De grot van Plato

Being good

When are you a good person? Inspired by Plato, Hartman and evolution, I described my answer to this question in my book Excelling in Freedom | A Recipe for Personal Development. To become, be or remain good, I have formulated six questions. These six questions are important to develop personally into a good person. Or, that help you stay good. So that you can lead your own life and make a meaningful contribution to the world. These six questions, plus exercises and activities, are addressed one by one in the article series: Being Good. Part two addresses the question Who are these others? Get out of your bubble or cave for answers!

Who are the others?

Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvil, who entered history under his nickname Stalin, is not a good example of someone who developed into a good person.  Nevertheless, I use him in my book as an example to make clear what is at stake in the the question, Who are these others? He was extremely good at empathizing and understanding others. And thus good at answering this?

It was a prerequisite for him to survive. He was terrified of his father. His mother says about this “Josef was a very sensitive child. As soon as he heard his father singing in the street, he immediately came running to ask if he could go next door until his father had fallen asleep.” And, “as soon as he spotted his drunk father, his eyes filled with tears, his lips turned blue and he crawled against me and begged me to hide him.” His father is an alcoholic and extremely violent toward him. One time he smacked him so hard to the ground that his urine showed blood for days. A schoolmate of Josef’s later says of this, “undeserved beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as his father himself”, and his father “treated him like a dog and beat him for nothing.

Human Knowledge

“He could look at someone and see right through them. He knew immediately who
was a spook and who wasn’t.”

Simon Sebag Montefiore (from: “Young Stalin”)

He was trained as a young boy to sense people and assess whether they are right or wrong for him, whether they are friend or enemy. He has developed tremendous people skills. Once, before he gains national power, seven unknown people are invited to a meeting. Before admitting them to the meeting, they are shown to Stalin without the knowledge of the people in question. He orders one person not to be admitted to the meeting. Later this man indeed turns out to be a traitor and to work for the secret police.

Joseph Stalin’s extraordinary childhood and development story is a good example when it comes to empathizing with others. In his youth, the importance of empathizing with others was literally hammered in by his father. And later by many fights in the streets. Understanding others was a required skill. If he had not valued this he would not have survived his youth.

Get out of your cave

Stalin could not afford not to ask the question Who are the others? He would not survive. But for “mere mortals” like you and me, not asking this question means not developing yourself or not developing enough. With the result that you remain in “the cave”. And getting out of “your cave” is not always easy!


Wie zijn die anderen?

Plato’s cave, Empathizing with the perspective of others

“And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows;….” Plato (Book VII from: “The Republic”)

Plato’s cave is the well-known allegory for development. It consists of three main phases. The stage of empathizing with the perspective of others by engaging in conversation with other people and contemplating the world. Then the phase of logically contemplating the facts and seeking truth and knowledge about the world. And finally, the phase of putting the knowledge gained to work for society, the people at the bottom of the cave.

Empathize with others

We are all in our own bubble. We watch the world through the screens of our various devices. But in doing so, we place ourselves in a “cave. Or in other words, we sit in ‘a cave’ and are mainly shown what confirms us in our preferences, own thoughts, principles or beliefs and ideas.

‘Detaching’ from this and being open to another person’s preferences, thoughts, principles or beliefs and ideas creates confusion and disapproval. We’ve all experienced it. You are talking to someone and they have a different view of, or feel differently about, a situation or topic. Your initial reaction is then to reject the other person’s perspective or feeling and dismiss it as nonsense. You assume that you see it right, and that what the other person sees is incorrect and further from reality. Plato compares this to being blinded, confused and feeling miserable and offended. To avoid this, it is good to enter the conversation and really put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Exercises and activities

Come out of your cave or bubble and develop yourself. What can you do to understand others and the world around you? What trait causes you to empathize with another person or situation?  What does it take for you to see, feel and/or understand the other person’s perspective? Below are some activities and exercises:

  • Be curious and ask questions to another person who has a different opinion, for example in a particular situation you are both involved in:
    • What do you think is going on?
    • Who are involved?
    • What are your thoughts on this?
    • What have you done?
    • What do you feel?
    • What question is at stake now?
    • What do you think should happen now?
  • Be quiet and listen.

‘When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.’ Dalai Lama

  • Observe and perceive. By observing what someone is doing or what is happening, you are often able to understand what moves that other person.
  • Keep your opinions to yourself, show interest, and marvel. You can form an opinion later. ‘We are not disturbed by what happens around us, but by our thoughts about it.’ Epictetus
  • Read (auto)biographies. This helps you to empathize with a person. Most insightful are (auto)biographies in which childhood is described accurately and in detail, so you can learn something about personal development and character formation.
  • Read novels and poetry or look at art to empathize with atmosphere, feelings, lives, and situations.

Ingredients for your recipe

Perhaps you have your own exercises or activities that have proven in the past to help you understand others better. I invite you to write these down. All the exercises and activities that help you grow and lead your life are the ingredients for the recipe for personal development.

The reward

The reward for a good examination of the question Who are these others?

  • You are open to others, including those who are very different from yourself.
  • You engage in dialogue and invite the other person to tell his or her story.
  • Pick up your nonverbal cues earlier.
  • You are aware of the effect of your actions on others.
  • You see and recognize individual contributions of different people.
  • See and recognize your individual needs of clients, the people around you.
  • You are able to match your communication to the needs of others
  • You are able to come up with an original idea, an original approach, a creative thought.

As the example of Stalin shows, you can also use this reward for the bad instead of the good. Therefore, there are also six questions that all need attention. The first was Who am I? The next article in this series will explain the question Where do I want to go?

Zoals het voorbeeld van Stalin laat zien kan je deze beloning ook inzetten voor het slechte in plaats van het goede. Daarom zijn er ook zes vragen die allemaal aandacht behoeven. De eerste was Wie ben ik? In het volgende artikel in deze reeks zal de vraag Waar wil ik naartoe? worden toegelicht.

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How good are you at answering the question Who are the others? Take my Quickscan and I’ll get back to you!

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Series on Being Good