Finding Our Humanity on the Yellow Brick Road, a Platonic Parable

Who would have thought there would be a parallel between Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” and the philosopher Plato’s teaching on the human soul. In the Oz story, Dorothy leads the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, to find what they most desperately desire. These characters all closely resemble what Plato considered to be the tripartite (three parts) of the human soul. Let me explain what I mean and why reflection on this might help you better think about your own humanity.

In Oz, the Scarecrow wants a brain. The Tin Woodman wants a heart. And the poor Lion wants courage. Plato saw the soul as made up of three parts: the head, the chest, and the belly. The Scarecrow is an obvious correlation to the head. You might immediately assume the Tin Man would be the best candidate for the chest. But actually, the Lion is the one who best represents what Plato believed about the affections.

Plato saw the chest as the chief way that the head rules over the belly. The belly represents the desires. The head, or reason, uses the affections, the sentiments, to keep our base instincts and desires from ruling. As C.S. Lewis said in his essay The Abolition of Man, “The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man (the head) and visceral man (the belly). It may even be said that it is by this middle element (the chest) that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere sprit and by his appetite mere animal.”

Seen from this perspective, the three characters in Oz represent one person in search for identity. It is a quest to find out what it means to be human. And what do they discover? They find a fraud. The Wizard of Oz cannot bestow upon them anything they don’t already have.

This example, as some will likely see as a rather stretched example, is much like our own world. It illustrates a basic question we all face. What does it mean to be human?

We can try to feel more alive by merely feeding our intellect. We can seek satisfaction in fulfilling our desires. But we don’t have to look far to discover really smart people, as well as those who are able to gratify about all the desires of the flesh, who are very unhappy.

So, what makes it work? We’ve put all our hopes in the best guru in the land only to discover he’s a hoax. He doesn’t have the answers. The truth is, no one in our land can give us anything we don’t already have in terms of our humanity. The problem is that at the core of our humanity we feel dead. We need new life.

This is what Christians believe about the gospel. It is the good news that what is wrong in us, what seems dead in us, can be made right. Through Jesus it can made alive. Through the gospel our humanity can be restored.

And it is through a cultivation of these affections, the chest, that we can properly order our mental and physical life. This is how, as Lewis tells us, we learn to “like and dislike what we ought” so that we might be “trained in ‘ordinate affections’ and just sentiments.'” It is by allowing our imagination to be captured by this vision of life, that we might learn to live in Oz.

Oz is a tough place. There are lions and tigers and bears. Oh my! There are frauds too—keep your eye on that wizard. And don’t forget about the Witch. Always keep a bucket of water nearby. And while I think about it, the Lolly Pop Gang is supposed to be good guys, but they really creep me out. Avoid them if you can.

The truth is, we can wear ourselves out treading the Yellow Brick Road. Our only hope is if someone comes and offers us a better way. For the Christian, we look not to somewhere beyond the rainbow, but to a hill far, far away, to an old rugged cross. It’s there that we find the key to unlocking our humanity.