The Scipionic Circle 65 (Formally Mind Macros): Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Three Stages of Passion, and the Fundamental Attribution Error
"When we look at others we see personality traits that explain their behaviour, but when we look at ourselves we see circumstances that explain our behaviour."
You may have noticed the new name of the newsletter, 'The Scipionic Circle.' The name derives from a group of Roman intellectuals who met periodically to discuss a variety of topics. My fascination with Roman and Greek history led me to stumble across the group (in a book, naturally). I hope you like the name and find something of value in today's issue.
Food for Thought
I. Plato's Allegory of the Cave
"Plato would illustrate this theory with his most popular metaphor, the Allegory of the Cave, which is contained in book seven of his work, The Republic. In this allegory, he tells the story of a group of prisoners who have been chained up facing a wall inside a cave. They have been there ever since birth and have no knowledge of the outside world. On the wall that they are facing, shadows of different shapes are cast by people passing in front of a fire behind them with various objects. The prisoners name and classify the shadows, believing that they are seeing the true forms of things. However, when suddenly one of the prisoners is freed, he exits the cave and discovers the real world outside—all the actual forms and qualities of the objects that were previously just displayed as shadows to him. This prisoner, after realizing what he has become aware of, returns to the cave to tell the other prisoners. However, when he does, they think he has gone insane or been brainwashed or corrupted by whatever is outside. They respond not only with resistance but also violence, hostile to his attempt to challenge their beliefs and encourage a new, improved knowledge of the world. There are, of course, multiple ways of interpreting this allegory, but in the context of his theory of Forms, Plato creates the distinction between the shadows and the objects they are cast by to parallel the Forms and the material world we experience—how we are all caved inside our own senses, restricted from and ignorant of the true forms of things. The escaped prisoner, of course, represents the philosopher who, through reason, righteously tries to communicate his discoveries but is resisted or even killed by the public.
"As interesting, innovative, and useful as this allegory is, there is at least one obvious issue with it, which is perhaps mirrored in the problem of Plato’s philosophy and almost all of Western philosophy as a whole. How does the prisoner who was freed know that once outside, he is not merely in another sort of cave? How does he know that the objects in their supposed truer, pure form outside the cave are not merely another sort of crude shadow cast by another purer source he is not yet aware of or perhaps can never be aware of? And if he were to somehow reach or discover a subsequent truer realm, how would he know this one to be true? Does not the increasingly common discovery of ‘obviously’ true things to be untrue increase the odds that what is currently being discovered is also untrue?" — From The Art of Living a Meaningless Existence: Ideas from Philosophy That Change the Way You Think by Robert Pantano.
II. The Three Stages of Passion
"Seneca gives a more detailed account of the Stoic model of emotion in On Anger, which divides the process of experiencing a passion into three 'movements,' or stages:
"FIRST STAGE: Initial impressions automatically impose themselves on your mind, including thoughts and emerging feelings called propatheiai, or 'proto-passions,' by the Stoics. For example, the impression 'The boat is sinking' would quite naturally evoke some initial anxiety.
"SECOND STAGE: The majority of people, like those on the boat, would agree with the original impression, go along with it, and add more value judgments, indulging in catastrophic thinking: 'I might die a terrible death!' They would worry about it and continue to dwell on it long afterward. By contrast, Stoics, like the unnamed philosopher in the story, have learned to take a step back from their initial thoughts and feelings and withhold their assent from them. They might do this by saying to themselves, 'You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent,' or 'It is not things that upset us but our judgments about them.' The boat is sinking, but you might make it ashore; even if you don’t, panicking won’t help. Responding calmly and with courage is more important. That’s what you’d praise other people for doing if faced with the same situation.
"THIRD STAGE: On the other hand, if you have assented to the impression that something is intrinsically bad or catastrophic, then a full-blown 'passion' develops, which can quickly spiral out of control. This actually happened to Seneca during a storm when he grew seasick and panicked so much that he foolishly clambered overboard and tried to wade ashore through the waves and rocks when he would have been much safer remaining on the boat.
“In other words, a certain amount of anxiety is natural. Indeed, the hearts of even the most experienced sailors might leap into their mouths when their ship looks like it’s about to be overturned. Bravery would consist in carrying on regardless and dealing with the situation rationally. The Stoic likewise tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond. So he reminds himself to view the storm with Stoic indifference and to respond with wisdom and courage while accepting his initial nervous reaction as harmless and inevitable. What he does not do, though, is make things worse for himself by continuing to worry.
"For this reason, once the pallor and anxious expression have left his face, the wise man’s anxiety tends to abate naturally, and he regains his composure before long. He reevaluates his initial anxious impressions, confidently asserting that they are both false and unhelpful. On the other hand, the unwise and fearful perpetuate their own distress for much longer. Gellius read about this in the lost Discourse of Epictetus and learned that there is nothing un-Stoic about someone turning pale with anxiety for a while during a perilous situation like the one he’d just survived. It’s natural and inevitable to experience feelings like these, as long as we don’t escalate our distress by going along with the impressions accompanying them and telling ourselves that some awful catastrophe is about to happen.” — From How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson.
III. The Fundamental Attribution Error
“Suppose you come into work and see your colleague kicking his desk. You think, ‘what an angry person he must be’. Your colleague is thinking about how someone bumped him into a wall on the way to work and then shouted at him. Anyone would be angry at that, he thinks. When we look at others we see personality traits that explain their behaviour, but when we look at ourselves we see circumstances that explain our behaviour. People’s stories make internal sense to them, from the inside, but we don’t see people’s histories trailing behind them in the air. We only see them in one situation, and we don’t see what they would be like in a different situation. So the fundamental attribution error is that we explain by permanent, enduring traits what would be better explained by circumstance and context.” — From Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Friedrich Nietzsche on the importance of escapism:
"We have art in order not to die from the truth."
II. Jiddu Krishnamurti on experiencing life:
"You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life."
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Thank you for reading,
P.S. Are you on Instagram? Every day I'm sharing my favorite philosophy and literature quotes, akin to the quotes to ponder section in this email.