Brett Robinson

What do Greek philosophy and Bose headphones have in common? Quite a bit if you have seen the most recent ad for Bose headphones. It shows a crowded car of screen-staring subway riders fixated on their phones. A typical scene for most commuters, but Bose headphones promise a way out of the trance, or so it seems.

A lone female commuter emerges from the dark, screen-saturated tunnel and ascends via escalator into the light of day with only her Bose headphones on. She is awash in sunlight and surrounded by butterflies while she listens to the weather report and schedules meetings with the aid of her digital assistant without having to look down at a screen. The tagline announces “Go screenless. … It’s beautiful up here.”

The ad’s conceit is an awful lot like Plato’s allegory of the cave. In Plato’s “The Republic,” Socrates describes a dark cave where humans are chained to the wall while looking upon shadowy figures that are being projected from behind them. The figures are real people and objects that parade in front of a fire that casts shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners.

The point of the allegory of the cave is to illustrate how limited our human senses can be in grasping reality. It is actually the light of the sun outside the cave (a metaphor for philosophical thought) that helps us see reality in its fullness and not in shadows. The subway riders looking at their phones are the cave’s prisoners. The sole commuter who is able to look up and see the sunlight (rather than the shadows on screen) becomes the enlightened one.

But this is marketing, not philosophy, so there’s obviously more to the story. Bose headphones are hardly tools for enlightened philosophical reflection; they are just another media product competing for our scarce attention.

St. John of the Cross said that there is little room for God in an occupied heart. Amid our many mediated preoccupations, our mental and spiritual interior is a crowded and noisy place, not unlike the clamorous subway car. And yet, despite all of this activity and stimulation, or perhaps because of it, there can be a disconnect with reality: a spiritual blindness and deafness.

Our senses are essential for apprehending and experiencing the reality of grace. Our Lord’s healing of the blind and deaf was a sign that pointed to a higher reality. Physical blindness in the Bible is a metaphor for a spiritual blindness that Jesus heals by making God’s work visible.

When someone loses a leg, they need a prosthetic device to assist with walking. What has been lost or broken inside of us that we need so many prosthetic devices like screens and headphones to help us keep up? What kind of progress renders us blind and deaf to the world around us?

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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.