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Plato's 'reality' reaches into books about modern events

October 30, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Philosophy, as an academic subject, does not hold the esteem it had in earlier times when education had a more classical complexion. It therefore came as a surprise to find references to the ideas of Plato in two recent publications not related to philosophy.

In "The Family," an investigative study of an obscure style of fundamentalism, there is a reference to the allegory of the three metals used by Plato in the third book of "The Republic." This symbolism applied to Plato's idea of a three-layered society governed according to natural rank. Gold residents ruled, silver residents protected the city-state and bronze residents were the craftsmen and laborers. In order to get cooperation and acceptance of such a scheme, Plato recommended the use of a "noble lie" to educate all in finding their proper place.

Then, in "Fool's Gold," a scholarly study of the financial collapse we are now experiencing, there is a reference to Plato's allegory of the cave found in book seven of "The Republic." The author compares the warped individuals who corrupted the world of finance to the shadow figures on the wall of the cave. "They became like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, who could see shadows of outside reality flickering on the walls, but rarely encountered that reality themselves."

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It is an understatement to say it was a pleasure to meet an old acquaintance in books about modern events. But, when presented in isolation, these ancient stories do not "pack the same wallop." A passing literary brush leaves too much in a vacuum to absorb ancient wisdom.

A deeper look at Plato's imagery shows a useful and timeless insight into a problem that will never go away. This is the task of sorting out the difference between appearance and reality. Not only are the greedy financial manipulators unable to see the larger reality outside the financial cave. We, too, are victimized by our incapacity to discern reality. We, too, only see shadows because we, too, are in the cave.

In Plato's story, the few figures on the floor of the cave represent all humankind. They are fixed to the floor and can only see in a forward direction. The shadows, of course, appear to be "real," but they are only a reflection of models whose shadows are cast onto the wall by the flames of a fire behind them. This condition cannot be altered - they will always be deceived into thinking that their perceptions are reality.

There is another very important (and questionable) conclusion that Plato draws as a consequence of his thinking. Since he distrusts what our senses tell us, he denies that they are a reliable source of knowledge. Instead, he argues that only reason and the product of reason gives us a glimpse of "reality." Accordingly, reason shows us that objects in the outer world are secondary to the "ideas" or forms they represent. Or, put another way, ideas are more real than things. While this concept might seem odd, it is more popular than one might suppose.

No matter what Plato argued, it is highly probable that these very practical money managers were not aware of Plato's famous allegory. Even if they were aware, they might not have taken it seriously as a guide to behavior in the hasty, competitive world of finance. Plato's story reminds us of our limitations and tells us to put brakes on our capacity for pride.

I have not been a fan of Plato's theory of knowledge or his view of "reality." Nonetheless, the imagery he used to teach was superb. While one might not agree with his elitist views about how to rule a city-state or the claim that there is an ideal reality more real than the physical reality studied by science, Plato is a master in the way he prods us into thinking deeply about significant matters. We are enriched by the contact with ancient wisdom. It has endured longer than the pronouncements of self interest offered by Wall Street.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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