Sabbaticals are one of the perks of the life of a college professor. They allow one time to research and write and reflect in ways one usually cannot with a busy teaching schedule. My current sabbatical, for example, has made it possible for me to explore this new venture of philosophical counseling and blog writing. Covid has made travel out of the question, though, as well as the kind of thing I did during my previous sabbatical – find my way into a community theater production of Man of La Mancha. The world of community theater deserves its own blog reflection, but I want to stick to philosophy for now, and Man of La Mancha actually keeps us there. Inspired by Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote, the musical play focuses not on the hero of the book, but on its author, Cervantes himself. At once we are challenged by the age-old philosophical issue of appearance and reality. Cervantes is a real historical figure, but he also appears as a character in a play. Furthermore, in that play he will become the character — Don Quixote — he has created in the novel. We have layer upon layer of appearance, of illusion, all done as theatre, itself a show of appearance that aims at portraying some portion of reality. But like the imagined tales of Cervantes or the imaginings of Don Quixote, who sees himself as a chivalrous knight tilting at windmills as if they were giants, these appearances oftentimes show us truths that cannot otherwise be said.
So, I was struck by what I took to be very philosophical elements in Man of La Mancha, beginning with its setting in a prison which is reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Republic. In this Allegory, Plato depicts human beings as prisoners in a cave where they have been chained for life, facing a wall upon which they can only see shadows of what passes behind them. So, all they (we) know are illusions until they (we) are able to break free of the chains, make the long, difficult journey toward the light, and finally see things as they really are. But Plato warns that the prisoner who has broken free and returns to tell the others about what he has seen will be regarded as mad and likely harmed or even killed. No doubt Plato has his teacher, Socrates, in mind here but we can find many examples throughout history of messengers of truth who are regarded as mad or harmful and eliminated by those who cannot see beyond their illusions. This link between enlightenment and “divine madness” also finds its way into Plato’s Phaedrus, and it is the major theme of Man of La Mancha, as musical theater becomes a creative vehicle for the expression of philosophy. For Don Quixote dares to see more than simply what appears on the walls of the cave, more than what exists in the prison cell. His vision is such that he sees life not simply as it appears, but as it should be. And for this reason, he appears mad to everyone else.
This is how the character of Dr. Carrasco, a kind of 16th century psychiatrist, sees things. For him, Don Quixote clearly is suffering from a mental malady, and a DSM diagnosis is in order — delusional disorder, perhaps? — and he must be treated for it. But a philosophical counselor — Plato, for example? – might regard Don Quixote very differently. He would know that in a crazy world, the seemingly crazy person is most sane. Don Quixote’s divine madness enables him to invert (subvert?) the insane, broken world he lives in by seeing it not as it is but as it should be. Don Quixote sees through the mundane world to a higher one. He sees the ideal in the real, the beautiful in the ugly, the super-ordinary in the ordinary. Aldonza, for example, is not a two-bit, bedraggled whore; she is Dulcinea, the beautiful, virtuous, ideal woman. Don Quixote sees her as she could be, as she ideally is. Don Quixote is the visionary philosopher who, through creative imagination, is able to elevate our existence by seeing it as a reflection of something higher and better, something it can become. In this, he is reminiscent of Robert Kennedy, who famously said, “Some men see things as they are and ask, ’Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” But for Don Quixote, the dreams of his creative imagination are not of what never was, but of what truly is, if only we had eyes to see.
Isn’t this just wishful thinking, one might ask, the peddling of illusion? Some leftover 1960’s idealistic claptrap? Perhaps. But without such dreaming, such creative imagination, there is no hope. Hope requires imagination of what could be. Without hope there is no moving forward, there is no growth. Yes, sometimes we see the idealized image of something or someone that is ultimately illusory. Such false images keep us stuck and prevent our movement or growth. They inevitably cause us harm when reality confronts us like a brick wall. But the false image distorts reality. It is the rose-colored lens that renders vision less clear. Don Quixote, however, sees with more clarity not less, for he sees the ideal as the true potential of what is real. He sees the reality for what it is.
And that’s why Dr. Carrasco, and all forms of therapy, need a bit more Plato. Therapists and counselors (and teachers and parents and coaches, etc.) need to see clients not only as they present themselves but as they could be. We all need to see ourselves as what we could be, or we are without hope. But this is not dreamy idealism. It is clear-eyed realism. For nothing stays the same. Everything, everyone, changes. Aristotle, Plato’s student, shows how a thing’s true form or essence is embedded in its soul driving it to grow and become what it is meant to be. Each thing has its potential, for each thing is what it will become. A tadpole is a potential frog. A kitten is a potential cat. Aldonza is a potentially self-actualized woman. This is how we help others to change for the better; by first seeing in them what they already potentially are. My former colleague, Caroline Simon, explained in her book, The Disciplined Heart: Love, Destiny and Imagination, that genuine love involves the imaginative ability of “seeing what may not wholly exist, but should” in the those we love. When we see others charitably, through the eyes of love, we see their true selves, the self they are destined to be as self-actualized persons.
Of course, things could always change for the worst. Sometimes things fall short of their potential or they decay. We suffer unnecessarily, though, when we see things, when we see ourselves or our world, as always falling short; when this kind of negativity is our default position. Too often the negative perspectives become self-fulfilling prophecies. Then they become the chains that keep us in Cervantes’s prison or Plato’s cave. But we have a choice in how we see things. We can change our perspective, can turn our minds around, to see that there is a way out of what binds us. This is Don Quixote’s choice. Like the philosopher in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he is a prisoner who knows the way to be free and helps to free his fellow prisoners.
Fearful? Imagine yourself as courageous. Anxious? Imagine yourself calm and serene. Depressed? Imagine yourself happy. In this way, imagination becomes a form of meditation, a kind of creative visualization. Athletes use this all the time. They imagine the golf swing, the high jump, the three-point shot, then they do it. One might also imagine oneself as a person who has the qualities that are within you but have yet to fully emerge. The ancient philosophers did something like this. They might imagine themselves as Socrates, famous for his courage in the face of death, in order to overcome fear. This is an old technique also found in the world’s religions. Buddhist meditation often involves imagining oneself as the Buddha or a Bodhisattva, in full possession of all the virtues that are latent in oneself. Christians might practice the imitatio Christi or imitation of Christ. One might ask “What would Jesus do?” Or one might strive to be Christ to the world. To paraphrase what is already a paraphrase of something Gandhi said, this spiritual practice of imagination is a way of becoming the change you want to see in yourself and in the world.
Don Quixote is not a crazy person. He is a philosopher. He sees things as they could be. And that’s just another way, a more clear-eyed way, of seeing things as they are. He helps us to re-imagine ourselves so that we see may see ourselves differently and become the selves we potentially are. The world needs more Don Quixotes. We each need to find our inner Don Quixote, our inner philosopher, so that we may imagine our world and ourselves as we could be. And then we may become what we imagine.
With Don Quixote we can dream the impossible dream. And then we might find that the dream is not impossible at all. For the dream is simply the reality fulfilled.