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Ancient Thinking for a Green Age


Melissa Lane

The transition to a sustainable society is a profound challenge to ethics and political thought, as well as to humankind. It is comparable to the great transitions of the past, such as the Enlightenment. Yet the distinguished tradition of groundbreaking ideas has not so far been widely invoked in public debates in this area. What can we learn from the history of ethics and political thought to enable us to cope with climate change?
Climate change and sustainability are not just technical problems or problems in applied ethics: they require a new political imagination. Melissa Lane identifies Key messages – on the role of the individual, the household, the nature of citizenship, and the significance of the imagination – which bring the wisdom of the past to bear on the challenges of the present. Using these resources, and building on these insights, she calls for the construction of a ‘new normal’, remaking our imagination of our society and our selves. Drawing on Plato’s Republic as a model while also challenging aspects of Platonic politics, the book sets out the political and psychological challenges that we face in moving beyond the psycho-political settlement of modern commercial society.


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Part III InItiaTIVE Prologue to Chapter 7: Revisiting Plato’s Cave Recall the Platonic image of the Cave introduced at the outset of this book, which we are finally prepared to consider in more depth. This is not merely a generalized image of the human predicament. Rather, as one scholar has demonstrated, Socrates introduces the Cave as an illus- tration of the democratic city and of the ‘education’ (514a) which the city af fords, not just in its schools, but in its public culture.1 The details of this illustration are worth considering. Socrates: ‘Imagine2 an underground chamber like a cave, with a long entrance open to the daylight and as wide as the cave. In this chamber are men who have been prisoners there since they were children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads. Some way of f, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them runs a road, in front of which a curtain-wall has been built, like the screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets.’ Glaucon: ‘I see.’3 Socrates: ‘Imagine4 further that there are men carrying all sorts of gear along behind the curtain-wall, projecting above it and including fig- ures of men and animals made of wood and stone and all sorts of other materials, and that some of these men, as you would...

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