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.



Politics and Plato’s Republic

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his friends try to solve anumber of questions about issues in politics, education, justice, and even the ultimate good by contructing an imaginary state.

It seems this technique has stood the test of time, or at least come back into use in modern electoral politics. Look at this description of a new type of political poll from a recent New York Times article:

“No campaign or client is sponsoring the research, and no one is looking to “move” the voters with slogans or ad scripts. In fact, very little, if anything, is even mentioned about partisan politics. Instead, the facilitator asks the half-dozen or so voters to invent their own countries and to compare their idealized versions with the country they actually live in. ”

This again shows the value of the humanities and taking part in The Great Conversation. By reading these great works, we have a way to think about what the current issues are and separate them from the problems that have bedeviled people throughout our history. Maybe we can avoid going in circles by learning about what has been considered before and the arguments that have been made.

While our situation is very different than the ancient Greeks, we can learn from the conversations we have. We also might learn something about how to ask the questions.

Learning how arguments are made is just as important as learning what arguments are made. The better we do both, the closer we wil be to actually solving problems.

Is this all too ‘pie-in-the-sky’ optimistic? I don’t think so. I think that everyone can learn from the Great Books and improve our collective ability to solve problems. By using these works, perhaps we can create some new additions to Great Conversation that carries the lessons of these turbulent times forward.

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