Life Saving Philosophy

How mental vigor and newfound clarity can change how we view the world and our place in it

Plato on Politics in 2012

What should we be talking about at election time?

I’ve been thinking about Plato’s classic “Myth of the Cave” from the Republic. A lot! This allegory serves as a giant wake-up call for each of us, a call to dust away mental cobwebs so that clear thinking about ideas is possible. Here’s a brief entry into and a welcome exit from his Cave. The key realization that Plato imparts in this powerful analogy is that WE are the prisoners: Bound, since birth, by ankles and legs, unable to move from fixed positions, the shadows on the wall cast by flickering firelight are the only reality we know. We never question the truth of the puppet show and have no reason to suspect a truer world outside our cave. But there is a glimmer of light at the mouth of the Cave which suggests to one brave prisoner to break free and make the hard, steep climb towards the opening. Up, up until at last…bright sunlight! In this new light of day the meaning of ideas becomes more and more clear: Courage, Friendship, Kindness, Peace, and on and on…. It is “this turning around” that becomes “our task to follow that upward journey” (Republic). We had no clue in the Cave. Our ideas were garbled if they existed at all. We took everything as it came and went, mentally dormant and dully satisfied.

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What keeps us cave-bound today? Advertising, media twists and shouts, the assumption that what we hear and read is true, and docile acceptance of the world as it is. We’re cave-bound if we don’t strive for clarity and  bright, well-lit minds. We must unshackle our minds and exercise them rigorously.

Also in the Republic, Plato expresses the hope that political leaders will also be people with a vested interest in understanding the meaning of ideas and in engaging others in ongoing, thought-provoking discussions. Unfortunately, front-page and twittered news most often focuses on symptomatic problems rather than the failure of the intellect that produced such problems in the first place: climate change, poverty, lack of health care, malnutrition, inequity, etc. point the finger of blame at intellectual collapse. Here are 5 ideas that I would like to hear reverberating in electioneering at every level and among groups everywhere: Responsibility, Empathy, Justice, Education, and Freedom. What would happen if we could grow closer as individuals and as a country, via discussion, to a better understanding of these 5?

Responsibility: to each other, the future, the environment, all life. What is the meaning of Responsibility? Empathy: for children, the down and out, the elderly, and the lonely. What is the meaning of Empathy? Justice: fair play regardless of income, the chasm between the very rich and the multitude of poor, lack of basic services, disregard and disenfranchisement of the powerless. What is the meaning of Justice? Education: whose standards of learning and what, disparity between schools, teacher pay?  But what is Education? Freedom: for minorities, women, animals, for you and for me. What is the meaning of Freedom?

Wouldn’t a clearer grasp of these 5 ideas serve as a reliable guide in addressing chronic issues and in improving all life? Plato would insist that lack of understanding, mental confusion and darkness, created the problems. We’re stuck because we don’t know the meaning of responsibility, empathy, justice, education, or freedom – just my 5 examples, and only for today, out of a vast world of ideas. So we blunder along, modern-day cave-dwellers, refusing to ask the hard questions about meaning. Fearful of going back and asking again what responsibility or freedom may be,we stall out and prevent a positive march forward. Wheels spin.

Try this activity that has enriched countless philosophers of my acquaintance: Gather some folks for dinner and ask each person to name the idea that they would like to better understand – then as a group, work together to get closer to the essence of each idea. College students and philosophizing diners are energized by this exercise, which cuts through clutter and sometimes points in the direction of solutions.

Here comes the sun.



Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.


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