Fixed in one brief moment of time and place on an insignificant planet in a minor galaxy, we unaccountably believe that we are the navel of the universe, the measure of all things, the epitome of creation, and the Alpha and Omega of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Ours is the only true way of being human, of living life, and of viewing the world. We have divined the meaning of life, the purpose of the universe, and the answers to the Eternal Questions.
The problem is that every other culture also believes that it alone has been singled out by Fate or the gods to be the keeper of the innermost secrets on this and the other side of the grave. They believe that the less fortunate peoples of the earth drag out their benighted existence in the Stygian darkness of delusion and error, not having been vouchsafed what has been revealed from on high to their culture alone.
Plato lays out all of this in his Allegory of the Cave, as one solitary individual comes to the shattering realization that everything his culture has taught him -- its absolutes and certainties, its sacred truths and orthodoxies -- is a lie. In our pious conceit we equate the homespun myths of our tribe with the austere truths of the cosmos, whereas they are but illusory shadows that dance on the wall of our cultural cave. So it always has been and ever shall be, world without end.
What are we to make of this curious tale in Book Seven of The Republic? What is Plato saying to us and how is such Greek metaphysics in any way relevant to our Technological Age? Surely, our beliefs are infallible verities, not nursery rhymes that soothe and beguile our loneliest hour. But even if fairy tales, what would it matter as long as they keep us safe and warm from the bitter cold and howling mind outside our cave?
Are we creatures of a day made for truth? Do we need illusion to survive? Can weak human nature deal with what's real? How much truth can flesh and blood bear? Do we secretly wish to be lied to? Do our myths deceive us to make us feel happy? Is this Allegory meant to disillusion or free us? Or is disillusion the first step toward freedom? Plato never answers these questions; he doesn't even pose them directly, but simply sets us to wonder -- the reason his Dialogues have thrilled generations for 24 centuries.
The Republic is a Rorschach with different meanings. It is a masterwork of social engineering, a utopian dream of sweetness and light that marches toward a Brave New World. To our troubled times, however, it is the master blueprint of a police state, with its Allegory of the Cave a totalitarian educational system that brainwashes the young into obedient, apathetic, and mindless drones. They do the bidding of an all-knowing State, which controls what they will know, how they will think, and what kind of work they will do as adults.
However, some "recalcitrant" children refuse this lobotomized instruction that passes for learning and escape to educate themselves. It is an eerie forewarning of what is happening today in America as government methodically closes and destroys public schools, while parents valiantly resist this unconstitutional takeover of one of the last vestiges of our nation's democracy.
There comes a time in our search for answers when we don't need more and more arguments but only more air, more breathing room, a broader perspective to reconsider the answers we already have. We step back to review more calmly what purports to be true. For this we need distance, detachment, and quiet reflection until everything comes into proper perspective.
The question is how can we get outside of our Cave with its frenetic sick hurry to see ourselves with needed detachment, unless we think that our culture with its myths and authorities needs no getting out of, a state of mind which used to be called "ethnocentrism"? I'd like to suggest three different ways to achieve this detachment: travel, philosophy, and reading.
Travel can change us -- if we want to be changed -- by allowing it to enter our comfort zone. Travel is more than "taking in the sights," visiting museums, going to theaters, and leisurely strolling through picturesque old towns and cities. It is spending time in a culture, living among its people, talking and listening to them, and if you're a visiting student, living with foreign students or with one of their families and, most importantly, sharing their life. This is the only way of understanding a culture from within and getting a sense of how its people interpret the world.
This exposure can be an intense experience, and when you're young it's an unforgettable stage in your life. You're more open-minded and tolerant than you'll ever be again, when life begins to close in on you and you suffer from a progressive case of the hardening of the attitudes. Living in a foreign culture, however, you're always observing and listening, speaking and interacting with all kinds of people, as you gather impressions about their manners and customs, attitudes and outlooks, expectations and assumptions. This daily living and looking at the world in the company of a different people can be a profoundly transformative experience that will change you for the rest of your life.
It's only when returning home that you'll realize how much you have changed. You're that person in the Allegory who, having escaped from the cave of your own culture, "can't go home again" because your culture, too, has curiously changed. You see it now through different eyes, almost through the eyes of a stranger. It is no longer the touchstone of normality, but only one way of being "normal," a place where you just happened to be born and grow up.
The spell has been broken because travel has taught you that no norm exists for anything, and that everything is arbitrary and relative, depending on where you happen to be. You see that other cultures are, indeed, different, but that doesn't mean that those cultures are wrong, but just different; that since they are different, they cannot fully be understood by outsiders, let alone judged, and much less condemned. You have learned that there are different ways of being right and being human and that no culture or people, even your own, has a monopoly on either commodity.
Travel has set you free from the ethnocentric delusion that your culture alone is the ultimate standard, and connects you to a larger, more humane and inclusive understanding of the world, in which everyone shares a common humanity. This kind of travel changes a person who travels this way, and has always been among one of the most liberating of the liberal arts. Weite Reise macht weise. Extensive travel makes you wise.
Philosophy lifts us out of the here and now to ask the Big Questions. Does life have any objective meaning, or do you create your own meaning, or is a deeply-lived life all the meaning you need? Are beliefs simply the creations of your own needs and desires? What is the best way to truth: reason, emotions, intuition, authority, revelation, or society, and how can you be sure that you can trust any of them? Does truth change over time, since different ages believe different things, or is truth changeless no matter what an age thinks? Or does truth even matter as long as you're happy? Can you know anything beyond this world? Are you responsible for anyone except yourself and your family? Does government have an obligation to help its poor? Does it have a responsibility toward future generations?
Philosophy considers the various answers to these kinds of questions and critically analyzes each answer's arguments, objections, and rebuttals. It evaluates an answer's assumptions, implications, and consequences, and seeks to understand the historical context within which it arose. It teaches how to think, not what to think by refusing to indoctrinate its inquirers into the tenets of a particular doctrine. Studying philosophy, you realize that you aren't alone in your pursuit of answers, but are part of a millennia-old tradition of searching out the larger issues of life in an attempt to lead a more meaningful existence. It does this - and this is its glory -- by refusing to be cowed by any state, religion, party, orthodoxy, guild, or vested interest.
If you're a high-school student and in love with ideas, you've no doubt already been thinking about some of these questions, so you might want to take a philosophy course should you be going to college. Philosophical training is an indispensable asset not only during your undergraduate years, but also for the rest of your life. The following will give you a sense of what the philosophical life is about: Plato's Apology and Phaedo, Barrows Dunham's Heroes and Heretics, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy, Paul Melchert's The Great Conversation, James Miller's Examined Lives, Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life, and Anthony Kenny's A New History of Western Philosophy (4 vols.)
Reading can be dangerous to our self-esteem by enabling us to discover how little we know, the first step toward wisdom. If you're lucky, you'll become so overwhelmed by your ignorance that dissatisfaction with yourself may change you forever - the beginning of your real education. You begin to read everything that will enlarge your understanding of the world. Shakespeare, the Greeks, the classical tradition, the literary classics of every age of both the Western and Eastern traditions - all this inspiration and wisdom will be yours should you desire to be changed by the healing silence of reading.
No longer will you be limited to your own experience in your corner of the world in your all-too-brief life, but become heir to the riches of the past. Only one thing may stop you: being brought up in a post-literate culture so addicted to distraction that many have lost even their desire to read and be changed. This is the challenge of the Plato's Cave of our culture from which only a few have the will to escape. There is no need for censorship or book-burnings here since nobody reads, except for the few. It is a cave without guards, a jail without bars, and a "culture" without readers.
The 21st century is helplessly marooned on a bank and shoal of the Present with no awareness of yesterday, not because it is lacking in books, but in the desire to read them. Some panoramic introductions to times-gone-by and places-far-away are H. G. Wells' Outline of History, Hendrik Van Loon's Story of Mankind, Ernst Gombrich's Little History of the World, Will and Ariel Durant's 11-volume epic, The Story of Civilization, Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Norman F, Cantor's The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Peter Gay's The Enlightenment (2 vols.), and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
Caveat lector. The books cited in this article are interpretive, deeply-felt works that may engage you as a person, but shake your convictions, since that is what Plato's Cave is about. However, if you want to grow, don't believe one word these books say. An education isn't believing what you read, but having the courage to read all points of view and withholding assent. Critically evaluate what you read and hear, for only then will you be able to judge, accepting or rejecting as you see fit.
It's the questions that educate us, rarely the answers. Read these books for their questions, but think for yourself, for it is when thinking for yourself that you've escaped from the cave and become your own person. Read these books critically, and you'll never be the same person again.