Break free, ban­ish the shadow land

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Opinion - PETER WOODS

Imag­ine a group of people sit­ting in a cave. They are chained to their seats in such a way that all they see is one wall of the cave in front of them. They have been there all their lives.

Be­hind them, out of sight is a para­pet along which people can walk and be­hind that, a blaz­ing bright fire.

Imag­ine now that people walk onto the para­pet hold­ing up shapes and fig­urines that, be­cause of the fire be­hind them, cast shadows onto the wall in front of the chained people.

It is a prim­i­tive form of movie, a shadow lantern show. The shadows are the only re­al­ity the chained people know and they chat to each other and com­ment about the shadows.

It’s an an­cient story from Book VII of Plato’s Repub­lic writ­ten around 380 BCE and sets about try­ing to an­swer the ques­tion, “Why should people act for the good?”

Back to the cave. Plato de­scribes how some of the chained ones break free of their bondage.

Turn­ing to­wards the fire­light that was be­hind them, they are blinded and ex­pe­ri­ence pain. But as they fo­cus their gaze, they no­tice that even brighter than the fire, is the light out­side the cave.

Emerg­ing from the smoky cav­ern of shadows, they climb ever up­wards un­til they see the ra­di­ant beauty of the sun.

Ac­cord­ing to Plato, these ones who through painful per­se­ver­ance and dis­ci­pline climb to the moun­tain sum­mit us­ing tools of in­tel­lect, logic and rea­son, come to see the true light. They are called the philoso­phers ( phi­los = love of sophos = wis­dom) a term coined by Pythago­ras (570-495 BCE).

The mes­sage of Plato’s Repub­lic is that if people who do bad things get power in a so­ci­ety, then that so­ci­ety will be­come an un­happy one.

Plato be­lieved that philoso­phers are best qual­i­fied to do good things and should be given power in a so­ci­ety.

He thought that non­philoso­phers ought to al­low them­selves to be ruled by philoso­phers and hap­pi­ness would fol­low, be­cause the rule of people (democ­racy) of­ten failed be­cause of un­rea­son­able and il­log­i­cal lead­er­ship.

How­ever, in or­der not to be tempted to do bad things, the philoso­pher rulers must not have pos­ses­sions or be able to feel love.

The pur­suit of de­tach­ment (ap­atheia) from ma­te­rial or emo­tional in­volve­ment is the pla­tonic ideal which is why Plato is re­garded as the fa­ther of ide­al­ism. We still speak of pla­tonic re­la­tion­ships.

As the state cap­ture hear­ings and Stein­hoff in­ves­ti­ga­tions con­tinue to peel back lay­ers of cor­rup­tion at the high­est lev­els of our pub­lic and busi­ness lead­er­ship, it seems we are far from Plato’s vi­sion of dis­pas­sion­ate de­tach­ment.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t es­cape the cave of shadows though.

When the flick­ers on Face­book and fake news seem all the re­al­ity there is, sim­ple hu­man in­tel­li­gence and sk­il­ful be­hav­iour may lead us to a light we have for­got­ten.

We’re smarter than our cy­ber-chains sug­gest. All it takes is the dis­pas­sion­ate ex­er­cise of our in­tel­li­gent minds.

● Peter Woods is a pas­toral coun­sel­lor.

If people who do bad things get power in a so­ci­ety, that so­ci­ety will be­come un­happy

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