be’….”

So, in considering this, Augustine says that all things that God has created are good, but when things get out of harmony, due to free will, then things become evil. “And I enquired what iniquity was, and found it to be no substance, but the perversion of the will, turned aside from Thee, O God, the Supreme, towards these lower things, and casting out its bowels, and pulled up outwardly.”

Given some of the evil things that we have seen in history, it makes me wonder whether or not bad things happening is as simple as things being out of harmony with nature. But at the same time, I have heard it suggested that there is a place for everything. So, for instance, a person who enjoys causing pain would make a good surgeon or physical therapist, where that urge could be channeled into something good. I don’t know how much I believe it, but it is the most extreme example for this idea that comes to mind.

Augustine seems to accept the idea that some evil must exist and may even be necessary for those seeking God. He seems to have the idea that untested faith is not truly faith at all. “For the rejection of heretics makes the tenets of Thy Church and sound doctrine to stand out more clearly. For there must also be heresies that the approved may be manifest among the weak.”

He also writes “Thou therefore willedst that I should fall, before I studied Thy scriptures, that it might be imprinted on my memory how I was affected by them; and that afterwards when my spirits were tamed through Thy books, and my wounds touched by Thy healing fingers, I might discern between presumption and confession; between presumption and confession; between those who saw whither they were to go, yet saw not the way, and the way that leadeth not to behold only but to dwell in the beatific country. “

He says that he learned that he cannot just obtain the truth by reading philosophy books.

It is interesting to consider the idea that going through the disharmony, sinning, going astray leads to better faith in the end. But I think this is really more a discussion of the possibility of redemption. Augustine does not simultaneously discount the faith of his mother, who did not go through the same trials and tribulations. Of course, one does wonder whether Augustine, who accuses himself of terrible sins, is trying to argue for his ultimate redemption.

Augustine works from the idea that the spiritual world is not only completely separate, but also knowable. It is an optimistic viewpoint, but that seems to be a movement of faith. It is a Platonist movement of faith, but a movement of faith all the same.

Next Time: Book VIII – Augustine Goes Through the Struggle of Conversion

Augustine: All Grown Up and Still Sinning

In Book IV, we hear about Augustine’s life from the age of 19 to 28, and he is still lost and sinning, though slowly getting better, by his account. He spends his time teaching rhetoric and writing and trying to win theatrical prizes. So, Augustine is basically living the life of an academic, and having the thoughts of an epidemic who has a fair store of academic knowledge.

He still has not found, God, which of course is what this is all leading up to, but is starting to get the hint. In part this comes with the death of dear friend who falls ill, is baptized while unconscious, and who reacts poorly to Augustine’s jokes about it when he wakes up once before he dies.

“I essayed to jest with him, as though he would jest with me at that baptism which he had received when utterly absent in mind and feeling, but had now understood that he had received. But he so shrunk from me, as from and enemy; and with a wonderful and sudden freedom bade me, as I would continue his friend, forbear such language from him. I, all astonished and amazed, suppressed all my emotions till he should grow well, and his health were strong enough for me to deal with him as I would. But he was taken away from my phrensy, that with Thee he might be preserved for my comfort; a few days after, in my absences, he was attacked again by the fever, and so departed.”

Augustine’s references to how God has spoken to him throughout his books made me begin to wonder, was he an Aristotelian or a Platonist in his approach to what is good. For Plato, the good comes from knowing the ultimate form of The Good, the ultimate, irreducible Good. Aristotle, on the other hand, says that we know the good from what we learn as we live our lives.

I thought that Augustine was an Aristotelian from the way that he wrote about how God was sending him messages through his life and through his mother, for example. This may be an atheistic read of Augustine, though, in that by assuming he is Aristotelian, it might deny the agency of God in providing humans with knowledge of the Good.

As I read book IV, I am of the opinion that he is a Platonist, in that everything humans know about what is good and right must flow from God, the source of ultimate good. Plato tells us there is an ultimate good, and for Augustine that is God.

“And what did it profit me that all of the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of vile affections, read by myself, and understood? And I delighted in them, but knew not whence came all that therein was true or certain. For I had my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened; whence my face, with which I discerned the things enlightened, itself was not enlightened.”

Augustine goes on to say that all this comes from God. It all sounds very much like Plato’s allegory of the cave, where someone does not see the true things, but shadows on the wall.

I had a little help in thinking about this from my downstairs neighbor, who is a graduate student in philosophy who has studied Augustine. Her take on the question is that Augustine was an Aristotelian before his conversion, and a Platonist afterwards. I think that is the best summation I have heard.

While I understand what Augustine is trying to say, I still am slightly annoyed that his take is nothing else matters but loving God. He seems to take the world as one big God-praise machine. I think Alan Watts had it right when he said that God cares about a lot more than religion, otherwise we would have a world full of nothing but churches, monasteries, and convents.

I have to wonder, too, why the editors of the set chose this reading and put it in this place. In one part, I think the questions that come up about Aristotle and Plato are natural ones and show the flow of the Great Conversation, such as it is. But I can’t help but wonder, too, whether they also meant it as a warning that the knowledge of these books is not complete and won’t answer every question. I don’t know what Robert Maynard Hutchins’s and Mortimer J. Alder’s personal views on God and religion are, but it does seem like there is more here than just the chronological progression of the conversation. It is something to think about as readers move through the program.

Next Time: Augustine Avoids a Snare of the Devil

Getting Dirty With Augutine — The Confessions Book I

In order to write about this next reading coherently, I am going to have to break it up into several parts. So, this time, I will take a look at book I of Augustine’s confessions.

He starts his confessions by exalting God, quoting and paraphrasing the bible to show piety and build his case. Then, he begins talking about his early life and childhood.

What is interesting is that in some ways, Augustine seems to search for the source of human knowledge and development. While he, as expected, ascribes it all to the grace of God, he spends time going through the stages of human development, the beginnings of consciousness, and learning. He describes how babies gesture and cry and gradually learn to speak to make their desires known.

He gives it all over to God, including the milk that comes from his mother and his nurses. Giving thanks to God is one thing. But I think that some question of whether they had a choice is important, if only because they are also actors in the world, and so have shown some obedience or piousness by taking care of a child and not just leaving it. Augustine presents it all as though it were on automatic pilot.

The other interesting part of book I is his discussion of his education. Augustine shows a change in the perception of divinity when he talks about reading Homer’s descriptions of the Gods, including the philandering of Zeus. I really find this part interesting, because the popular description of Greek myths talk about how the Gods were used to explain human behavior. Here is Augustine’s take on that:

“And now which of our gowned masters lends a sober ear to one who from their own school cries out, ‘These were Homer’s fictions, transferring things human to the gods; would he had brought down divine things to us!’ Yet more truly has he said, ‘These are indeed his fictions; but attributing a divine nature to wicked men, that crimes might be no longer crimes, and whoso commits them might seem to imitate not abandoned men, but the celestial gods.'”

So, there is something to watch out for — Augustine is telling us to be careful about our sources to make sure that they do not make the weak argument the stronger. Plato’s shade continues to haunt Christianity and carries on through the Great Conversation here.

Nonetheless, I think this represents a break from the Gods of Ancient Greece and Rome as fallible deities who knew our weaknesses to an infallible God that was truly separate from us in all ways. Seeing as how Augustine was and early bishop of the Catholic church, it leads to speculation about how much he influenced the papal infallibility doctrine. Someone more learned in church history will need to take up that, however.

Instead, my focus in the Great Conversation in these books. Augustine shows us that education can lead to trouble and that the sophists were still around long after Plato. Augustine writes that in a search for eloquence and rhetorical excellence, education can be a bad thing.

“In the quest of the fame of eloquene,  man standing before a human judge, surrounded by a human throng, declaiming against his enemy with fiercest hatred, will take heed most watchfully lest, by an error of the tonue, he murder the word ‘human being’; but takes no heed lest, through the fury of his own spirit, he murder the real human being.”

Augustine warns against the dangers of too much education, writing how he was more concerned about the suffering of Dido and Aeneas from the Aeneid, rather than worrying about his own salvation. It seems that Augustine may be warning us against the Great Books as a whole.

This seems to me a false dichotomy. As Alan Watts once pointed out, God is interested in a lot more than religion, other wise he would have made a world consisting solely of temples, convents, and monasteries.

It seems to be a sin to ignore the world that God created, though Augustine is a strong proponent of turning away from world things. I think that he is too extreme, but there is more to read, so I may be premature in my assessment.

There is one passage that I am still puzzling over.

“For will any of sound discretion approve of my being beaten as a boy because, by playing at ball, I made less progress in studies which I was to learn on that, as a man, I might play more unbeseemingly?”

I think what he is saying is that his education was mostly a waste, and the studies he did undertake took him farther away from God. He has not laid out the ideal education in book one. But maybe he is saying kids are better off playing than studying. Maybe I ought to sell this set and get myself a new glove.

Next Time: Getting Dirty with Augustine Part II — The Teenage Years

Plato’s Republic Book II: Your Dog is a Philosopher

Book II of the Republic shows how a little question can get way out hand. But to show this, I need to reach back into Book I for a moment. Thrasymachus, one of the other party goers, says that justice is the interest of the stronger. In doing so, he brings up the idea that laws are written for the benefit of the state and the state is stronger than individuals. I am compressing a lot of argument here, but this seems to plant an idea in Socrates’ head.

Glaucon and Adeimantus both take up the argument to say that being unjust is better than being just. Glaucon tells the story of the ring of invisibility and how if people could get away with it, they would commit all sorts of unjust acts. He also says that the unjust man can deceive others into thinking he is a really great guy and even make a just man seem bad. The unjust man reaps rewards, while the just man:

Glaucon: They will tell you that the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound – have his eyes burnt out, and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled: Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just…. 

Adeimantus raises the possibility that there are no gods to punish the unjust in the hereafter or that they are in different to human affairs or can be swayed. The two men make the case that it is better to be unjust and ask Socrates to refute them.

Adeimantus: And therefore, I say, not only prove to us that justice is better than injustice, but show what they either of them do to the possessor of them, which makes one to be a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men.

This is important, because it sets up the idea of the Platonic ideal: that there is something that is irreducibly just, or good, regardless of the opinions of me, or even gods. There is something inherently good about justice, and thus there is an inherent good. This good is elemental, rather than something that is open to interpretation.

Here’s where things get out of hand. Socrates proposes that the assembled company explore the idea of justice by looking at it as a large virtue, in the form of a state.

Socrates: Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernable. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.

So they decide to imagine a state that is just. Apparently truly just states are in short supply, even in Ancient Greece. The party agrees to create one from scratch, and thus the stage is set for the rest of the book.  

In the creation of this state, the company decides that it needs guardians, people who will protect and take care of the city. People who will be perfectly gentle to their familiars and the reverse to strangers, which is how well-bred dogs are. Socrates says this shows that a dog is a true philosopher.

 Socrates: Why, because [a dog] distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing. And must not an animal be a lover of learning who determines what he likes and dislikes by the test of knowledge and ignorance?

Here we come back to this idea of knowing and not knowing. It is this idea of knowing something elemental, friend versus foe, testing knowledge and ignorance, that determines what something is and how we behave. Whether or not this is applicable to a dog I think could be debated, but for Socrates’ point it comes down to learning the form of friend and stranger that is important.

From here, The Republic goes on to develop a number of ideas, and Book II is really the entry point into much more. But, the editors have us bounding off to our next reading.

Next Time – Aristotle’s Ethics: Learning to Behave

Plato’s Republic – Starting with a Nod to the Skeptics

This week’s reading assignment, if you will, consists of the first two books of Plato’s Republic. While they are grouped as one reading, I am going to take the two books separately. The first two books are rich with ideas and information and very important to setting up the rest of the work. I think maybe the editors of the set were looking to draw readers into reading the whole thing. That is definitely worthwhile, but for now, I am just sticking with the reading list.

 In the first book of The Republic, Plato is essentially saying that the exercise that he is about to go through will not satisfy everybody and lays out some ground rules for the discussion to follow. Years ago, in my undergraduate days, a friend of mine came to me after being assigned readings from The Republic in one of his classes and said that his problem with the book was that it seemed like Socrates was engaging in rhetorical games rather than problem solving and that the things he was talking about did not apply in the real world.

 This led me to reconsider and reread the book. I think book one addresses this in a couple of ways.

 In the opening, we find Socrates and his friend Glaucon returning from a festival, when they run into Polemarchus and his friends who invite them to have dinner and conversation afterwards. Polemarchus wants Socrates and Glaucon to stay, but meets with some resistance. Here is how he responds:

 Polemarchus: But you see how many we are? [Referring to himself and his friends]

Socrates: Of course.

Polemarchus: And are you stronger than all of these? for if not, you will have to remain where you are.

Socrates: May there not be the alternative that we may persuade you to let us go?

Polemarchus: But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?

Glaucon: Certainly not.

Polemarchus: Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured.

 While this seems like an exchange to move the story along, I think Plato is saying two things with this passage. First, you can’t convince someone who won’t listen to reason. So, if you are going to read this book, then you must be willing to listen to the arguments. Second, he is saying that sometimes, in the real world, dialectic succumbs to outside forces, such as a mob.

 [Permit me a slight aside on punctuation at this point. You will notice the “for” in the above quote is not capitalized. This occurs in several translations in the Great Books set. I think that it is deliberate, and a way to show the ideas flowing together. More on grammar as a logical operator another time, though.]

From here, Socrates and Glaucon go to Polemarchus’ home and there begin their evening discussions with Cephalus, Ploemarchus’ father, who has been making sacrifices to the gods. They talk about the burdens and benefits of old age and wealth, with Cephalus saying that one benefit to being wealthy is a chance to make good with the gods for all the bad things you have done in your life. This leads to the beginning of the discussion of justice. But Cephalus leaves the dialog to his son, and goes back laughing to his sacrifices.

 I think here Plato is saying that there are some people for whom philosophical discussion is useful only insofar as it is a practical matter – preparing for the afterlife in Cephalus case. He leaves the discussion to take care of his sacrifices, having gone as far as he feels is useful. Plato is saying you have to stick with these discussions beyond just trying to figure out what kinds of sacrifices you should offer or what actions might be necessary to be a good person. ‘We are going to the heart of the matter,’ Plato is saying.

 One more ground rule is laid down in book one that I think is important, and that is the idea that the just man cannot harm anyone. He is trying to get this discussion of justice going in a particular direction. It is interesting that Socrates is sometimes referred to as a pre-Christian Christian. I think passages like this may be why. It is also interesting to read this after reading the Crito, where Socrates says he cannot escape from the prison. The just ought not to harm anyone, including the unjust or evil, because it only makes them worse.

Here is what he says in the Republic:

Socrates: Then to injure a friend or any one else, is not the act of a just man, but of the opposite, who is unjust?

Polemarchus: I think that what you say is quite true, Socrates.

Socrates: Then if a man says that justice consists in the repayment of debts, and that good is the debt which a man owes to his friends, and evil is the debt which he owes to his enemies – to say this is not wise; for it is not true, if, as has been clearly shown, the injuring of another can be in no case just.

 So, these are the ground rules for the Republic:

  1. Be willing to listen and be persuaded.
  2. Be willing to go to the core of the question.
  3. Harm no one.

 Next time – Plato’s Republic Book II: Your Dog is a Philosopher