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Enlightenment – Cultural Binaries & Philosophical Underpinnings

Finally! Yes!! Let’s dive right into the amazing world of philosophy:) 

With the context of the Golden Age in Greek antiquity now in our minds, we can begin to examine some of the earliest definitions of what human culture is and what it consists of through the philosophical ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. To very briefly preface this, we will come to understand that their collective definition of the highest good is in the mind. Namely, knowledge and wisdom through the use of reason. And that once one obtains knowledge and wisdom, they can begin to live a good and virtuous life. In terms of establishing a system for evaluating and judging what is the best / highest good within human culture, there does seem to be a consistent stream of thought that flows through each of these philosophers. A hierarchical structure. 

For me, this is very interesting as you have constant war, pretty much throughout this entire period in ancient Greece (and the then known world). Essentially, war was a part of everyday life. Perhaps the only peace or happiness that these ancient peoples were really capable of was internally, within the mind. Because they knew that at virtually any given moment they could be thrust into an unpredictable external situation where extreme violence and death were a very high possibility. And, with that, simultaneously, a very high possibility of falling prey to their own internal excesses via desire, greed, and ambition. Namely,  blood lust, hunger for power, and financial greed. 

Already we can see a host of culturally driven binaries (mental vs. physical, war vs. peace, strong vs. weak, rich vs. poor, external vs. internal, life vs. death, and right vs. wrong) starting to take shape. All within the binary of good vs. bad, and within the landscape of human culture. Given this, let us continue down the path of cultural binaries and see where the founding fathers of western philosophy try to draw the lines of what is good within human culture. 

One other quick note, most people with some philosophical background will definitely know who these guys are. Yet, even if we are aware, even if we’ve read some of their source texts already, there is no reason to rush this journey. Especially with these three guys. They make up their own Mt. Rushmore of philosophy. And what is crazy is that Socrates was the teacher of Plato, and Plato was the teacher of Aristotle. Further, their collective influence is felt in all areas of human culture during every subsequent period after theirs, including our very own. From government, to religion, to education, to science, to politics, to ethics and morals, to the arts, to virtually every subsequent philosophical idea, and many more. I will do my best to honor them, just as countless others have and countless more will continue to do:)

Socrates

Socrates (~469 – 399 B.C.) was born within a middle class family of Athenian society near the very onset of the golden age. It is said that he served in the Athenian military as a hoplite against the Spartans during the Peloponnesian Wars and fought in several battles. Apparently he was also quite ferocious in battle, both physically and courageously, to the point of being the last man standing against the savage Spartans, and then holding them off with a vehement glare during a particular battle. He most likely served as a soldier, but we may never fully know all of the details, including his specific level of skill and courageousness.

This is, at least partially, because he never wrote anything himself. And apparently this stems from his humble belief that he knew all of the questions, but none of the answers. Instead, our information about him comes from two of his students, Plato and Xenophon, with Plato most likely the more accurate via his majestic dialogues. Yet, it seems that even with Plato, the lines of embellishment may have still been crossed. For Socrates’ character is at times seemingly portrayed along the lines of a religious prophet. Aristophanes also wrote comedies making fun of Socrates (The Clouds), only proving that Socrates was most likely not a fictional character. So even though I hate you Aristophanes, I am thankful in that regard, hahaha:)

Influence and Character

But there had to be at least some truth to it. I mean, if you think about Socrates’ influence, in totality, it may be the vastest of any philosopher. Ever. Anywhere. He died a martyr for reason and he lived as a muse for each of the founders of all the major philosophical schools of antiquity including Platonism (Plato), Cynicism (Antisthenes), Skepticism (Eucleides), Epicureanism (Aristippus), Stoicism (Zeno, indirectly through Xenophon’s Memorabilia), and he was also a major influence on Aristotle’s ethics and logic. And he didn’t write anything himself. What… the… fuck… Incredible. [We will get into the ideas and times and people associated with these schools of thought soon enough:)]. 

The reason this is so shocking, at least the evidence seems to strongly indicate, is because Socrates’ students all unanimously agreed in attributing the power of Socrates’ influence not with his specific philosophical ideas, but with his impeccable character. During any point in time throughout anywhere in history, this means something. To be a man of honor. To treat others fairly. To hold yourself accountable for your own actions. To question others and seek truth, but not to judge. To live simply, and think bravely. To have moderation and self control. To genuinely care about your people, especially your devout students. And he was apparently quite funny. He may have been annoying in his quest for answers, a gadfly as he called himself, but if his character was respectable and he had a sense of humor, perhaps some people would even enjoy engaging in conversation with him. Especially if his ideas were as exemplary as his character. 

Socratic Method – Ignorance is NOT Bliss

For Socrates, the saying “ignorance is bliss” would’ve been akin to throwing your life away. For he believed that those who were ignorant, may as well be deemed similar to slaves. And there were a lot of slaves in ancient Greece, apparently a lot more than Athenian citizens. But slaves of what? Did he mean actual slaves and their lack of education? Perhaps to a certain degree. But I think he also meant a type of slavery that is capable of holding anyone captive, no matter their status in society. Let us recall Kant’s definition of enlightenment… that we need to break free of the shackles of our own nonage and that we cannot be reliant upon others thinking for us. This same sentiment, in its core, can be found within Socrates. That if we rest on our beliefs and values, if we fail to examine them. Well, we may as well be slaves to our own ignorance. One of Socrates most famous phrases (from The Apology) is, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” 

And yet, in our day in age, with the overabundance of information, we can see the appeal in reducing the depth and breadth of internal examinations that we conduct as a means to try to manage and reduce stress. So how do we take this? For me, I take it as a question of what is freedom? In ancient Greece they had just earned their freedom as a nation from Persia, and for Socrates he clearly did not want to be complacent after earning it. He wanted to keep driving and keep pushing toward the deepest definitions of things. 

Comparatively, Greece was known to have primarily modeled its culture after that of their immediate predecessor, the ancient Egyptians as they were, for several hundred years at least, the epitome of an advanced civilization. Whereas we, the United States, can trace its origins through Greece and its predecessors as well as an additional ~2,700 years of thought (through the Roman Empire, Christianity, the formation of Europe, etc.). The path of examining ourselves while also seeking an understanding of the world today and historically is truly challenging… What a ride, eh!!!

An Agnostic Good

In the current American culture (as well as in several other cultures throughout human history), philosophy is often perceived on a personal level as a field of study that is not as concerned with or connected with reality (this is also reflected in the job market, just try searching for “philosopher” or “philosophy” in LinkedIn, it’s disheartening, yet immensely motivating). That it doesn’t help people with everyday problems. Instead, it deals with questions and problems that lie beyond what is practical and enters into a stratosphere of thinking that is too lofty, to the point of not even being useful. One that leaves a person with more questions than answers, and doesn’t help to resolve their pains or strife. 

This was definitely true in terms of how a lot of the more metaphysically (concerned with the origins of everything, especially related to matters of science and religion) minded philosophers before Socrates’ time seemed to be perceived. These philosophers have been often called pre-Socratic philosophers, although I refuse to call them this (bullshit in my opinion), because, as we will see in due time, they have also been extremely influential throughout the course of human history in their own right. Instead, when the time comes, I will be referring to each one of them by name, to give them their proper respect. One of these men was Anaxagoras, a close friend and personal advisor to Pericles, who is thought to have played a role in helping to steer Socrates’ views away from metaphysics, and toward ethics and politics. 

Although Socrates was pious and religious, he didn’t believe that we could know anything of the gods. He didn’t concern himself with the metaphysical ideas of the heavens because he thought, how can we meddle with ideas of the heavens if we do not even have our own personal lives in order. Further, in terms of determining what was good, he made a strong move toward a natural ethic, away from the Orphic religion of Greece by controversially stating (in Plato’s Euthyphro) that “good is not good because the gods approve of it, but that the gods approve of it because it is good.” 

Regarding the fields of science, Socrates goes on to describe an endless loop of uncovering one mystery only to reveal another deeper one. Given this, he believes that it would serve us better as men to live our lives according to the values and ends within ethics, rather than according to the guide that the facts and origins of science are capable of producing. Hence, Socrates is said to be ultimately agnostic toward both religion and science. 

Sophists

Additionally, Socrates was directly influenced by a group of traveling intellectuals, called “Sophists” who were in the business of helping the people of Greece to learn rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. They taught the  people of Athens to be able to fend for themselves, and to understand that for every argument there can be found two equal sides (pro and con). There was also a decent demand for their skills as it seems there were a growing number of legal cases during this time, now thought to be a byproduct (perhaps even an unforeseen consequence) of Athenian democracy.  

However a number of the Sophists charged money for their services. For Socrates, as well as Plato and several others in the Athenian community, this unfortunately tipped the morality scales slightly more in favor of wrong than right because they believed that such services should be free. Yet, there still seems to be a definitie hint of inspiration within the Sophists for Socrates as their willingness to help everyone to stand up and fight for themselves was a large part of what Socrates taught his students.

Revealing the Light

Given all of this, for Socrates to be able to bring the light of philosophy down from the metaphysical heavens and into the stream of thought that ran through the Athehian agora (like a central marketplace) and into the common Athenian citizen’s home, is quite remarkable for his time (or for any time). And to further overcome surface level cultural judgments associated with several binary barriers of perception including being unattractive, impolite, and even unhygienic… well he must have been quite unique, charismatic, and even charming. Perhaps these characteristics were judged differently in ancient Greece as opposed to our current time, or perhaps this is yet another brilliant layer of Plato’s superb character building literacy skills, but either way… it’s admirable and fascinating. 

Plato

Plato (~ 429 – 347 B.C.), an aristocrat of even higher nobility than possibly Pericles, was born in Athens during the thick of the Peloponnesian Wars. He witnessed first hand the instability that is often associated with change via the end of the Peloponnesian Wars in 404 B.C., resulting in Spartan victory and a temporary change in government from Athenian democracy to the brutal oligarchy of Sparta (called the “30”). And then, instability evolved into turbulence as the Athenian democracy retook control in 403 B.C. and with it, the unforeseen consequence of Socrates’ trial and death in 399 B.C. for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens and worshiping false gods.  Prior to all of these changes, Plato’s youth seems to be one of success and achievement through vigorous mental and physical activity as he would do everything from writing poetry, to mathematics, to music, to wrestling and fighting valiantly in several battles for Athens. He was supposedly on the path to become a politician with the Athenian government. He hit all the supposed right notes. Yet, he seems to have given all of this up after meeting Socrates, instead focusing on the pursuit of the “dear delight”, philosophy.

The death of his beloved teacher Socrates in 399 B.C. (see famous painting below, “The Death of Socrates”) would then be a catalyst for Plato to leave his safe haven of Athens and travel all around the Mediterranean as well as to more distant places such as Egypt and India. Perhaps in search of finding some deeper meaning in life and possibly simultaneously increasing the scope of his ideas via eastern thought (Hindu and Egyptian philosophy and religion). Then in 386 B.C he would return to Athens and start one of the greatest universities the world has ever known, The Academy. Transitioning from student and note taker under Socrates to teacher and writer, Plato would go on to teach many talented students, most especially the ultimate genius, philosopher, and scientist of ancient Greece, Aristotle. 

Seeing as Socrates did not write anything, it was left to his students to do his philosophical teachings justice. Plato’s chosen path to do this would be through a novel form of writing called dialogues in which several characters, chiefly Socrates, would partake in conversations and debates about certain topics, such as “What is Justice? (from The Republic), What is Love? (from The Symposium), and What is Power and Freedom? (Gorgias).” This is where Plato began to define virtually all areas of human culture (primarily through Socrates). Finally, after having written a library of monumental dialogues (~35+) as well as having been the founder and presumably lead teacher at The Academy, Plato supposedly is said to have died peacefully in his sleep in 347 B.C., ~ 10 years before the shift of power and leadership to Macedonia was to take place in 336 B.C. via Philip the Great and his son Alexander the Great. 

Bad things – Good People

There are several questions woven within Plato’s works that I believe are as relevant today as they were in Plato’s day. One of these questions is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I think a lot of people are faced with this question when a loved one passes, especially if it’s perceived as unjust or before their time. For Plato, it was Socrates, being tragically put to death by the Athenian democracy as depicted in Plato’s dialogue, “The Apology.” I think out of the death of Socrates, Plato’s pain drove him to write with a purposeful fervor, to keep his spirit alive… forever etched in history. From here it seems that Plato’s skepticism ran deeper and deeper. His passion for proving that the life and ideas of Socrates could rise above that of any supposed expert became a life’s mission. Fucking dope if you ask me. 

The Break Even Point 

This leads us into an examination of one of the central thematic motifs that has occurred throughout history. It is one of several that fascinate me above all and it specifically pertains to the accusation that was presented against Socrates of corrupting the youth. Let us start by trying to understand what these charges mean. Essentially, from the perspective of the accuser, that Socrates was trying to change (even persuade) the minds of the youth regarding their perception of what is good, so that it no longer aligns with the generally accepted status quo of what people deem to be good within their particular culture and their particular time. 

And to deviate from the perceived normal, the status quo of what is deemed to be good within a particular culture at a particular point in time, is for a lot of people, well… bad. But why? Is there a deep psychological fear of change that has been hardwired into us since the dawn of mankind? Do we, as social animals, fear a type of exclusion from the group if our thoughts and ideas are deemed to be not in line with what is accepted as normal? 

Let’s also recall my previous post about Hegel and his idea of the dialectic wherein he believed the Athenians were correct in their assessment of sentencing Socrates to death. Let us analyze this a bit deeper regarding why Hegel, as well as some of the Athenians during Socrates’ time, thought this way.

The Athenians had a current status quo of what they deemed to be, essentially, universally good within their culture. This normal, status quo, was the thesis. Socrates challenged that status quo. He was the antithesis. Out of Socrates’s challenges to the status quo came his death, and with it a synthesis or a reconciliation of what was perceived to be good and bad occurred. These elements then combined, over time, to create a new status quo or generally accepted idea of what is good. Thus becoming the new thesis for the people of Athens. How he did it may depend on one’s perspective. It could be seen that he was trying to open the minds of the youth, and it could also be seen that he was trying to persuade the minds of the youth. But either way, Socrates was advocating for some type of change, and too much perceived change in too short a span of perceived time seems to lend itself to the crossing of some type of invisible threshold, or break even point. 

Essentially, Socrates was slightly ahead of his time. It seems that he crossed an invisible break even point of what was deemed to be good within a particular culture at a particular point in time, in Athens in 399 B.C.. In due time, we will be coming back to this motif. For now, let us consider this as we move forward with Plato and the ideas he presented via his majestic dialogues, through the ultimate interlocutor Socrates. Let us also take special note that Plato did not apparently publish any of his writings until close to 20 years after the death of Socrates.

Harmonious Balance

It seems then, that a lot of Plato’s work is written with a motivation to reconcile. To reconcile his pain and grief over the loss of Socrates. To reconcile his disappointment with Athenian society in that the timing of their understanding of Socrates, of his value and his ideas, was too little, too late. Perhaps even his own definition of what was good, was for a period of time lost, or at least in question. With this in mind, Plato embarks on a journey of his own, to uncover a deeper meaning to the question of what is good through a commitment to finding a harmonious balance in all things. 

Eudaimonia 

So, how exactly do Plato and Socrates define their answer to the question of what is good, related to humans? They would want to begin by asking what the chief aim of humans is. And their answer to this question would be that all humans seek happiness (controversially). Then they would want to further define this by asking another question. What is happiness? They would answer eudaimonia which seems to roughly translate into flourishing or realizing / actualizing your potential as a human. Finally, their question becomes how do humans achieve this end, this happiness. Or, in other words, how does a human flourish? They would say through the use of virtue, a type of excellence or mastery. From here, they would go on to define virtue.

For Socrates and Plato, the highest virtue is knowledge or intelligence which can be achieved through the use of logic and reason. As a result, via the binary opposite, vice then becomes ignorance. In addition to knowledge there are several more key virtues, most especially courage, temperance, and justice. These virtues, along with knowledge are then thought to make a unity of virtue. 

From here, there seems to be some debate regarding what Plato and Socrates exactly meant by a unity of virtues. They could be saying that virtue or excellence in any one area is not possible unless all of the virtues have been mastered, or that once someone is able to master all of the individual virtues they then achieve a total knowledge and, perhaps simultaneously, happiness. To have a discrepancy in this one area may seem insignificant, but it is quite telling from a hermeneutical standpoint in that I think there is more value in our own interpretation of source texts than we give ourselves credit for as even scholarly experts don’t seem to fully agree on particular interpretations of texts at times.  

We should also note that for Socrates, good means something practical, not general. Essentially that something is good for something, like a chair is useful or good to sit on, or a cup is good or useful to drink out of, or that knowledge is good or useful for making decisions. Further, there is an element to flourishing which requires habit or routine or repeated action as depicted within Socrates’ exemplary character. This habit would be a type of constant self-examination which would translate into something good in that you gain useful insights into your values, character, and even your soul. Perhaps most controversially of all, Socrates believed that if you are not trying to achieve a type of mastery or excellence within these virtues, you are doing wrong by yourself, and that you are, in essence at least, harming your own soul. 

Lord of the Ring

The “Lord of the Ring” or “The Ring of Gyges” analogy is one of Plato’s most simple, yet alarmingly effective analogies from his dialogue “The Republic.” In this analogy, the primary question being debated is, “what is justice?”. Essentially, the story goes, a shepherd man is said to have found a ring on a dead body. He decides to take the ring off the body and put it on his finger, and finds out to his delight that when he turns the ring it makes him invisible. He then uses the ring to seduce the queen and kill the king of his country, thus effectively becoming king and also the most powerful man in his country.

This story is presented to Socrates within the dialogue as an argument for power over what is morally good as they relate to our individual drives such as desires, fears, and suffering. Essentially, why wouldn’t one use the power of the ring for their own purposes? If they could overcome their fears of any potential suffering through the power of the ring, even if they had to act immorally, wouldn’t it be worth it as one would not have to suffer any consequences and they would also get what they are ultimately seeking, fulfillment of their desires.  

Given this, if acting immorally is the only way to get what we want, and we believe we can get what we want without having to suffer any consequences, isn’t it better to act unjustly as opposed to justly? Further, don’t those already in power exploit the weak for their own interests anyway? Don’t they create laws and then state that obedience to these laws is in effect, justice? Hence, within the question of what is justice… isn’t it better to seek power (strength) rather than righteousness (good)? 

Bittersweet Symphony

In answer to this dilemma, Plato at first enters into the sweet nectar of a nostalgic daydream… wouldn’t it be nice if we could just leave and return to nature (paying homage to the cynics), to a simple and modest life, playing carefree in the grass, drinking in moderation, living in peace and harmony, where man’s excesses of greed and luxury are non-existent. However, his fantasy quickly turns sour. Unfortunately, people are not simple. They are not content with a simple life. There is always something external that they covet, something new, most likely something that belongs to someone else. This brings about conflict with neighbors. Which then leads to trade, finance, and economic class divisions as well as the potential for war. 

Plato then seems to finally tap into a bit of his anger regarding the Athenian democracy putting Socrates to death ~20 years earlier as he begins to examine each political structure, which he believes arises out of the strife within the economic class divisions. Essentially each political structure, just like man, is susceptible to demise via different types of excess. Aristocracy with power limited to too few leaders, oligarchy with power limited to a need to constantly strive for increased wealth, and democracy with power in the hands of the poor and an equality for all which sounds good on the surface but is lacking because the vast majority of people do not possess the education to ultimately select the wisest rulers, nor the most effective policies, nor the best courses of action for the city-state. 

Seems a bit harsh, especially considering that, at least to a degree, the freedom of thought that Athens enjoyed was indebted to the support of their democratic government (especially under Pericles). But, one can also quite easily empathize with Plato. Putting Socrates to death… possibly one of the worst decisions, one of the biggest blunders of all time by any civilization, yet the way it worked out… no one could have ever known the tremendous force and magnitude of both Socrates and Plato’s impact on all of mankind for the next ~2,500 years. Perhaps this is why Hegel believes it was the correct thing to do, for if it did not happen, perhaps Plato never goes on to write his dialogues… [Bittersweet Symphony].

Only the Best – Utopian Leadership Training

Regardless, Plato moves forward and plunges into his idea of a utopian society, which is to be led by the wisest philosophers through a rigorous system of education and elimination. The essential argument of Plato and Socrates for this system is, if the highest overall good or virtue for the individual is knowledge, achieved through the use of logic and reason, then the leaders or rulers of the Greek city-state institutions should be philosophers. This then also serves to connect their idea of what is good with respect to the individual, to their idea of what is good for the Greek city-state and the human created institutions within it.

In Plato’s utopia, the aim is to find the very best, the very wisest, to lead and care for ancient Greek Athenian society so as to reduce corruption, immoral behavior, and poor decision making within the institutions of Greece. Further, the thought is that through a grand educational process of elimination, a philosopher capable of telling what is morally right or wrong will ultimately be produced. Additionally, every child, boys and girls allowed:), has an equal opportunity to ultimately become one of these select few philosopher leaders, or guardians as they’re called. Although there are many questionable aspects regarding this system to say the least (we will return to these specific questionable items in due time).

The process is extremely interesting and eerily familiar to say the least. It begins in early childhood with a type of universal education and proceeds to move through a series of 3 possible stages to get to the top, to become a guardian of the city-state. The first priority is ensuring the health of the nation, and thus the human body is of chief concern. From early childhood all kids begin with a physical regimen of gymnastics so as to make the body strong and also reduce the possibility of sickness as much as possible throughout their lives. A couple of years later children also begin to learn the soulful harmony and rhythm of music. Intended to tame the wild beast within all humans, bring balance to the mind, and also to harness its holistic healing attributes for the body, in addition to their physical fitness. Let us recall that Athens did suffer through a devastating plague in ~430 B.C.

It is at this juncture, at the age of 20, that the first elimination takes place. Those who fail the test will go on to become essentially the working class of the city-state (businessmen, merchants, farmers, etc.). One very interesting thing to note here is that there are no slaves within Plato’s utopia:) Those who pass the first exam go on to take an additional ten years of well-rounded schooling to enhance the body, mind, and soul. After this period, at the age of 30, another more rigorous exam is given whereby those who fail become the soldiers, executives, and military officers of the city-state. Those who pass, have earned the privilege of receiving an additional five years of education focused specifically on the dear delight of philosophy. Let’s now delve into the subject matter of these additional five years of education.

A “World of Forms”

The stage of utopian educational training for the philosopher, starting at age 35, as well as that of a student within Plato’s Academy, was one rooted within the realm of metaphysics through the use of mathematics, especially geometry. It seems that during Plato’s 12 years of searching for some idea of truth after Socrates death, he may have been fortunate enough to study under the great Pythagoras (of whom we will come back to in great detail in a subsequent post). Through this interaction it is said that Plato developed a shared metaphysical belief in the power of numbers and mathematics. 

For Plato, studying and developing a working knowledge of mathematics then unlocks special access to an understanding of the “World of Forms.” Wherein the world of forms (or ideas) is a divine world that exists separately from the earthly world in which humans reside. And all of the ideas and things that can be found within the earthly human world are essentially a copy of the one, unique ideal version which exists only within the higher world of forms. Hmmm… let us look to another subject matter for a deeper understanding of what is good and, simultaneously, increase our understanding of Plato’s world of forms… the subject of love.  

The Ladder of Love

For Plato, therein lies another hierarchy of harmonious balance. A ladder of love with three primary stages including love of the body (stage 1), of the soul (stage 2), and of truth (stage 3) each aiming toward the ultimate end of true beauty. True beauty lies within the mental rather than the physical and it exists above all else as eternal and absolute, outside of time and space. For example, there is an idea of the form of a perfect triangle, of which represents true beauty, and is the true object of knowledge, the highest virtue and pathway to happiness. Further, we are unable to perceive true beauty through the senses (sight, sound, touch, etc.), it must be perceived through our soul. And through a deep contemplation of harmonious balance within our soul, we are able to ascend the ladder of love. 

Plato also describes the chief end of love as that of creation. Creation of life, of ideas, and of art. With stage one representing physical love whereby the creation of life can occur, but does not adequately represent the mind. Stage two, seems to depict the development of our ideas of love through an understanding within our soul. Then, finally, stage three is the place where the philosopher gets to after their five years of education in the utopian system in metaphysics and mathematics. A place where the philosopher is able to understand the true and absolute beauty of the perfect and eternal world of forms and ideas because they “see” it through a harmonized contemplation with their soul. This is often called, “Platonic Love.”

After these five years of transcendent education in philosophy, at the age of 35, the philosopher is then dropped into the real world to fend for themselves for an additional period of fifteen years. During these years,  they must be able to successfully work alongside the working and military classes and prove themselves worthy, by the age of 50, to have an understanding of the world of forms via a complete turning of the soul, thus having been successfully molded into a philosopher guardian of the city-state via Plato’s utopian system of education.   

This fifteen year period seems to be best described by one of the most memorable analogies in all of philosophical thought. The “Allegory of the Cave.”

Shadows in a Cave

This parable questions what is reality in a fresh, yet old world style. The story is presented by Socrates as a response to the story of the ring of Gyges that we examined earlier. Socrates essentially says, imagine there is a long narrow cave near the ocean. Deep inside this cave are a collection of prisoners that are tied up so that they can’t move their bodies or heads. Essentially, they can only look straight forward and they are positioned so that all they can see is the back of the cave wall. However, in between them and the opening to the cave is a fire. They are able to see the light that the fire projects onto the wall as well as any movement behind them via shadows on the wall. The shadows they see are of people walking by carrying what look like different objects.

For these prisoners, the shadow images projected onto the wall is their reality. They believe that the images on the wall are the true form or idea of whatever object is being carried behind them. Then, one of the prisoners escapes, a philosopher prisoner, and he finally sees the sun. This is what it would be like to see a form or an idea within the world of forms, however you wouldn’t see the sun with your human senses, you would see it through contemplation with your soul. 

We are like these prisoners in that we believe that the shadow images on the cave wall (or those ideas and forms we see on this earthly realm) are the true absolute form of that object. However, we are only seeing shadows of the true idea or form of the image. This represents the unenlightened life that we live. Only the philosopher that escapes (or passes all of the tests within Plato’s utopian training system) is able to see the true reality of what exists beyond the cave wall, the world of forms.

The Myth of the Metals – The Noble Lie

Surprisingly, but then again perhaps not, Plato’s preferred methodology for keeping his utopian system strong and intact, for the steady and constant flow of willing participants within his system, is to employ the power of the supernatural. Essentially he wants to use the gods to ensure, through fear, that people do not turn astray by overindulging in their passions, greed, or ambitions. Yet, outside the confines of his system, Plato freely admits that there may in fact not be any gods for there is no verifiable evidence of their existence. But, with the hopes of securing the best possible utopia, he thinks that it will do us no harm to believe in the gods and that it may even prove to be a significant benefit to our children. This leads us into Plato’s so-called noble lie, the myth of the metals. 

In this myth, Plato wants to prevent any potential uprising or revolution that could cause his system to come crashing down by stating to all participants that whatever class you were selected into is irrevocable, on the grounds that it was God-decreed. He then goes on to attribute the different classes with their corresponding alloy. With gold representing the philosopher king, silver the military class, and brass or iron representing the working class. Further, this is also stated for the purpose of accepting that different family members may be chosen into different classes. A gold parent may have a silver child and a silver parent may have a golden child. Either way, the rulers must not lose their resolve, for if a brass or iron guards the state, it will be destroyed. 

Next Up…

Wow, how do we follow all of this up?! With Aristotle… perhaps the greatest philosopher of all. Let the good times roll:)

Thank you for joining me on this philosophic journey!

Next blog post: Enlightenment – Deducing What is Good – Scientific Awakenings

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