04/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Living in Plato's Cave

The ancient philosopher Plato believed that we all live under the distorting influence of illusions. The economic events of our time have arisen out of many of these illusions and, as they continue to unravel the fabric of our lives, are in the process of shattering some of them. But they're also quickly creating new ones to take their place.

Plato had a vivid image for the human condition that applies to our current moment of history in a revelatory way. Imagine all of us as prisoners in a cave, chained down, and facing a wall. We see shadows moving across the wall that we mistake as realities. And so we live out our lives, assuming that the limits of our vision are the limits of the world. The philosopher, according to Plato, is an individual who breaks his chains, leaves the cave, and emerges into the full light of the sun, finally able to see the true realities and greater dimensions of the actual world as it is. He then goes back down into the cave to rescue the others, telling his tale of escape and discovery and urging them all to liberate themselves and join him back up in the bright fresh air of truth. Most don't believe him and stay where they are. Many ridicule him and denounce his claims. Some few are persuaded, and boldly break free to make their ascent into the light along with him.

We're all right now living deep within Plato's cave. And the floor of the New York Stock Exchange may just be the lowest level of the cavern. We fear the many shadows that we see flitting across the wall. But we still sit and stare at them, transfixed, taking them to be the ultimate realities with which we have to deal. We're mesmerized and frozen in place, largely because we prefer the fears we know to the potentially worse threats of the great unknown that may lurk outside our subterranean home. But the darkness of our cave is a realm of illusion, and it's no place we should stay.

The only way out of the cave was well known to Plato, and was highly regarded by his student, Aristotle. It is the path of personal courage. Aristotle understood courage as a primary virtue, or strength, in human life. He saw it as a midway point between the extremes and vices of timidity and temerity - or the overly cautious capitulation to fear, on the one hand, and the irrational disregard of danger, on the other. Courage recognizes challenge, understands risk, and while fully cognizant of danger, moves forward with the insight that the best path to the future demands positive action now.

We've heard a lot of talk recently about the absence of confidence to be found throughout America, and our pressing need for much more. Confidence is an attitude expectant of success and is a universal facilitator of achievement in situations of uncertainty, as many of the great philosophers have understood. We do indeed need more of this quality than we're demonstrating right now across the culture. But the virtue of courage can be even more important in a situation of dark threats and daunting anxieties. Deep within the cave, our first need is to be brave.

A courageous person does what's right rather than what's easy. He does what's needed rather than what's expected. He's willing to take a chance to make a positive difference. He's not rash in his actions, or careless in his commitments. And yet he's not so cautious as to remain trapped in chains of fear. A confident person believes that his actions will succeed. A courageous person may start out only hoping that they will. He does what he thinks he should do, regardless of his degree of confidence. And then, quite often and wonderfully, the actions arising from that courage help to build up and justify the confidence that then works to support him as he goes on.

We need the courage at this moment to free ourselves from our chains - from all those theories and ideologies and shibboleths of thought that, along with our many personal worries, may be keeping us captive - and liberate ourselves from the shadows and illusions that are holding us back. It's time to move out of Plato's Cave and completely board it up. This is one piece of property that should be put into foreclosure, forever.