All philosophy is “footnotes to Plato,” or so said philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. He was exaggerating, but I will say this. All human life (including this year’s elections) plays out Plato’s most famous story, but with two divergent endings.

You have probably heard about Plato’s cave. Even if you haven’t, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you know the story. Plato, quoting Socrates, has us imagine that humanity is locked up inside a cave facing a wall. Creatures behind us hold up objects that cast shadows on the wall.

We’ve been locked up so long we assume those shadows are reality. But they’re not. You break out, as Neo did in The Matrix, and escape the cave. The sunlight outside is blinding at first, but the pain is worth it because you’re free from past illusion.

Here’s where the story gets two endings. To Plato, and Platonists in general, you adjust to the sunlight and finally see things as they really are. No more illusion. As the song says, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup



Now that you’ve found the absolute truth, your mission is to reenter the cave and help others escape, or-since you can’t free everyone-you should become what Plato calls the “philosopher king” who rules everyone.

The other ending is less grandiose. You adjust to the sunlight. You are freed from the old illusions, but you don’t believe you’ve now seen the absolute truth-for all you know the sunlight is an illusion too. You become less confident, more inquiring. You engage in what William James described as philosophy’s “peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly.” You shop for ideas more carefully, always looking for better ones, you never assume you see perfectly the way a Platonist would.

Any human interaction-this election, for example-has rules of engagement designed to yield fair outcomes. It also has temptations to break the rules and gain an advantage. If your opponent is staying within the rules, you should too. If your opponent is breaking them, you’re going to lose if you don’t follow suit. The higher the stakes, the greater the temptation.

If both sides are moral, then the rules won’t be broken by either and the outcome will be fair. But notice the difference between how a Platonist and a non-Platonist define morality.

In scenario one, Platonists discover absolute truth; that means it’s their absolute duty to rescue everyone else from delusion. They reenter the cave to free everyone by any means possible from the evil creatures who have locked them up. Confident that they know the truth and others don’t, it’s their highest moral obligation to impose the truth. If cheating will help get the truth across, then it’s moral to cheat. Fighting dirty becomes a virtue and a moral duty, as does pretending they’re fighting clean when they’re fighting dirty, which is fighting even dirtier.

In contrast, the non-Platonist’s field trip into the sunlight reveals that they can be fooled. Their response is  take greater interest in reasoning carefully, tentatively, and fairly. Historically, when it comes to issues of governance, non-Platonists have been trounced by Platonists, who feel it’s a moral imperative to do anything to win.

The cave story inspired several of Socrates’ students to tyranny. The Thirty Tyrants, led by Plato’s cousin, overthrew the democratic government and killed most of its supporters, confiscating their assets. They imposed dictatorial control over Athens. Socrates was proud of his students’ success, though a little troubled by their interpretation of his teachings. When they tried to get him to help with the killing, Socrates went home to hide-but he didn’t try to get his boys to stop.

Democracies die when leaders too confident to doubt lead people so scared they can’t afford doubt. Platonists, upon exiting the cave of past illusions sing “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now can see.” We non-Platonists suspect “I once was lost but now I’m blind” is a more apt description.