Welcome to the first ever Essential Intellectual References Weekly, in which I explain some basic principles in philosophy, and eventually will delve into fun things like psychology, mathematics and science. That may sound dry, but I promise to first entertain, and slowly but surely you will absorb the delicious knowledge nutrients through brain osmosis. I mean, that's what I do.
This article was conceived to solve two different, but equally annoying, problems. The first is to drag the national intellect kicking and screaming to a new plane of academia. Nothing kills the mojo of a conversation like a pop culture reference nobody gets. That goes doubly so of something academic, mostly because you just made everyone feel stupid and they hate you for it. The other reason is so that my audience can show up other people in conversation by saying cool things like "Based on the Utilitarian Calculus" and "such a Pavlovian reaction"(both things we'll get to in coming weeks). Think of it as the Superfluous Lexicon for concepts instead of words.
Look at all the very different ideas I have all the time!
This week: Two Metaphorical Tales from Ancient Greece
Allegory of the Cave
Let's start with something simple, like questioning your entire perception of reality. And if you think I'm talking Matrix style bullshit, you are dead on. We're talking about the Wachowski bros' great granddaddy, Plato. And he is very disappointed in his offspring.
You may know Plato best as the most famous student of Socrates, and possibly the only reason we know Socrates even existed. Well, he was a pretty formidable thinker in his own right, and he had a much better grasp of how to package information in a way that it would make sense to people. Socrates spent a lot of time telling people to question what they knew of the world around them, but Plato created a complex analogy that would speak to the populace of the time.
Here's how it goes. The Allegory of the Cave begins with Glaucon, Plato's friend, trapped in a cave. Not really a nice thing for one friend to do to another, but the Ancient Greeks were into some pretty weird shit, and this is a far cry from pederasty. So Glaucon is chained to the ground, stuck in a cave, but here's the twist- he doesn't know he's in there.
You see, his head is locked in place, forcing him to constantly stare forward. A flame behind him projects shadows on the wall in front of him, which for all intents and purposes is his reality. A fine analogy for the time, but keep thinking about the Matrix and you'll get where this is going. Because he has never experienced reality as anything but the shadows on the wall (the Matrix), he genuinely believes that's all reality is. Nothing has ever forced him to question that notion.
The allegory continues with him being released into the real world and it totally blows his mind, and then he goes back in and dodges a shadow arrow that could actually kill him in slow motion and… yes, it really is just an uncredited adaptation of a 2000+ year old work. But feel free to read more about it if you are interested. By now, though, you should be well prepared for either of the two situations when it would come up: When talking about the Matrix, and when you're really really really high.
Dude, do you ever think, like, this is all some shadows on a wall?
The Gordian Knot
This is a fun little story, and the two work together, because the main character is Plato's student Artistotle's student, Alexander the Great. And Plato, as we know, was Socrates' student. That's right, the knowledge of the three most important Greek philosophers was passed down to what became one of the most spectacular mass murderers of all time. I can't tell if that's ironic, troubling, or just freakin' awesome. Maybe all three.
This story begins with a giant knot. Similar to the famed 'Biggest Ball of Twine', the Phrygians (a group of Greek people) had a giant ball that people came from miles around to see. It was called the Gordian Knot, and while it was holding an ox cart to a post, the interesting thing was that it was the most difficult knot in the world to untie. It was so thick and complex that the greatest thinkers of the era were incapable of solving it. It may sound droll, but this is what people did before TV. So all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Alexander the Great comes in. He looks at the knot, ponders for a second, draws his sword and slices it in half.
There is a philosophical point to this story, but it's a murky one. Without Aesop's handy morals at the end, it can be difficult. Fortunately, we have Wikipedia for that. Result: "An intractable problem can often be solved by a bold stroke." Overwhelming complexity can be overcome with a single moment of brilliance. The beauty of this story is how often it's proven true. Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which opened thousands of new doors in science, is a great example. Or every episode of Star Trek. Though I'm still waiting for Barack Obama's bill that slices through the Gordian Knot of the economy and repairs relations between Democrats and Republicans. It'll come… he definitely has a look in his eye reminiscent to Alexander the Great, though that may just mean he'll die young after conquering the world and having lots of gay sex.
When you are faced with a situation that you can't seem to figure out, it's comforting to know that the Gordian Knot is out there. Maybe, if you think about the problem differently, it'll be much easier to solve. Though don't let it make you cocky. I have tried multiple simple and direct solutions to solve my money woes, and all that led to was a terrible credit score and occasionally jail. And jail is exactly how you imagine it- the shadow of a giant gang-banger named Gordie holding your head in position and making you hope it's all some kind of allegory.
I've got a complex problem that you can solve with a bold stroke.