The Truth of the Cave

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Like anyone who took Philosophy 101, I remember Plato, Socrates, the chained man in the cave, and the shadows passing before his eyes. It's the most famous bit of The Republic, and we read it along with a couple passages from The Death of Socrates. So in my search of our archives for billboard tape this morning (billboards are the bit at the top of the show, set to theme music, when Neal lays out the hour with the help of some pertinent tape), I found some from today's guest, Simon Blackburn, where he spoke about Plato, Socrates, and absolute truth... but nowhere did he say if he was referring specifically to The Republic. Lucky me, I have an ace up my sleeve... a super-smart sister who was a philosophy major, to boot! She solved my philosophy emergency, and I got my tape. So that's how The Republic affected my day, and in his biography of the book, Professor Blackburn goes way beyond that and gets into how it affects many of the moral and political decisions made in the world today. So, how has The Republic affected you?



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Mr. Conant. Your teaser for this program indicated that Professor Blackburn thought that the neo-conservatives had Plato wrong. But then, you did not ask him about it. What might he have to say about this?

Sent by Ron Peters | 3:41 PM | 8-8-2007

It sounds like Plato's Republic is his defense of why he stays separate from the masses. Aristocrats often grow from birth to discover that their survival is based on disconnecting themselves from sharing their resources. Resources are a form of energy that can do good. When dispensed, they act as love. If held back, this is the opposite of love: fear. Plato fears of letting the masses have power in a democracy. He claims to promote understanding. However, understanding people who experience hard times of the soul such as greed and envy, means experiences such tribulations until they are overcome. Actual wise leaders, including Jesus and Buddha, wrestled with horrors. Jesus faced temptations and of Buddha faced death, disease and poverty, which motivated him to meditate until attaining nirvana. In contrast, Plato is afraid to experience bad feelings, keeping himself tidily within pursuits of the mind. Leaders engrossed in mathematics and philosophy would miss critical education in understanding human feelings.

Plato's desire to repress everything bad is what leads it to not work itself out but to erupt in violence. These same desires toward repression enable politicians like Bush to garner votes from fearful citizens. Plato's ideas lead to the problems he wants to avoid. Plato's idea of good was fixed and static, not open to a long-term vision of how things grow and change from good into bad. He was closed to the natural process of change. He claims good men would fight not to lead, but he is fighting with ideas for his mind to lead people. Is he unaware of his desires? His disconnection from all people prevents him from seeing that the collective and individual both influence each other. They are really in many ways the same because they are both matter, and all matter is energy which is interconnected in one fabric of space/tme. Ideas are not dangerous if people feel free to think them through. They are only explosions waiting to happen, as Nietzsche suggests, if they are restrained and thus allowed to build up pressure until they erupt in a way that people's minds can't keep up with. It is said people think a lot because they don't open up to connecting with people in other healthy ways of releasing energy, you know.

Sent by Irene | 7:07 PM | 8-8-2007

Grammatical errors in the middle of the first paragraph of my previous post are corrected here. My apologies!

Plato fears letting the masses have power in a democracy. He claims to promote understanding. However, understanding people who experience hard times of the soul such as greed and envy, means experiencing such tribulations until they are overcome. Actual wise leaders, including Jesus and Buddha, wrestled with horrors. Jesus faced temptations and Buddha faced death, disease, age and pain, which motivated him to meditate until attaining enlightenment.

Sent by Irene | 7:15 PM | 8-8-2007

Irene, while you make some good points, you also misunderstand Plato. As a philosophy graduate pursuing an MBA I thought it important to clarify some things for you. Although Plato was born to a wealthy family, he did experience tragedy. His father died while he was young. His teacher and mentor (Socrates)was exectuted unjustly before his eyes. He learned in that experience that not all people make rational decisions and that a world with leaders who did so (philosopher kings) would be a better place. That is the premise and point of of The Republic. Plato's fears about letting people have the power are justified as it is human nature to abuse unchecked power. The example Plato provides is along the lines of 'what would you do if you had the ability to walk around invisible and unnoticed?' Human nature will lead everyone who answers this honestly to admit they would abuse this power unless they have a strong belief in an external reference of right/wrong. It is the reason the US has a system of checks&balances and also has an electoral college instead of direct voting system. That the average person does not think logically is the reason Plato proposed a system in which truth exists independent from the visible world (and also the reason that Christianity speaks of your eternal soul as the real you, Buddhists seek nirvana, etc). Every major modern religion speaks to something beyond the visible world that is more important or real than the world itself. That is exactly what Nietzsche rebelled against and is the reason he is condemned by so many religions. In the time of Plato, even the gods were part of the natural world so a distinct world of absolute truth was revolutionary. Plato understood that the world changed daily (he was familiar with the ways of Heraclitus too) but knew that a world that embraced constant change without universal truths would lead to the destruction of ethics and morality. He was right and should be respected for his contributions to social psychology as well as philosophy. The decline of modern culture is largely due to the collapse of external morality and the rise of relativism, itself misunderstood by today's Jerry Springer "what's right for you is not right for me" society. The Republic is more a statement about how people DO interact and less a proposal about how they SHOULD interact.

Sent by Ben Davis | 12:51 PM | 8-15-2007