The Art of Action in The Republic, Netflix's The Bodyguard, and the Gospel of John
This week we’re going to look at the art of action in stories in Plato’s Dialogues, Netflixes The Bodyguard, and the Gospel of John.
I never really understood what the fuss was about Plato, the philosopher. You’d hear everyone say he was one of the best or the best philosopher whoever lived, or you’d hear that quote that all of western philosophy is footnotes to Plato. But when I read him, and I think I understood him, I didn’t get what the big deal was.
That was until one of my professors told me something that made me realize I had been reading Plato all wrong.
You see, Plato wrote dialogues, or that’s what they’re commonly referred to as, but they’re are stories where the characters talk a lot, which is why we call them dialogues. They’re not like how most modern philosophy is done with proposition and syllogisms, Plato wrote stories, that had characters, doing things.
And I always assumed that putting them in the form of stories was just icing on the cake, a really unnecessary shell around the real philosophy.
But then I started listening to Dr. Warren Austin Gage. And Dr. Gage, influenced by the work of Leo Strauss, showed me that the actions in Plato’s Dialogues, the things that the characters do, are just as philosophically important as the words.
For instance, The Republic opens with Socrates going down to the Piraeus, a seaside city. Before, I would have thought that this was inconsequential scene setting. But I realized that this action was an allusion or, more precisely, a foreshadowing of another story later in the Republic, the Allegory of the Cave in Book 10. Socrates tells an allegory where men are chained to the wall in a cave, watching shadows of creatures on the wall, thinking that the shadows are the reality, because that’s all they see. As they are chained to the wall they can’t see that the creatures are real and the shadows are not. This is an image of most people in the world. Most people think that the realities of the world, tables, cars, are the ultimate reality, but for Socrates, they’re not. One man is released to leave the cave and go up to the sunlit earth. There, he sees the reality of the world. He then goes back down into the cave and tells the other men. They don’t believe him and kill him.
Socrates’ action of going down to the Piraeus at the beginning of the The Republic is an allusion to the man going back down into the cave. Plato is communicating by this simple action that the whole book is Socrates coming down to us, the readers, into the cave, bringing the truth of the real sunlit world. And this gives us a choice, will we listen, or kill him. And all this is communicated with one verb, to go down, with one action.
Another great example of the importance and depth of action is in the series The Bodyguard, on Netflix. In the first scene David, an off-duty officer, gets on a train and learns that there is a muslim terrorist onboard who is attempting to bomb it. He finds the man but there is no bomb. He finds instead that his wife, Nadia, has a bomb strapped to her. David tries to calm her and talk her out of blowing up herself and the train.
In an elegantly and ingeniously written sequence the officer who is on duty instructs David to stand down, to move away from Nadia. David, knowing that they will shoot her if he moves away, keeps talking to the her all the while trying to convince the officer take the woman into custody, that is, not kill her. The tension escalates and when David can stall no longer he embraces the muslim woman, guarding her from the sniper who would kill her. He gently rocks back and forth ensuring that the sniper cannot get a good shot.
What is so beautiful about this scene is how the action symbolizes the depth of the redemption. David is contrasted to this woman’s husband. Her husband was willing to sacrifice her while David is willing to sacrifice himself for her.
But there’s more. You see, the action that the writer chooses as the mechanism for saving her life is embrace and gently swaying back and forth, a dance. These are actions that would have been disallowed by this woman’s culture, embracing a man, dancing with him. These are characteristically western actions symbolically in opposition to this woman’s culture. David dances her into a new world, giving her hope, which is the meaning of her name, Nadia.
So what about action in the Bible. In John 20, after Jesus is crucified and put in the tomb and after 2 days Mary comes to the tomb and sees the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing. She runs back to tell the other disciples and then you get some strange detail, strange action. We are told that “Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”
We’re at the climax of the Gospel story and the narrator thinks it’s important to tell us about disciples racing to the tomb and declaring a winner. This is exceedingly strange. And it is one of those details that the narrator intended for us to feel as strange.
And this is because there is one other two man foot race in the Bible where the narrator declares a winner. And our narrator is alluding back to that story. And he’s doing that because contrasting these two stories will tell us something about the meaning of Jesus.
The other story is in 2 Samuel 18. King David has been in conflict with his son, Absalom, for some time. While David is fighting in a different location, there is a bloody battle between David’s soldiers and Absalom and his army, 20,000 men die, including Absalom, but David’s men are victorious. Two men race back to the David, running to tell him what had happened Absalom.
After each of the two men arrive they tell David about the hard-won victory, and each time David ignores that and asks about Absalom.
So what about this story illumines the scene in John 20.
Well both stories involve the a Father and the death of a son, David and Absalom, God the Father and Jesus. And both stories look at the effects and meanings of the death of the son. The narrator in John uses the two man race motif to signal to the reader to compare these stories. So what do we learn?
In 2 Samuel, you have the greatest King of Israel, David, whom the narrator tells us is a man after God’s own heart, a title given to no one else. And result of this greatest king is a son who desperately tries to kill his father, an even worse sin than the first Father and Son, Adam and his son Cain. This is how crooked families can be even in the families of the greatest of men.
In contrast to that relationship, Jesus, God’s son, willingly goes to his death for all people. Notice the contrast, David was unconcerned about the battle, neither the victory nor the 20,000 Israelite lives lost. Jesus died precisely for the people people of Israel and more, the people that the Father gave to him.
John uses this one action to layer the text with meaning.
Learning about the importance of action not only changed how I read Plato but also the Bible and all literature and movies. And like all good teachers, Dr. Gage gave me not just an isolate chunk of knowledge, but a tool to be a better noticer, a more precise observer of the world.