Excerpt from Philosophy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Philosophy Made Simple

by Robert Hellenga

Philosophy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2007, 304 pages

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He fixed himself a cup of coffee and went back upstairs to Helen's study and opened Philosophy Made Simple. "There are two kinds of people," he discovered: Platonists and Aristotelians. It didn't take him long to figure out that he was a Platonist. Him. He. Rudy Harrington. And in a funny way he knew that he'd known it all along, at least since his geometry class in seventh grade. The circles he'd drawn with his little compass had been imperfect shadows of a real circle, a Platonic circle, a circle that existed on another plane of reality. He'd known it all along: that the world of the senses is unstable, always changing, but that there's got to be something beyond it that stays the same, like the perfect forms: triangles and circles and squares, and ideas too, Beauty and Goodness and Love. He'd known it all along, but he'd suppressed it. Because he hadn't wanted to look foolish.

The chapter ended with a long discussion of a famous cave that Plato wrote about in his book The Republic. It was hard to figure out at first. Rudy got a piece of typing paper and tried to sketch the cave with his fountain pen, Helen's old green and black striped Pelikan with an inscription on the black cap: una cosa di bellezza. Rudy was sure it had been a present from Bruno Bruni, but he carried it with him at all times because even though the hand that once held it had long ago been reduced to ashes at the North Shore Crematorium, it seemed to him to contain - like a powerful totem - something of Helen's spirit.

He drew a cross section of a cave. Then he added some stick people facing the opening of the cave. Then he took another sheet of paper and drew another cave and this time he put the stick people facing the back of the cave. Behind the stick people, outside the entrance of the cave, he drew some jagged lines to represent the flames of a fire. Then he drew some more stick people, passing by outside between the entrance of the cave and the fire, which acted as a sort of projector. The stick people outside the entrance carried different objects that cast shadows on the back of the cave. Rudy crosshatched the shadows.

It was a rough sketch, but he thought it captured what Plato had in mind: the stick people in the cave can see only the shadows cast by the figures that pass by outside. These shadows represent the unstable world of appearances. We are the stick people, he thought. This is what we see. But there's another reality behind appearances. Real reality. Sometimes a person - one of the stick people - gets a glimpse of this reality. Maybe he manages to break out of the cave into the bright light of day, and then, just because he's a little disoriented, people think he's crazy. And if he goes back into the cave and tells the other stick people what he saw outside, they think he's crazy. Is that what had happened to Rudy many years ago in his seventh-grade geometry class, standing at the blackboard long after the other students had returned to their seats, trying to prove - with everyone staring at him - that if the bisectors of two angles of a triangle are equal in length, the triangle is isosceles? He could see it was true. It had to be true. It couldn't not be true. It had been true before he drew the triangle on the board, and it would be true after he erased it. It had always been true, and it always would be true. He could see this truth as clearly as he could see Miss Buck, his favorite teacher, sitting at her desk, looking over the top of her steel-rimmed glasses at a set of papers she was marking, making little ticks with her red pencil. He could see it was true, but he couldn't prove it was true, even though he'd memorized every axiom and every theorem in the book. And every corollary too. All he could do was stare at the imperfect triangle, Triangle ABC, that he'd drawn on the board with a piece of chalk.

Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hellenga

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