I often start the school year teaching Plato’s Republic to first-year students at the University of Virginia. We then go on to read Homer, the New Testament, and Confucius and Buddha and Shakespeare. But as we move through the class I always have the option and the pleasure of asking a very smart group of students a revealing question: “What would Plato say?”
I thought of this question not long ago when I encountered an inspired riff by the comic Louis C.K. on our current condition.
The riff got a lot of attention when it came out and continues to circulate vigorously on the internet. It goes under the title “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.”
We have everything, Louis says. We have magnificent cell phones that can dial anywhere in the world in a flash; we have computers that function in midair, when we’re in flight. And flying! Are the seats uncomfortable, are the planes often late? Well okay, but think about it for a moment. You’re doing what people have dreamed of for thousands of years. You’re up in the air. You’re borne aloft heading for the destination you choose, anywhere on the planet. You’re flying!
And yet no one is happy, says Louis C.K. Everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Why not? The answer that Louis suggests is that we’re unhappy because we’re a bunch of ungrateful little snips. If we looked around at what we had (at least those of us who are rich enough to own computers and fly on planes), if we counted our techno-blessings, we’d become more equable. We’d become grateful. We might even manage to be—whisper this; don’t say it too loud—something like happy.
Really? Are you sure?
Well, let us ask an authority, maybe the ultimate philosophical authority on the subject of happiness. So: What would Plato say?
It’s a little strange to put the greatest of philosophers in dialogue with Louis C.K., admire Louis as I do. But I take Louis to be honestly looking for an answer to his question. And it’s a question that has occurred to others, too. Many of us seem to have access to products and pleasures that would have thrilled an emperor a couple of hundred years ago. And yet things aren’t quite right for us. Matters are out of joint. If everything is so amazing, why aren’t we happy?
I suspect Plato would say that it’s not so strange that everything is amazing and people don’t seem happy—certain people, Plato might add, in particular. Plato believed that the best of all lives were based upon a quest, and an arduous quest at that. People who sought the Truth were the ones who, to Plato, lived with the most intensity and even joy. They cared nothing, or very little, for the trappings of successful life: They would be inclined to sneer at our gizmos, except as they were means to an end. The end? The discovery of what is actually the case. Contact with the real!
Plato was not interested in discovering the truth for males, for aristocrats, for Athenians, or for Greeks (though many have accused him of doing so). He was devoted to finding a truth that would apply to all people at all times. What is a just state? What is a well-balanced soul? What are the uses of art? How do you educate children? When Plato attempted to answer these questions, he was trying to do so for all time. He might well have failed: Even Plato, confident as he was, understood that. Others might come along in time to do better.
The quest for Truth is an ideal. When men and women engage it, their days are alive with meaning and intensity. They know what they are doing on Earth. They know what they want. They don’t need everything to be amazing. They know that happiness comes from picking out a noble goal, an ideal, and dedicating themselves to it.
Plato understood the lure of the quest for Truth, and he understood another great ideal as well. Though Plato writes to revise Homer, he still has high respect for the values that radiate through Homer’s poems. Homer’s heroes embody a variant of the sort of courage that Plato wants the warrior caste in his ideal state to embody. Plato admires those who quest to be martial heroes, though not as much as he admires aspiring thinkers. Plato understands how the best of warriors fight not for material wealth or for conquest, but to defend their families and their nations and to live up to the code of honor. Homer’s warriors, who fully embody the heroic ideal, are often afraid of nothing. This is surely the case with Achilles, greatest of them all. Plato’s warriors are men (and women, too) who know what to be afraid of and what not to be. And for this knowing they are all the more admirable.
Plato affirms ideals: the philosopher’s ideal and (with modifications of his own) the warrior’s ideal. Without these high standards, Plato suggests, there are many people in a given society who will be frustrated. They will have nowhere to direct their considerable energies. They will look around and they will see that no matter how amazing everything is they are still not happy.
I am not saying that there is no one in our culture who quests for truth and no one who adheres to the warrior ideal. But I think there are fewer such people all the time. Much of what goes on in humanities departments now involves showing how claims to large-scale truth like Plato’s are nothing but deceptions. Truth now is understood to be transient, local, and often contingent upon existing power relations (and so not really truth at all). There are surely people who uphold the warrior ideal. But more and more our military is a professional one. We breed few citizen-soldiers. When early in the term I talk to my students about committing their lives to bravery or to thought, they are often, to say the least, skeptical. Yet many of them tell me that they feel as Louis says people now often do: Everything is amazing and yet they are not happy.
After Homer and Plato, another ideal rises up in the West: the ideal of compassion. The ideal is anything but new when Jesus introduces it into his teachings. It has been part of the thought of Confucius, part of the message of the Buddha, and inscribed in the ancient Hindu texts. There are intimations of it in the Hebrew Bible. But Jesus seems to bring the compassionate ideal to the West, announcing it in the teeth of the Roman occupiers, who surely understand martial glory and may have some appetite for philosophy but at the start, at least, have no comprehension of this new doctrine of compassion. Plato would probably not have understood the allure of a life based in loving-kindness for all, and Homer certainly would not have.
But it comes forth from Jesus and into the Western tradition. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the teacher says time and again. “Who is my neighbor?” a lawyer asks him. And Jesus answers in a way that no one is likely to forget.
A man is beaten and robbed and left on the roadside. Members of his own group pass him by, leaving him to suffer. But a Samaritan comes along and lifts the afflicted man from the side of the road. He binds the man’s wounds and mounts him on his own beast. He takes the sufferer to an inn and pays his bill and says that he will return to visit and also to settle accounts. Then the teacher’s question: “Who truly was a neighbor to the unfortunate man?”
Every man is my neighbor. Every woman is my neighbor. This is the central teaching of Jesus, and though it is not an easy teaching to put into practice, it may confer upon living men and women a sense of wholeness, full being in the present, and even joy. It will almost certainly provide what the world of fast travel and fine food and electronic gizmos will not: It will provide meaning.
How common are lives now that are devoted to compassion? I am sure there are more than a few: those who work with and live for the poor, and certain lay brothers and nuns who may well attempt to live out the teachings of Jesus and Lord Buddha. But for the most part, we seek comfort and ease and enjoyment. It is natural that we do so. It is expected. When I talk to my students about living for compassion, they tend to be quite interested. But few of them have ever contemplated this sort of life before. Like the life of courage and the life of thought, the life of compassion seems to be receding in our culture. People don’t talk much about ideals any more. We don’t usually offer them as viable options to the young.
Surely ideals are not for everyone. Some people will hear Louis C.K.’s riff and they will say: Yes, I should be more grateful for the amazing gadgets and conveniences that surround me. And I will be. They will be duly chastened by Louis, give thanks, and go off to enjoy their lives.
But other people will find that no matter how amazing the technologies of pleasure and power may be, life still feels empty. These people will feel that life ought to be more than sleeping and eating and hoarding, getting and spending and having a good time. In our current culture those people may feel confused. Where are they to go for an alternative?
There is Plato behind them but still out ahead of them; there is Homer; there are Jesus and Confucius and Lord Buddha. And perhaps they will turn to them and see a new world of possibility open up.