Philosophy and Addiction

...if a book doesn't help you become more aware of your own life, something is wrong.

Philosophy and Addiction

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Below, I've written a short set of thoughts which could be of value to those who teach or are interested in philosophy. I've never been the biggest fan of Plato's cave allegory. However, a moving essay where a philosopher thinks through her experience by reflecting on the cave is getting me to reconsider my opinion. Students would be well-served by the essay.

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Philosophy and Addiction

Peg O'Connor, "In the Cave: Philosophy and Addiction"

I have never been the biggest fan of Plato's cave allegory. You know the one: we're all bound in a cave, watching shadow puppets on the wall. We believe this is reality. Eventually someone begins to feel something is wrong. They unbind themselves, leave the cave, see objects in sunlight. If they return to the hole in the ground, they are greeted with "What's wrong with shadow puppets? You're too good for them?"

I mean, to say the allegory of the cave is true grossly understates the matter. It is important, every student should know it. But it fails to stop shitposters and stoners from saying "philosophy is questioning reality. So why can't 1 + 1 = 3?" The allegory can lend credence to asserting everyone else is wrong and in a conspiracy against you. For that reason, I tend to prefer extremely rigorous analysis of Plato's text. Seth Benardete titles a section of Socrates' Second Sailing "Sun, Line, Cave," strongly implying that a close-reading reveals the world with sunlight and the cave with rituals and shadows not to be so different. I am also partial to comments which don't let us immediately claim we're all philosophers striving for the light. I am sympathetic to Leo Strauss' shot that we moderns live in the cave beneath the cave, though I fundamentally disagree with his rhetorical aim.

Professor O'Connor's "In the Cave: Philosophy and Addiction" has me picturing myself teaching the cave so we can read her essay together as a class. She thinks out loud about what reason means in her life. This entails openness about being both a philosopher and an alcoholic, though one who has been sober for decades. Philosophy, in her account, helped acheive that. "Philosophy has always been about the pursuit of knowledge, but one that included the higher aim of living a good and just life." I believe it is a blessing to hear from someone who has thought about their life and their responsibilities, figured out what was good for them and others, and gently built toward their values. What a far cry from thoughtless, incessant acquisition, which often ends up stealing from those it purports to benefit. I feel we sell no less than education as a vague promise of "more."

O'Connor uses each element of the allegory to weigh and consider what she knows from experience and what she knows. Being bound in the cave reminds her of how an alcoholic can be "chained to alcohol." The alcoholic is fixated on a "shadow reality;" others see the problem, but if they speak, they find themselves unheeded. Addicts "engage in faulty yet persuasive alcoholic reasoning, willing to take anything as evidence that they do not have a problem." This is not simply a reading of Plato or a listing of comparable details. Something far more important is at stake. Why do some "wriggle against the chains of addiction?" Because of experiences which bring the reality of death to bear directly on one's mind. The need for new life can be keenly, sharply, desperately felt.

Does this mean relapse is impossible? Of course not. The sun outside the cave can be "painful." And revisiting or encountering reminders of the cave are constant:

People with long-term sobriety are often the ones who need to go back down into the cave, not as saviors, but for their own survival. People with years of sobriety often say that newcomers help them to stay sober because their pain, loss, and confusion are so fresh.

There's an awful tendency to believe that close-reading philosophy yields truths we must worshipfully adopt. I do believe in careful reading, but if a book doesn't help you become more aware of your own life, something is wrong. Peg O'Connor's use of Plato's cave is exemplary. We need to be able to speak about ourselves and how we're dealing with things. As we do that, words which matter appear from various sources. If one wants to discount listening to themselves or others, then 1 + 1 might as well equal 3.