Beyond the Cave: Four Pathways to the Healing Dimensions of Philosophy

By Larry Bove

The healing dimension of philosophy fosters personal development, expands one’s interpretive framework, and sheds light on ameliorating social and political conflicts. Philosophic activities weave into everyday living, shape who you are, and how you live. Reflective activity forges and reforms the self, its interior structure, interaction with others and the world. 

No claim to universality or completeness attaches to the articulation of these pathways. Over the years, as I went from violence to nonviolence, they emerged inductively. The following narrative highlights key moments. The suggested readings foster assimilating the pathways.

I. Reflecting on Stories Opens Pathways to the Moral Universe and the Healing Dimensions of Philosophy

Stories reveal and conceal. Stories create meaning, transmit values and judgments, shape our responses, make us laugh, cry, and, perhaps, change the world. Some stories tell who we are, others change lives, give cause to reflect, provoke. The following story led me to the moral question of violence.

During my first college semester in Fall 1963, I often rode home on the bus with Uncle Charlie, my Grandmother’s youngest brother. Barely seventeen, I looked up to him. He told me stories of when, at fourteen, short and skinny, the mafiosi would slip him through a port hole of a docked ship, and he would get in and open the doors for them to steal the contents.

Uncle Charlie, it turned out, had a well-paying job on the docks and did nothing. The Organization gave it to him to ostracize and punish him in a way that showed respect. Aunt Emily, I was told, was closely related to a senior mafioso, and Charlie was abusive. Out of respect for my Aunt Emily, they moved him to the docks, instead of something more nefarious. In the movie “On the Waterfront”, Karl Mauldin, the priest, excoriates the workers, as a dead longshoreman rises from the ship’s hole in a Christ-like pose. My uncle Charlie, a movie dock worker-extra, stands at the top, peering down. Ironically, the movie depicts the work of a Jesuit priest who fought the mob’s corruption on the waterfront. Marlon Brando made ‘I could have been a contender.’ an iconic statement of American film. In reality, Brooklyn’s corruption and violence were real and pervasive.

Throughout our bus ride discussions, I realized that our stories involved hitting, hurting, harm, and habits, with little help or healing. Nonviolence was anathema to Charlie, and meant little to me. After all, I played football; went to a Catholic, Jesuit (they practiced corporal punishment), military, high school (to escape the gangs); was in junior and now senior ROTC; and studied ju-jitsu. Defending yourself, your family, neighborhood and country were noble actions. Getting even was common, a way to gain respect. Surprisingly, from ju-jitsu, I learned restraint. One could hit and harm, but one could choose not to, out of strength and control, not weakness. Charlie would make no sense of this. He chose a life of hitting, harm, and hurting. 

Thankfully, my peacemaker mother, jazz, and a class that semester with Dr. Pollack were lifelines to something better.

II. Philosophic Methods Open Pathways to the Personal and Communal Healing Dimensions of Philosophy

I discovered philosophy and a method to living life well in a required first-year humanities course that turned out to be a jewel. Dr. Elizabeth Pollack, a master of the Socratic method, taught a comparison of Plato’s Republic, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and the book of Genesis. She introduced the Allegory of the Cave, the Divided Line, and the question “What is Justice?”, all while demonstrating the efficacy and depth of the Socratic method’s questioning, analysis, logic and dialogue. We never knew what she thought, but she provided emotional, intellectual, and volitional support to all her students.

Dialogue about the Allegory forced one to seek the truth about individual and collective lives and provided a way to evaluate and escape the negative forces that held us in chains. In the cave, encapsulated by culture, we accepted what we were told and taught. Getting up, breaking chains, walking around, and exiting the cave were journeys of growth, health, truth, and humanity. Socrates’ students see, think, question, move beyond the cave, and come back to help others. 

Most people, whether experiencing freedom or bondage, feeling good or being in despair, want a way forward, a reason to feel that life has meaning.  Most want to flourish, have a sense of meaning about themselves and the world. Few ask to suffer or be oppressed, but some are. Abilities clash with limited opportunities, some profit and some lose. Some are disadvantaged and some are privileged.  Some hurt and are hurt. Some help or are helped. Some choose to stay in the Cave and accept their lot, unaware of the shadows and the shadow makers. Some venture out.

Peter Berger affirms: “Society not only controls our movements, but shapes our identity, our thought and our emotions. The structures of society become the structures of our own consciousness. Society does not stop at the surface of our skins. Society penetrates us as much as it envelops us.”(Invitation to Sociology, p121) Societies stratify people and create ecosystems of status, thought and action about who gets opportunity and privilege, and why.

Armed with an interpretive framework and method to reflect, question, analyze, dialogue, and act responsibly, one’s life may change for the better. Martha Nussbaum calls this the medical model of philosophy (Therapy of Desire, Chapter 13). After a long apprenticeship, the final result is a person who experiences healing and works to serve others and the world. I was not there, yet; my apprenticeship had only started.

Challenged to exit the Cave, I broadened my interpretive framework and went towards those who did not fit my cultural point of view.  As I did, the harm/hurt dynamic of Thrasymachus moved closer to Socrates’ position against harming others, a position that defied assumptions of my culture. Healing occurred, as I stopped the willingness to harm. I could hurt or choose not to do so. 

Less harm, less hurt, less hitting means more help, more healing and leads to habits of caring and to actions that cross cultures. The credibility of nonviolence rises and one’s life is altered, as one tries to live nonviolently. T. S. Elliot spoke to the Charlies in my life, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning. (The Dry Salvages, II)” 


III. Reflecting on Relationships, Intersubjectivity and the Other Opens Pathways to the Healing Dimensions of Philosophy

Reflecting, understanding, evaluating and moderating relationships to those familiar and unfamiliar provides ways diagnose and heal relationships. Kierkegaard studied relationships as an existential object. Relationships built on sensation imprison one and form a way of life. The existential failure of sensual relationships leads to an ethical phase of existence, a search for rules to lead a good life. His hero is Abraham, the knight of faith, who goes beyond reason and takes a leap to faith. In contrast, Camus sees life as absurd and asks, after the Second World War, can we, “Be Neither Victims, Nor Executioners” and accept living life on a razor’s edge. Camus’ ‘Neither, nor’ was for me an intermediary step toward nonviolence. And, I was content to settle on it, living and discovering, one foot in, one foot out.

In 1970, as young USAF lieutenant, armed with a B.A. in philosophy from a Catholic Liberal Arts program, I knew realist ethics, the history of philosophy, phenomenology, and existentialism.  I took full responsibility for whatever I did and knew the challenges faced in war. Air Force Chaplains, both in officers’ training and in duty stations were knowledgeable and supportive.  Chaplains challenged and counselled those with questions about moral responsibility. But they were not my mentors.

George Irby, perhaps the wisest person I have met, became my mentor. Though I was from South Brooklyn, and he was from Mississippi; I graduated university, and he graduated the school of hard knocks, we found ways to understand that justice was undermined by meanspirited and well-intentioned people. Under his tutelage, I learned who I was and what I stood for. He saw something in me, and I saw something in him. He laughed when I naively asked, “Who builds three bathrooms?” I had not recognized the physical structures of racism. In the North, I and others lived within the results of the processes and structures of stratification, without knowing it. George opened my eyes and heart. 

I found myself recognizing these contradictions. Phenomenology helped, but righting wrongs is a moral issue. Inside the cave, when you break chains and move around, people get upset. I was ready to push back at them, and I was angry at the injustices. That’s when the last phase of my apprenticeship began.

IV. Reflection and Action on the Interrelated Phenomena of Self, Community and Social Structures Opens Pathways to the Healing Dimensions of Philosophy 

George knew the consequences of anger first-hand. And, he called me on it. Repeatedly. ‘Turning my Cheek’ made no sense to me. Righteous anger seemed enough. He lived through the everyday indignities of Mississippi racism and was for peace, not out of weakness or passivity, but out of strength. He was an enigma. I was a moral warrior and would get angry at what I saw. He would chide me to turn my cheek. George knew anger prevented me from seeing clearly and would fail to overcome the social dimensions of racism. 

George taught me that nonviolent resistance to evil and turning one’s cheek were tools for personal and social change more potent than anger and violence. Like a modern-day Seneca, he knew overcoming fear and quelling anger were essential to clear understanding and humane action. It taught me our lives and relationships and their social and historical realities were interrelated and inseparable. By the time I left Mississippi, an apprenticeship started in Ms. Pollack’s class was over. Changed for the better, my journey continued.

Suggested Readings 

Section I: Laura Duhan Kaplan’s, Family Pictures and The Infinity Inside. Laura is a narrative ethics master and almost anything you read of hers illustrates this pathway. Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom

Section II: Plato’s Republic, Husserl’s The Idea of Phenomenology, Thich Nhat Hanh’s, Breathe! You are Alive

Section III: Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Camus’ Neither Victims, nor Executioners, Buber’s I-Thou, Elizabeth Minnick’s Transforming Knowledge, Martin Luther King, Jr’s, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Section IV: Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist, Seneca’s On Anger, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here?


Laurence F. Bove, Ph.D. is emeritus professor of Philosophy and past-Provost at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. He received his B.A. and Ph. D. in Philosophy from St. John’s University, New York. His presentations and publications examine issues concerning ethics, the philosophy of nonviolence, bio-ethics, social and political philosophy, and peace studies. He has written extensively on the nature and ethics of revenge. He co-edited From the Eye of the Storm: Regional Conflicts and the Philosophy of Peace, Philosophical Perspectives on Power and Domination, and Introduction to Face to Face with the Real World: Contemporary Applications of Levinas, a dedicated volume in Philosophy in the Contemporary World, Vol. 7. Dr. Bove is a past president of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace.