Happy Birthday, Plato!

I  have a thing for Greek men – not exclusively, of course. One in particular will be nearing his 2,450th birthday: in 14th&15th Century Florence, a banquet was held on November 7th, hosted by Cosimo D’ Medici to commemorate the birth of the philosopher Plato who was born sometime around 424 B.C.

Plato’s works, I think, are some of the most readable of the ancient philosophers: the Dialogues provide a reader-friendly layout of his system of thought, and his use of metaphorical language render some potentially desert dry ideas to flow out and flower into life changing concepts.

Most particular to this blog is his “Simile of the Cave” found to be one of the jewels in his crown of political thought, The Republic. In brief, Plato used the image of a group of men living their whole lives chained in a cave. Their perception of what is real is the result of being able to see only shadows of workers carrying stones – they are projected onto the cave wall by a fire that burns behind a large rock which the chained men cannot see. They believe the shadows to be actual people. One man is freed and led up to the fire behind the rock and eventually up and out of the cave to see the world as it is, enlightened by the sun. Once his eyes adjust to the light he begins to understand the difference between Illusion and Reality. Returning to his comrades in the cave, he stumbles in the darkness and is ridiculed by the others for ruining his eyesight. They refuse to be released in order to follow him.

Plato illustrates the responsibilities and pitfalls of the Philosopher-King who is charged with governing the Republic. The Wise One must bring his subjects into the light of Reason and, as a result, risk rejection and possibly even death. Doubtless, Plato’s mentor,Socrates’ court-mandated suicide/execution played a part in the simile.

So many centuries later we’re still nestled in the Cave. Government leaders across the globe base decisions for the most part on political expediencies and lust for money and power with peoples on all continents content with the darkness of Illusion, oblivious to the reality of the sun, or without hope of being freed from the chains. Reading and studying the Ancients are a necessary step to resolving many of the ills that plague our world. Solutions have been proposed but the will to see them through is lacking. We seem to rest secure with leaders who reinvent the wheel – unfortunately, the wheel is square and useless for getting further down the road to a more humane and just society.