Plato and the Groundhog
People are always surprised when I mention my favorite holiday. There’s no party in Times Square. No fireworks or barbeques. It doesn’t come with presents. It’s the sort of day you forget about until someone reminds you, and then you forget about it again. But, for me, it’s my benchmark holiday, my day of reckoning. Groundhog Day is the day I take stock of my life.
This I owe to two of our most cherished cultural artifacts: Plato’s Republic and Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. Both, it seems to me, teach the same essential lesson about happiness.
The main question of Plato’s Republic is whether the happiest life is a life of virtue or a life of immorality. Before Plato gives his answer, he wants you to think about yours, so he tells a story.
One day a mild mannered shepherd is going about his business when he happens across a gold ring. He soon figures out that this ring makes him invisible. Once he realizes he can do whatever he wants without getting caught, he sneaks into the king’s castle, kills the king, sleeps with the king’s wife and takes over the kingdom.
One of my favorite days each semester is when I teach this story and ask my students, “So what would you guys do if I could dole out thirty magic rings?” I pause. “Would you study for next week’s quiz? Would you even stay in school?” “Would you stick with your boyfriend?” From the looks on their faces it’s pretty clear that Plato was on to something. Plato is placing us in an imaginary world with no consequences. This, Plato understands, is a window into what we really want, what we really think would make us happy if we didn’t have to play by the rules. It’s possible that most people are relatively good only because they are afraid of being punished for being bad. Given the freedom, most of us would be very tempted to choose a life of immorality over a life of virtue.
My students are usually a bit shocked by this exercise. And they will be just as shocked weeks later when Plato has convinced them that their initial reactions were wrong. What they really, really want—magic ring or no magic ring—is to be good people. This is where the groundhog comes in.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors has the magic ring, so to speak. Living the same day—February 2nd—over and over, Phil could do whatever he wanted and never pay the price. So he did what most folks would do. He stole. He cheated. He lied. And each day he woke up with a clean slate. He had the ring, sort of, and he did what Plato thought most people would be tempted to do.
But, eventually, he became miserable. What he figures out over time is that once the initial thrill of breaking the rules wears off there’s not much happiness to be found in being a narrowly selfish person. By the end of the movie he’s feeding the homeless, catching kids falling from trees and changing flat tires for little old ladies. He does these things even though he knows that when he wakes up in the morning, nobody will know. In fact, everyone will think he’s the basically selfish, mean-spirited person he was before he ever got to Punxsutawney, PA. But he’s happy.
This was essentially Plato’s point over two thousand years ago. He understood that most people think of happiness in the crassest terms: Doing whatever you want whenever you want and not having to answer to anyone. Many of us spend our lives trying to accumulate the wealth or position necessary to approach this sort of immunity to consequence. But Plato shows us that real, lasting happiness has little to do with consequences. It has to do with character. It has to do with the ability to embody virtues such as wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. The virtuous person, Plato tells us, is “friends with himself.” He likes himself. She trusts and respects herself. If you like and respect yourself, you have a pretty good chance of being happy. If you don’t, you have none.
This is why Groundhog Day, for me, is less about whether winter will last for another six weeks and more about where my life is going. Every once in a while I need to check in and think about who I am and who I want to be, and I need some help. I figure Plato and Bill Murray can’t both be wrong. So, I’m glad it’s Groundhog Day. Again.
Michael Ventimiglia is Associate Professor of philosophy at Sacred Heart University. He has published numerous articles on popular culture and philosophy, including articles on Bruce Springsteen, poker, and The Daily Show. He is currently writing a book on Burning Man.