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Friday, March 13, 2009

Acting Outside Of The Cave

Plato's Theory of Ethics:

His view may be summed up briefly as follows: in intellectual experience alone are we in contact with reality, and the pleasures which attend upon such experience are alone truly satisfying.  The body and all its concerns are relatively unreal.  The most we can ask of them is that they shall not interfere with higher pursuits.

The chief bodily appetites must be gratified just so far as to keep them quiet, and to keep the body generally in a state of health, so as to leave us undisturbed and free for the intellectual life.  If we ask, how far bodily pleasure is good, the answer is, pleasure in the excess is bad, pleasure in moderation, as an element in the higher life, is a good in precisely the same sense as health, i.e., in so far as, being obedient to reason, law, and order, it furthers, rather than interferes with, the intellectual life.

If we ask further, what it is in intellectual pleasure which makes it a good, the answer is, that it is its close connection with the world of ideas, with reason, law, and order, which makes it a good.  In a word, pleasure is not morally good in its own right.  What makes it morally good at any time is the presence in it of the "mean," of law, orderliness, reason.

I never went in much for the Dead Greek Guys at school, but of course I had to take Ancient Greek Philosophy amongst other courses for my major.  Of all the classes I tended to blow off, it was that one, though I generally did well in it because my prof appreciated my bullshit and "independence of thought."  I really just hated Plato and Aristotle because of their dedication to pure reason--a fervent belief in the passive--over real life--in other words, action.

Don't get me wrong: I was a philo major for the most part because I love the intellectual world (my giving up on a chem major because I hated my lab prof notwithstanding).  College bull sessions over beer or other chemicals?  Awesome.

As part of my extracurriculars, I was editor of the op-ed section in our college paper my freshman year, writing about the protests my friends engaged in.  A couple years later in my career I was layout editor and senior editor of a semi-annual arts and literary magazine and created some controversy, finally making news myself.  And my senior year I blew off a class with the prof I reconnected with last week so I could march in a Gulf War protest. Oh yeah, I also was a projectionist for our student association, which seems rather apt for this discussion.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say intellectualizing things, as I'm doing now, is completely illusory, it certainly doesn't feed the bulldog as it were.  You've got to translate ideas into something more meaningful and tangible.

Which brings me to Plato's Republic, Book VII: and his Allegory of the Cave as summarized in Wikipedia:

Plato imagines a group of people who have lived chained in a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of the cave entrance, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Plato, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to seeing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

We are influenced by shadows in our society: puppet theater our contemporary jesters foist on the somnambulant public in the form of blogs, sports, movies, TV sitcoms, Lifetime dramas, the war on CNN, the meltdown on CNBC, bobbleheads on the Sunday talk shows, crossword puzzles in the Sunday Times...religion ain't the only opiate today with all the circuses we can enjoy at the click of a remote or a mouse.  Sometimes prisoners escape our modern metaphorical cave, but what of it?

Socrates converses with his student, Plato's big bro, Glaucon:

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Certainly, he would.
Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

To be sure, he said.

And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

No question, he said.
And must there not be some art which will effect conversion in the easiest and quickest manner; not implanting the faculty of sight, for that exists already, but has been turned in the wrong direction, and is looking away from the truth?

Yes, he said, such an art may be presumed.

And whereas the other so-called virtues of the soul seem to be akin to bodily qualities, for even when they are not originally innate they can be implanted later by habit and exercise, the virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other hand, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue—how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye-sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?

Very true, he said.

There are of course those who really do prefer the shadow play to any reality that would require them to give up their passive lifestyle.  And there are people who, once discovering the sun, refuse to consider how best to reconnect with their cave-dwelling friends and instead simply demand they accept the Truth brought to them from above, failing to acknowledge that they themselves were once trapped.

I admit I have less of a problem with the latter, even if I do have empathy for the former.  Yet those self-righteous discoverers of the Truth many times haven't lived enough in the sun to really understand it let alone communicate its splendor to people who have long dwelt in the dark. They can fall into a trap of their own, thinking they are emancipated because they've made a brief foray outside and mistaking what they encounter for the entire world.

That said, the prisoners in our cave still have the choice to accept new feedback and act upon it.  But:

[I]f they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them?

Does our escapee care about the Oscars?  Or about what critics, who offer their opinions on the artifice others produce on film in a meta-meta exercise, say about the "reality" projected at the Cineplex?  Would those watching receive the lesson of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple?

If we accept that humans can extrapolate beyond their experience enough to imagine the impossible, then they are empowered with the ability to decide that ideas injected from outside the cave might have merit and that they too can throw off their shackles and walk up to the sunlight.  We can make Platonic/Socratic excuses and say they couldn't possibly comprehend a world outside their own, but isn't that antithetical to what Jesus and Thurman said?  People could easily say, "I can be more than this."

But I guess it's even easier to say, "I don't have to," because I'm white and those oppressed people are black.  I don't have to because I'm American and those oppressed people are thousands of miles away.  I don't have to because I'm older and wiser and those kids are crazy and naive.

It's easier to opine that the Joker could've cut down on about 20-30 minutes of his antics and psychotic speechifying.  It's easier to wonder if the Beatles could kick the Stones' ass in a West Side Story knife-dance fight.  It's easier to trash talk about how the Steelers will crush the Cardinals.

It's also easier to talk on a blog about what Obama should do.  Oh, and why don't the Senate Democrats make the Republicans filibuster?  Can't people see the corporatist two-party system is evil and just vote for Nader?  IDIOTS!  GOSH!

No, he said, such an art may not be presumed.

So will I sit here and be a chickendove as I criticize the chickhawks?  Will I be a chickendove as I wring my hands about the Giant Puppets setting back the movement with their antics?  Will I be a chickendove as I mock people who are at least trying to escape the cave?  Will I content myself with not even drawing anything on the cave walls, but rather criticizing how primitive the drawings are that other people have done?

Certainly, he will not.

Bottom line: people oft work very hard to come up with reasons why they cannot try even the simplest action, rather than considering the reasons why they should.  Instead of thinking outside the proverbial box, maybe we could all be acting outside the allegorical cave...


March 13, 2009 in Why We Fight | Permalink


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"It's easier to wonder if the Beatles could kick the Stones' ass in a West Side Story knife-dance fight."

C'mon, are you f'in kidding me? No contest. Stones would kill 'em.

Posted by: JD Ryan | Mar 13, 2009 10:21:09 AM

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