Flowers for Algernon: Why the Plato quote?

For decades—yes, decades—I’ve had this book on my radar, and after finally reading it, I can see why so many people have recommended it to me over the years. It begins with this epigraph (the quote is a bit long, so I’ve condensed it):

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light… if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.

—Plato’s Republic, Book VII

The passage from the famous cave allegory turns out to be spot on. Particularly the bit about laughing at others.

The novel is about a mentally disabled 32 year old Charlie Gordon, who, along with a lab mouse named Algernon, undergoes an experimental surgery to improve his intelligence. The entire story is told in the form of the diary entries he’s been asked to write to track his progress—a fantastic literary device for this story because it gives us direct access to the drastic changes in Charlie’s intellectual abilities and emotional development throughout the course of the book. And, given the Plato quote, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Charlie’s progress and the prisoner’s ascent out of the cave. That said, I tend to prefer the divided line analogy (in Book VI of the Republic) for reasons I’ve explained in that post.

Here’s a diagram of the divided line so you can follow along:

Here’s a geometric proof of the equality of the two middle segments of the line. And here’s a video with a different explanation of the same thing. If you’re into that.

A: Uncritical acceptance

When we first meet Charlie, we see right away he can barely read and write. We soon find out that the only reason he can do these things at all is because he’s incredibly motivated and has even sought out a class to learn how. Later we (and Charlie) will find out where his extraordinary motivation comes from.

On top of his desire to learn, Charlie exhibits an uncommon optimism and humility, personality traits which make him an especially good candidate for the experiment. When he’s taken into the lab to meet Algernon, the mouse repeatedly beats him in maze races, but instead of getting embarrassed or angry, Charlie says:

I dint feel bad because I watched Algernon and I lernd how to finish the amaze even if it takes me along time. I dint know mice were so smart.

—Flowers for Algernon, p. 9. ‘Progris riport 4, mar 6.

Charlie may not be upset over getting outsmarted by a mouse, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for him nonetheless. When his coworkers at the bakery he works at laugh at him, he laughs along with them and regards them as friends. The worst part is, deep down he seems to know they’re laughing at him, not with him, but he’s so lonely and desperate for friendship that he overlooks their malicious intent. He prefers to see the good in people, even if it takes a great leap of imagination to do so.

B: Naive Realism

It takes a while for the effects of the operation to kick in, at least from Charlie’s point of view, but as readers we see his thought processes as well as his grammar begin to improve almost immediately. As Charlie awakens to the bullying he’s been on the receiving end of for his entire life, you can imagine he gets pretty pissed. But more than that, he becomes suspicious and sees the world as full of lies. Whereas before he overlooked even the most egregious bullying, now he reacts with anger to the slightest miscommunication. He has lost his faith in the goodness of others.

For instance, while undergoing further testing after the procedure, he’s asked to describe Rorschach blots on flashcards, a test he’s encountered before the operation. At that time he thought he was supposed to see certain things in the images—a test, after all, is usually a matter of answering questions correctly—and he found it frustrating that he couldn’t figure out what it was he was supposed to be seeing. He wasn’t able to articulate then why he was having problems with the test, but now he can. When the professor explains to him there are ‘no pictures hidden in the inkblots’, Charlie feels as though the researchers been deceiving him all along:

I was sure they had made fun of me and tricked me when I was too ignorant to know better. My anger was an exciting feeling, and I didn’t give it up easily. I was ready to fight…

—Flowers for Algernon, p. 51. ‘Progress Report 9, April 18.’

When the researchers explain they’re not making fun of him, Charlie can no longer take them at their word. He needs proof. They then offer to bring out recorded tapes of their session from before the operation to show Charlie they were simply repeating the same instructions then as now. Charlie says, “I’ll believe that when I hear it.”

A look passed between them. I felt the blood rush to my face again. They were laughing at me. But then I realized what I had just said, and hearing myself I understood the reason for the look. They weren’t laughing. They knew what was happening to me. I had reached a new level, and anger and suspicion were my first reactions to the world around me.

Algernon, p. 51. ‘Progress Report 9, April 18.’

The anger and suspicion is a result of his dialectical sway between two absolutes. Charlie came into the world believing without even knowing what belief was. His attitude was uncritical acceptance. After the operation, his attitude easily falls into wholesale doubt and suspicion:

Now I understand one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be (my emphasis).

Algernon, p. 63. ‘Progress Report 9, April 27.’

Charlie’s learning may be artificially-induced, and it may be fast-paced and extreme, but it nevertheless parallels the growth that happens through the course of our lives. At this moment, Charlie has reached a teenaged level of maturity. During this period it’s not unusual to swing too far in the opposite direction from what we perceive as an error or lie handed to us in our upbringing, and Charlie, despite being an adult, is going through that phase very quickly. It makes sense that his reactions and emotions would be more acute. Once he realizes he’s been lied to, he’s unable to bracket a particular instance of deception and deal with it on its own terms, but instead generalizes from it inappropriately—his co-worker at the bakery tricks him, now everyone’s out to get him, everything is a lie.

I can relate. It’s similar to my thoughts about religion throughout middle and high school. It actually angered me that so many people could be fooled. Charlie, however, seems to be directing his ‘teenaged’ angst toward the authority figures in his life, which is certainly not unusual.

Charlie’s anger mirrors that of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who enters the discussion like a “wild beast…as if to tear Socrates apart.”


B-C: Beyond Naive Realism

And yet, that quote on pg. 51 points to a dim, emerging self awareness that his learning is tied to his emotional development, that his first impulse to run to the polar opposite of his previous worldview is a normal stage of that development, and that ‘trust nothing’ is a typical knee jerk reaction.

In other words, if the world Charlie used to inhabit is a cave world in which its inhabitants occupy themselves by watching shadows, then the world he lives in now is responsible, in every sense of the word, for that shadowy existence. He may be in the light above the cave, but he still cares about the shadows. And what could be more shadowy and cave-like than a movie theater? In the theater everyone’s sitting in the dark, all facing the same direction, eyes glued to images projected onto a screen. Hardly anyone thinks about the means by which those images are made possible, certainly not while watching the movie. After all, if you’re not willing to suspend disbelief, there’s really no point in going to the movies. But when the movie is so poorly done that you can’t sucked into the story, or when it changes from one genre to another without warning or purpose, or when the characters do something that’s unbelievable, it’s as disconcerting as when a malfunctioning projector causes the images in front of you to rip in two. The more attuned you get to what makes for a good story, the harder you are to please. It’s no coincidence that the following scene—a discussion between Charlie and Alice, the reading teacher with whom he’s recently discovered he’s in love—happens just as they leave the theater and emerge into the “bright dazzling night-lights of Times Square” (p. 69):

The second picture interested me. A psychological film about a man and a woman apparently in love but actually destroying each other…. It [the happy ending] was pat and cheap, and I must have shown my anger because Alice wanted to know what was wrong. “It’s a lie,” I explained, as we walked out into the lobby. “Things just don’t happen that way.”

“Of course not.” She laughed. “It’s a world of make-believe.”

“Oh, no! That’s no answer.” I insisted. “Even in the world of make-believe there have to be rules. The parts have to be consistent and belong together. This kind of picture is a lie. Things are forced to fit because the writer or the director or somebody wanted something in that didn’t belong. And it doesn’t feel right.”…

“You’re beginning to see what’s behind the surface of things. What you say about the parts having to belong together—that was a pretty good insight.”… “Soon you’ll begin to connect things up, and you’ll see how all the different worlds of learning are related. All the levels, Charlie, like steps on a giant ladder (my emphasis). And you’ll climb higher and higher to see more and more of the world around you.”… “Ordinary people,” she said, “can see only a little bit. They can’t change much or go any higher than they are, but you’re a genius. You’ll keep going up and up, and see more and more. And each step will reveal worlds you never even knew existed.”

Algernon, pp. 67-69. ‘Progress Report 11, May 1.’

If you’ve read my post about the divided line, the reference should be pretty clear and you probably won’t need much elaboration. (The ‘steps on a giant ladder’ refer to Plato’s Symposium, as does the title of this blog, Diotima’s Ladder.) Those inhabiting eikasia take the world of make-believe for granted without realizing the illusory nature of their reality. They are the ones who come out of a movie and say, almost invariably, “I liked it.” You know who I’m talking about. If you criticize the movie, they think there’s something wrong with you. Why would you spoil a nice evening with your negative remarks? Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. In any case, they aren’t likely to change. Charlie, however, has already begun the process of change, as is evidenced by his calling the movie a lie.

A lie. That’s an unusual thing to say when you think about it, and he says it twice. It’s a lie, this kind of picture is a lie. He insists that the shadows follow the rules. In other words, a movie that begins by reflecting the complication and ambiguity we encounter in the real world should do so consistently throughout, which means the ending shouldn’t be a simple happy ending borrowed from another type of movie altogether (a ‘feel-good’ movie, I suppose). Everything should be clearly labeled and should stay in its place. If you want to introduce a stipulative definition into a debate, okay, but be straight about it, don’t use it to equivocate. If you want to make a feel-good movie, okay, but don’t mislead viewers by starting out as something else. Otherwise we might think the world really does have pat, happy endings, which is dangerous for those uncritical moviegoers who continue to suspend disbelief long after they’ve exited the theater.

All of which is a metaphor for Charlie’s recent changes. Now, having stepped into the ‘bright, dazzling night-lights’, he sees that pat, happy endings don’t exist. People don’t always have good intentions like he once thought they did. He might have seemed happy believing in those lies, but now he knows he wasn’t. Ignorance is not bliss.

And that’s because ignorance is never complete, as we see from the self-awareness he experiences even while relishing his own anger. As Charlie begins to recall experiences from his previous life—particularly those involving abuse by his mother—he’s able to understand them better, but the emotional content of those memories isn’t changed by his improved understanding. Now he sees that he never felt truly happy when people laughed at him. He laughed with them and continued to think they meant well only because he didn’t know how to deal with the situation. The only way to reconcile the conflict between his naive trust in the goodness of others and his negative experiences of them was to bury the evidence. But now that evidence is resurfacing fast, before he has a chance to learn how to deal with it.

This phase of his life culminates in a personality split: Charlie before the operation, a child-like Charlie, and an intelligent, adult Charlie. This split creates conflict: the child-like Charlie prevents adult Charlie from making physical connection with his teacher, the woman he truly loves.

C-D: Critical Thinking

When Charlie confronts head-on all the dreams, memories, and people from his past, he starts seeing himself more objectively. It’s only by reaching an understanding of his emotions that he gains control over them:

All these months while I’ve been growing up intellectually, I’ve still had the emotional wiring of the childlike Charlie.

p. 169

Here Charlie is recognizing that wisdom and intelligence are not the same. Child-like Charlie had assumed that if he became smarter, everyone would like him. But now Charlie realizes intelligence won’t necessarily make him happy. Plato makes this clear in the Phaedrus with his tripartite soul allegory in which the charioteer represents reason and the two horses represent appetite and what we loosely call spiritedness. Reason must successfully control these two other elements within in the soul in order to flourish.

But around the time Charlie progresses to critical self awareness, he notices Algernon’s behavior becoming erratic; he’s regressing, struggling to complete the mazes. Algernon had the procedure shortly before Charlie did, so Algernon is the canary in the coal mine, if you will. Charlie realizes his newfound intelligence may not last, and no one knows what lies in store for him.

Charlie decides to stop wasting his time with his new shallow girlfriend, who takes him dancing and drinking, and decides to get to work on finding a solution to his, and humanity’s, problem. In the following quotes, I’ll bold the parts that echo Plato’s divided line:

I’ve got to stop this childish worrying about myself—my past and my future. Let me give something of myself to others. I’ve got to use my knowledge and skills to work in the field of increasing human intelligence. Who is better equipped? Who else has lived in both worlds?

p. 169

I’m on the edge of it. I sense it. They all think I’m killing myself at this pace, but what they don’t understand is that I’m living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed…It’s as if all the knowledge I’ve soaked in during the past months has coalesced and lifted me to a peak of light and understanding. This is beauty, love, and truth all rolled into one.

p. 204

As Charlie’s intelligence soars above everyone else’s, he becomes, as Dr. Nemur puts it, “an arrogant, self-centered, antisocial bastard.”

In that moment Charlie is telling off Nemur, “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love…I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown…”

Even as Charlie says this his own intelligence begins to break down. He runs to the bathroom and sees child-Charlie looking back at him. Adult Charlie says to him:

“Who’s to say that my light is better than your darkness? Who’s to say death is better than your darkness? Who am I to say?…But I’m not your friend. I’m your enemy. I’m not going to give up my intelligence without a struggle. I can’t go back down into that cave.”

If you recall, the philosopher must be dragged down into the cave against his will. This strange mirror incident marks the beginning of Charlie’s decline.

D-> C-> B-> A: Wisdom, then down the Cave

The next chapter begins with Charlie proving his hypothesis:

Artificially-induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase.

p 216.

Shortly after, he finds Algernon dead in his cage. Charlie refuses to let the researchers dump him in an incinerator, and instead buries him the backyard and places flowers on his grave. Hence the title of the novel.

The only question now is: How much can I hang on to?

p. 218

This is an important question.

Now Charlie knows his own fate at around the same time that he experiences something strange, something which can only be a vision into the Idea of the Good (you just have to read it yourself.)

Seeing what happened to Algernon lights a fire under Charlie. He realizes his knowledge can only go so far; there’s nothing he can do to stop his own regress and death. He decides to finally visit the one person in his past who caused him so much grief and who, at the same time, made him so eager to learn: his mother. He tries to tell her he has become intelligent, and “you can be proud of me now and tell all the neighbors. You don’t have to hide me in the cellar when company comes.” p. 224 Ironically, his mother now has dementia and can’t understand what’s going on. Which points to the universality of Charlie’s condition—none of us can escape decline and death.

In terms of the cave, Charlie’s visit to his mother represents the philosopher returning, out of duty, into the dark cave. (And if you have a mother like Charlie’s, you’ll see the task as a duty indeed.) This return, however, does end on a positive note when Charlie meets his sister for the first time after many years. Their reconciliation comes with a role reversal, and Charlie tries to offer his sister the comfort she was not capable of giving him.

The torch he carries into the cave is dimming fast. His intelligence declines rapidly from here. He returns to many people and places from his past, but his decline outruns him. He forgets how to read and write. He knows he did something important for science, but he can’t remember what. He doesn’t remember making love to Ms. Kinnian—the climax, if you will, of his life and, in some ways, his greatest achievement of all. But there’s one thing he does remember, which he makes clear in his farewell letter to the world—he asks Ms. Kinnian to put flowers on Algernon’s grave when he’s gone.

24 thoughts on “Flowers for Algernon: Why the Plato quote?

  1. I’ve never read Flowers for Algernon, although I have read multiple summaries of it. This outshines all of them. Well done Tina!

    One of my greatest fears is the mental decline that might come with aging. The idea of falling back into the cave is one I don’t think I could ever be a peace with. I’m torn whether it would be a blessing or a curse to be self aware of it happening.

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    • Kudos to you on getting through it. It was a bit long, as usual. In the end I decided to just hit the publish button so I wouldn’t have to look at it in my draft folder any longer.

      I hear you on fear of mental decline. Given that my mother had dementia (possibly Lewy bodies), I am especially fearful of ending up in that condition. The problem there, I think, is that you are dimly aware of what’s happening. My mother used to say to me, “Tina-ya, I don’t know what’s going on. My memory is SO bad.” Five minutes later she would have no recollection of saying that. On the other hand—comforting thought coming—she didn’t really change much as far as her personality went. She was always the kind of person who’d make the most of whatever came her way, and so later on she managed to keep herself upbeat, even if she always lived in the moment.

      Normal mental decline, the kind that involves “senior moments”, doesn’t seems so bad. I think it can even be good for some people—particularly high-strung types. I hate to say it, but my father was nicest and most patient during the last years of his life. In this situation you’re definitely aware of your mental decline, and I think it can be a positive thing so long as you’re willing to laugh at yourself.

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      • No kudos necessary. You did a good job at keeping it interesting. I enjoyed it.

        Yeah, my father didn’t suffer from dementia, so I’m hopeful it won’t afflict me. But in his last decade, he did seem noticeably less agile mentally, less open to new ideas, more rigid in how he thought about things. Particularly in the last couple of years, I often found myself missing the man he had once been. (Not that his death still wasn’t a severe blow.)

        Similar to yours, he was also more agreeable in those years. We used to argue regularly, but that dropped off a lot during that time. Some of it came from my own maturity, being more discerning in choosing my fights. But a lot came from him just being more laid back.

        But it’s worth noting that his sister, my aunt, who has always been a bit high strung, has actually gotten worse in her senior years. I love her dearly, but often can’t bear to talk with her when a hurricane is coming my way. She always wants me to evacuate, even though I’m 90 miles inland.

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        • Interesting that your father became less open to ideas. I find that to be the case with myself as I grow older, though I hope my awareness of this problem will prevent it from happening, at least to some degree.

          As for your aunt getting worse, I think that must be pretty common too. I wonder if she’s been keeping her fears to herself throughout her life, but now no longer has/cares to use the filter that kept such worries in check.

          On the subject of hurricanes and floods, maybe you can answer a question for me. Whenever I see footage of people standing on rooftops or hanging out of second story windows surrounded by water waiting for someone to come rescue them, I wonder why people don’t get an inflatable raft or kayak in case of emergency. I can understand being caught by surprise, but how surprising is it when you live in a place that gets flooded frequently? I mean, I have a raft and I would certainly have it ready to go in that situation. Without a motor a raft would be difficult, if not impossible, to steer in a gushing current, but at the very least you could secure it to something as an anchor and be above the water. As someone who’s never lived in an area that gets flooded, it’s entirely possible I have no idea what I’m talking about. Is there some reason I’m not thinking of that would make such a thing useless?

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          • On my aunt, it’s hard to say. I think at least part of it is that she and my uncle spend most of their time watching cable news, particularly Fox. That doesn’t seem healthy for anyone, much less for someone anxious by nature.

            I think most people who live where it floods frequently do have equipment and provisions handy. Or evacuate when they’re advised to. (Unfortunately “most” is not “all”.) But typically when people are standing on rooftops, something catastrophic has happened, like the levee collapse in New Orleans. In those scenarios, you have people who’ve lived there for decades and never seen anything like what’s happening. They probably should be more prepared, but human nature being what it is…

            Navigating flood waters, even in a solid bateau, can be a tricky and dangerous business. It’s hard to make out landmarks and know where you are in relation to roads, houses, mailboxes, bushes, fences, small trees, etc, and there’s typically a lot of debris floating around, sometimes including downed power lines. And that’s when the waters are relatively calm. In a gushing current situation, I might be more inclined to wait, particularly if all I had was something inflated.

            Still, it never hurts to have options. Having an inflatable raft is probably worth considering. The trick is remembering where you stored it and ensuring it remains in working condition.

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            • Oi. I think I’d go crazy with the TV on all the time, regardless of what shows I was watching, but the news would be even worse.

              Yeah, a levee collapse is definitely something else. I was thinking more of a slow, creeping flooding than a gush. I’m not sure a raft would help much in that situation. And I hadn’t thought of downed power lines, which would be pretty horrible to have to deal with.

              I actually have a pretty large raft that I use for fun, which is what got me thinking about people who live in areas that get flooded. At the very least a few life jackets seems like a good idea. Hell, I’d grab whatever I had, even a pool float…anything to avoid going into the water. Anyway, I veered us into a random topic there, but thanks for satisfying my curiosity on the issue.

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  2. An excellent post! Worthy of one of the great SF novels. Very cool tie to Plato there; it really fits! And you so well described Charlie’s heart-breaking arc and had me remembering how profoundly affecting the novel is.

    One takeaway for me from the novel is that, while ignorance may not be bliss (although it can approximate it), critical thinking in this world does not typically make for a happy life. That inability to ignore the flaws and just enjoy a dumb film or book, for instance. Seeing clearly often hurts a little.

    Thinking about it now I see an interesting tie to the notion that high intelligence and critical thinking may correlate with an ethical or moral view. Charlie transcends his own “teenage” self in noble sacrifice.

    Now I want to read the book again… 🧓🏼📖

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    • Thanks! And yes, I’m so glad I finally got around to reading the novel. That final line is so perfect, and so heart-wrenching. I love that the novel can be read on different levels; you’ll get something from it even if you know nothing about Plato.

      If you do read it again, let me know if you notice any ties to the cave allegory/divided line. I’m sure I missed quite a lot…

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      • FWIW, the novel was adapted into the fairly good 1968 movie Charly, starring Cliff Robertson (he won Best Actor for his performance). There are some significant differences between the novel and the film, but as I recall, the film does justice to the story. (A bit of trivia: Keyes based the 1966 novel on his 1959 short story by the same name.)

        Looking for the link to the film, the Wiki article reminded me about the (mostly mild) controversy over the story (some felt it exploited mental retardation). Some attempted (in a few cases successfully) to have the book banned from school libraries (which I’ve long thought the mark of a “significant” book).

        Keyes obviously had Plato’s cave in mind as a metaphor for Charlie’s arc. Into the sunlight, then back to the cave. It would be interesting to know how much he explicitly had the Divided Line in mind as well. Based on the quotes and things you noticed, it seems he must have.

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        • I actually did watch the movie after reading the book…never a good idea. The movie pretty much always seems inferior, especially when you watch it right after reading the book.

          From my reading of the novel, I thought Keyes had a pretty solid understanding of Plato, so I imagine he had the whole line and cave in mind. After all, the cave illustrates the same thing, just on a different level—or for a different audience, if you will. To me the cave is less clear, so I tend not to refer to it. But yeah, I think Keyes had both in mind.

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          • Yeah, very few film adaptations do honor to their text. And you’re right, it’s worse when you juxtapose them. I can never decide if it’s best to watch the film before or after, but I usually go with after so I can see exactly what they did. (There are three axes I measure adaptations by: Changes, Deletions, Additions. It’s that last one that often makes an adaptation work, or more usually not work, or me.) I probably haven’t seen Charly since it came out, and I wasn’t much of a film critic back then. I was probably mostly impressed by seeing an SF book I’d read turned into a film. Us SF fans didn’t get many of those back then.

            I’m sure you’re absolutely right about Keyes. The epigraph makes it pretty clear he was channeling our pal Plato. What’s interesting about the cave is the journey out of the cave into the sunlight and then back to the cave. That parallels Charlie’s journey, although, unlike the cave, Charlie is not left in the position of trying to convince others in the cave about his enlightened view. (Except maybe through his writing?) Plato’s Divided line, at least to me (and what do I know), doesn’t seem to imply a journey up and back down, but hopefully of ever upwards to greater understanding.

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            • “Charlie is not left in the position of trying to convince others in the cave about his enlightened view. (Except maybe through his writing?)”

              I didn’t talk about that aspect, but now that you mention it, I think you could make a case that Charlie was in the position of trying to convince the others that his life before the operation had value. Not exactly controversial, but maybe there’s more to it. In the Republic, Socrates lets the religious old man, Cephalus, off the hook and doesn’t push him to explain his view, which is something Socrates rarely does. The implication is that Cephalus has true belief, not knowledge…but true belief is still true. In other words, Cephalus just happens to have gotten it right, he’s naturally inclined to be a good, moral person, yet he can’t explain himself, so we’d better just leave him alone—don’t confuse the old man—and let him get on with attending the religious rites. Attempts to enlighten Cephalus would probably do him more harm than good (he’s old, after all, and doesn’t have a lot of time to get up the line). So if we imagine Charlie had no opportunity to get the operation, we could think of him as being in a position similar to that of Cephalus. Like Cephalus, he just happened to be born a good-natured person and it would probably be best to accept him the way he is rather than try to change him. (Which is not at all what happened to him in the story.) So maybe Charlie’s message coming back into the cave would be that there’s value in being in that humble position. It’s better to be a generally good person at the lowest level (eikasia) than to be stuck in the level above, where you think you know things when you really don’t.

              Haha…thanks for the prodding. I hadn’t thought about this aspect of the story. You’ve brought a whole new element of it to light.

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              • Doing my best Artie Johnson imitation: “Veeeeerrrrryyyyy interesting! … But above my head!” [withdraws back into shelter of plastic plants]

                All seriousness aside, you’ve got me seeing P’s Cave and Line all over the place. I just reviewed Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, which is about a machine intelligence that emerges — and evolves — from the operation and structure of the internet. I could stop thinking about how much Webmind’s evolution paralleled the Line. In consequence, both Webmind, and eventually humanity, start to exit the cave. It’s a cool metaphor that I can see applying to a number of SF stories that deal with emergent and evolving intelligence.

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  3. Sounds like an interesting book. I think if it were mine then I’d have emphasized the false but common perception that intelligence is what matters in life rather than happiness itself. As I see it intelligence is merely a tool which may be used to bring happiness. So from here it’s better to be a happy simpleton than an unhappy genius. This is not to say that I’d be fine with a loss in my own cognitive abilities though. I do fear the prospect of dementia since thinking critically is something that I’ve come to enjoy very much. I hope to be sharp for as long as I can manage into old age, though it’s my happiness that should constitute the ultimate value of existing as me each moment.

    As a youngish bachelor I joined a video dating service. It was just before widespread internet services so you’d go to a library to check out videos of people to potentially date. Once a reasonably cute girl in a wheelchair hit on me over there. Apparently there was a birthing problem where she was left without oxygen for too long and so had some cognitive and other impairment where she’d also need a wheelchair. At the time I didn’t have much going so I agreed to meet her somewhere for diner. Furthermore it became clear that her parents were quite wealthy and that whoever took her on would be well provided for to do so, pending her happiness I suppose. But no, it was hardly even a passing thought. I wouldn’t be satisfied with someone of that cognitive level. Her sympathy card didn’t work on me either since I knew she’d be fine with the right guy. I did bump into her a few years later. I was happily married while she wasn’t however…

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    • One of the things I found interesting about the novel was the recognition that there really isn’t this state of “ignorance is bliss”. The book suggests that with ignorance there’s always at least a dim awareness of one’s own state of ignorance, which makes it impossible to be fully and truly happy. (Though I’m sure some highly intelligent miserable people would go ahead and make the trade anyway.)

      Sounds like your video date turned into a rather awkward situation. I can certainly understand not wanting to be bought off, or even propositioned in such a way.

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      • We humans are very theory of mind centric — always worried about how we’re perceived by others. How we perceive ourselves is certainly important as well. So I agree that it can be difficult to be extra cognitively slow as well as happy, and even if that slowness does help mask the extent of this disturbing perception. But in the end there should be plenty of cognitively impaired people who accept their situation and so do fine, as well as lots of very troubled people with high intellects. In recent years in our society people seem to also have become more accepting of various blameless flaws.

        I shouldn’t actually have said that she was “hitting on me”. It was quite appropriate flirting. I only gave this any consideration all because I knew that things wouldn’t get all that uncomfortable for me. Your post however reminded me of a time when I at least pondered what my life might be like to join up with someone cognitively quite slow. In the end I suspect that she found more of a “Forest Gump”, and even though I’m sure that she wanted much more. And perhaps this desire illustrates the theme you mention. This might be a way to fight back against society and so get what nature failed to provide her with. Perhaps she desired a well spoken husband most of all.

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      • “The book suggests that with ignorance there’s always at least a dim awareness of one’s own state of ignorance, which makes it impossible to be fully and truly happy.”

        I can’t help but wonder, though, if that isn’t an opinion we smart educated people have from our perspective. Perhaps from their perspective the view is rose-colored and different. Cliches do usually have some basis in fact…

        (That said, I agree with Bonhoeffer.)

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        • Good point. Charlie only considers his previous ignorance a pseudo-happy state in retrospect, after the operation. Before, he’s saved time and again by his own inability to remember things, as well as his generally optimistic outlook on life and his generous view of others. At the same time, bad things happen, really bad things, and the book makes it clear he’s been those suppressing those emotions (they come out in his dreams and flashbacks after the operation). He’s not able to just reinterpret these incidents to fit his worldview because they’re just too clearly awful. So, is he happy despite having suppressed traumatic memories? I really don’t know. I guess it depends on how well he suppresses them. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but I’m throwing it out there as a possibility. In real life, with people of ordinary intelligence, traumatic incidents—or even less-than-traumatic incidents—tend to come out in some form or another (neurotic behavior being pretty typical). But, assuming you can’t handle them appropriately, is it impossible to suppress them completely? Would that count as happiness?

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          • Certainly. The caveat, perhaps, is that it’s the very intelligent Keyes envisioning what he thinks Charlie should feel. I contrast that with people I’ve known who, in their ignorance and willful stupidity, were as happy as “a pig in shit” as the old saying goes. And as far as I could tell, genuinely happy with their state of ignorant bliss. To them, education, knowledge, and critical thinking, are a burden, not a joy. (And, indeed, a smaller world is a more manageable world.)

            That said, trauma and being bullied do change the equation, I think. POTUS45 was in many ways a direct response to the almost hateful views that liberals often hold towards conservatives. There was a very strong element of, “okay, fine, we know he’s an ass, but we’ll show you!”

            Ignorance can be bliss so long as people don’t try to make you change or make fun of you for it. (Not that I, of all people, am in any way advocating in favor of ignorance!)

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    • I have to admit, I haven’t read much of Russell since I’m just not interested in analytic philosophy. From what I gather, I don’t have any reason to think he’s going to teach me something I haven’t heard about Plato. Just taking a look at a quote that seems to be circulating the internet from his history of western philosophy:

      “Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.”

      So…he’s going to read Plato as an advocate of totalitarianism? And by doing this he’s supposed come to a better understanding? Can’t say I see how. As you know, you usually you want to be as generous as possible before you even think about being critical, otherwise you risk arguing against a straw man, which is what I think he’s doing (though I’d be curious to hear what he says about Plato’s Laws). To be honest, he really sounds like a typical, literal-minded college freshman. That said, I realize he might not be quite as idiotic as this quote makes him seem, but it saddens me to think people are posting it everywhere in praise of his brilliance.

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      • Yeah, I don’t think he’s being entirely fair. That said, it is part of a larger criticism of what Russell sees as the political application of logical positivism. One of the surprising elements of “History” is that Russell is really adamant that we don’t use “science” or “logic” to determine the best ways forward, or to derive ultimate values.

        I think he sees Plato and the Forms as proto-positivism. I also think he was writing the book during the Nazi blitz, and that he saw Nazism as a type of positivism, and that the feelings were running high.

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