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The Cave and the Ocean

The image is perennial:

  • Clan or village groups coming together for storytelling under the stars or around a fire;

  • Patrons in 18th century coffeehouses reading their newspapers or periodicals;

  • Families gathered around the radios, movie screens, or televisions of the last 100 years;

  • Individuals captivated by smart phones in the 21st century.

Plato expressed this image vividly in his Allegory of the Cave (The Republic), comparing the human situation to that of persons imprisoned in a cave since childhood, so chained that they can only watch shadows on the wall before them cast by firelight and created by unseen objects moving behind them. These shadows would constitute reality for them and the prisoners would adjust only with difficulty to leaving the cave and experiencing green grass, blue sky, and sunlight, and be tempted to return to the familiar world of shadows.

At one level, the allegory seems straightforward – it is about representations in the mind, conveyed by stories in words and images, which are as shadows of the things themselves in the objective world. These shadows are imaginations, fantasies, projections about the past and the future, etc. – all elaborate and usually idiosyncratic edits, perspectives, and overlays of “reality,” first by story tellers, newspapers, television, or Facebook, and second by “the person that I think I am,” who is simply another one of them. Similarly, many individuals (often adolescent boys!) prefer the “world” of war games and computer simulations to the complexities of interpersonal nuance and social interaction.

Plato takes the allegory a step further, however, and posits that this “objective” reality of birds, trees, clouds, other people, society, etc., is in fact the realm of shadows and dreams – the true Reality must be sought beyond these passing forms, first in his ideal or causal forms and ultimately in “the Good.”

Most of us stumble at this point, but the world’s great religions and philosophies continually point us in this direction, as in these two examples of many:

  • “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4, King James version)

  • “Nor can penance discover Him, nor ritual reveal, nor eye see, nor tongue speak; only in meditation can mind, grown pure and still, discover formless truth.” (Mundaka Upanishad, in The Ten Principal Upanishads, translated by Shree Purohit Swami and William Butler Yeats)

Even as great an intellect as Isaac Newton, so successful at interpreting the shadows cast by gravity, planetary motion, and the infinitesimal calculus, is said to have remarked a little before his death:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

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