Waking Up: Consumerism and Plato's Republic

Waking Up: Consumerism and Plato's Republic

C. P. Ragland (Saint Louis University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6120-0.ch014
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Three motifs from Plato's Republic are summarized and related to contemporary consumer culture: the allegory of the cave, the three-part model of the soul, and the discussion of wage-earning. Reflection on these motifs supports the anti-consumerist educational program called for by Pope Francis in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si. Studying Plato can encourage people to think of consumerism as a waking dream, and to identify with their rational, altruistic desires. Such identification discourages thoughtless, environmentally destructive consumption.
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In his recent encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis connects the looming environmental crisis of climate change with “today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification” (2015, 162/120).1 “The present world system is certainly unsustainable,” he declares, because “we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity” (61/44), instead reveling in “extreme . . . consumerism” (50/36): “a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish” (22/17). This consumerism springs from what Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm” which “exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object” (106/79), and culminates in “a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value” in non-human life (118/88).

If humans are to avoid catastrophe, Francis suggests, they must develop “a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (2015, 111/84). This new way of thinking “would necessarily have to take into account . . . philosophy and social ethics” (110/83).

This paper aims to contribute in a small way to the educational program Francis calls for. It does so by turning to a very old source of philosophical inspiration: Plato’s Republic. Such an ancient book might seem irrelevant to a modern phenomenon like consumerism. However, ancient Athens

is often credited with becoming not only the world’s first democracy but concurrently the world’s first proper or ‘full-fledged’ ‘money economy.’ . . . Athenians were also amongst the first people in recorded history familiar with a central permanent marketplace, centred on the agora and filled with a range of goods offered by competing retailers/producers, with the experience not only of shopping—in a sense not totally dissimilar to the way it might be understood today—but of shopping around ( Davidson, 2012, p. 24).

This was the economic and political environment in which Socrates and Plato lived. Socrates spent most of his time questioning people in the agora, and his disciple Plato penned a marvelous reflection on the basic human dynamics at work there. The Republic can shed considerable light both on the nature of the consumerist mentality and on the education required to escape it.

Three motifs from the work are particularly relevant: the allegory of the cave, the three-part model of the soul, and the discussion of wage-earning. This paper will first summarize and interpret the cave story, and then relate it to consumerism. From there it will move on to show how Plato’s general theory of motivation and specific analysis of workplace motivations can help people begin to wake up from the consumerist dream.



Probably the most famous image in Plato’s corpus, the allegory of the cave appears in Book 7 of the Republic. The character Socrates uses it to illustrate “the effect of education and . . . the lack of it on our nature” (2004, p. 514a). Socrates asks his interlocutors to

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up that is open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They have been there since childhood, with their necks and legs fettered, so that they are fixed in the same place, able to see only in front of them . . . Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the prisoners and the fire, there is an elevated road stretching . . . along this road a low wall has been built—like the screen in front of people that is provided by puppeteers, and above which they show their puppets. (2004, p. 514a-b5)2

On the other side of this wall from the prisoners are the “puppeteers”: people walking on the road “carrying multifarious artifacts that project above [the wall]—statues of people and other animals” made of various materials (Plato, 2004, p. 514c-515a). With the fire behind them, these puppets or statues cast shadows onto the wall in front of the prisoners. When the puppeteers speak, their voices echo off the wall, so that the shadows themselves seem to be speaking (Plato, 2004, p. 515b7).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Allegory: A story or image that carries a hidden meaning.

Illusion: An appearance that makes things seem different from how they actually are.

Appetitive: Characteristic of or pertaining to appetite.

Intelligible: Able to be understood by the intellect.

Rational: Characteristic of or pertaining to reason.

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