Deep End | What Republic? Plato holds forth on America’s big cave. 

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A while back, a bunch of us were sitting around talking about the election, and, as often happens, someone wondered what so-and-so (some famous figure or another—Thomas Jefferson, Jesus of Nazareth or perhaps Pliny the Younger) would make of what’s going on. This was a lot of fun, but it was strangely unsatisfying. It was all speculation, guesswork and nonsense—just the sort of stuff you see every day on television, as pundits and politicos pontificate on who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead, who’s behind, what Obama needs to do, what McCain should have done, what Biden shouldn’t have said, what Palin will have to do, et cetera, et cetera.

So, when I got home, I got out the phone book and looked up Plato’s number. It occurred to me that he might have something to say about the current American election. He is, after all, the father of Western philosophy and universally acknowledged as the smartest human being whoever lived.

There he was, right between Platner and Platt. No address was listed, which made sense. After all, someone of Plato’s eminence surely wouldn’t want philosophical groupies driving up and down his street trying to catch a glimpse of the famous thinker at work on some tricky syllogism. I punched in the numbers, and the phone was picked up after the third ring.

“Plato residence,” said a female voice at the other end, businesslike, but just slightly wary, as if she were used to getting crank calls at all hours of the day or night. To my surprise, when I asked if I might speak with Mr. Plato, she simply said, “Hold on, I think he’s watching TV.”

She yelled for Plato, then I heard her say, “How the hell do I know who it is. What am I, your secretary?” There followed a fair amount of scraping, rattling, shuffling and vague preparatory noises.

“Plato speaking.” The voice was matter-of-fact, maybe a little weary. I identified myself, but I got the sense that he couldn’t have cared less who was calling, or why. No, he assured me, he hadn’t been asleep, nor was he in the middle of a favorite TV show. I didn’t want to waste time on chitchat, so I launched right in and asked him what he thought of the election.

“Tell you what I think,” he said. “It’s just my opinion, but this election is the worst since the smear campaign against Pericles back in my day. But back then, at least, we didn’t have TV and 24/7 coverage, which just makes everything worse. TV just puts another layer between you and reality, or Reality, as me and my fellow philosophers like to say. You ever hear of my Allegory of the Cave?”

I had some murky memory of the Allegory of the Cave, something I read in Cliff Notes when I was cramming for a Philosophy 101 class in college. Shadows on the wall, or was it silhouettes on the shade? I was racking my brain, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of this eminent personage. Fortunately, Plato interrupted me.

“Anyway, I came up with this metaphor of the cave, about how we human beings are several removes from reality. I said we were like prisoners chained in front of a wall in a cave, watching shadows cast by puppets between us and the fire farther back in the cave. Outside the sun is shining, and that’s the source of reality, but all we get are shadows cast by unreal puppets.

“Well, TV is just a picture of those shadows. What’s worse, all those people on TV are just puppets, and none of them knows anything. Worse than the commentators are the spin doctors, those campaign functionaries who exist only because of TV. We had people like them, of course, because human nature is human nature. They were known as Sophists, and their job was to make the worst case appear as the best case, just like the spin doctors.

“The Republican spin doctors, for instance, are portraying Mrs. Palin, at best an insubstantial political fluke, as Margaret Thatcher, Joan of Arc, and Xena the Warrior Princess all rolled into one.”

Plato paused, and made an indistinct hacking sound. Was he disgusted, or just clearing his throat?

“Sorry to give you a monologue, but it’s an occupational hazard. You want my advice? Don’t watch all those cable shows on politics. Listen, got to run. My favorite show is on. Ever watch What Not to Wear?”

D.P. Sorensen writes satire for City Weekly.

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