In the shadows: Plato’s Cave

The first day I got lost. The University of Windsor was not a huge or complicated campus but negotiating buildings with official names while trying desperately to not actually look like a first year student, and no doubt failing miserably, meant that I scuttled into my classroom in Dillon Hall minutes after everyone else had settled in. Across the room I could see the only other Philosophy major for our graduating year, the rest of the seats filled with kids looking for a breezy elective.

In the first weeks of Classical Philosophy we tackled Plato’s Republic, the heavy existential tomes saved for later in the semester. Philosophy, like most classes in Arts and Social Sciences were shuffled off to the older buildings which lacked amenities like air conditioning, reliable lighting and windows that stayed open without pieces of wood wedged into the frame. September in southwestern Ontario is warm, hot even. The return to school is a cruel joke, considering most students continue to wear semi-beach wear to class.

Our classroom was The Cave. Students facing forward, a scattering of rich kids sat defiantly behind clunky laptops and we listened to Hans V. Hansen cast shadows to tell us the truth. Our desks could never be the ideal desk because they could only exist out there, in the ether and this was only a mild approximation. Not even a good one at that but shhh… It was the truth. The truth is on the wall until the Philosopher King sees the light that makes the shadows and knows, the chains, the desks that hold us there are of no consequence and he (or she – the Philosopher Queen) escapes and seeks a purer truth. The real truth that speaks not of lies.

•••

At 19, the Cave Allegory, with it’s chained inhabitants facing while only the bravest of souls dragged themselves from the darkness, was intoxicating to me. I’ve told the story countless times to my kids, the cave is now a movie theatre and the escapee goes on to great adventures. It’s been a while since we’ve visited the cave but I think it might be time again.

Yesterday, I tweeted to Mary Lu (@HalHum101 – she does amazing work) that the Cave Allegory was a story often told to my kids, to which she replied, “Who do they think is chained in the cave?”. And I stopped. I don’t know. I’ve never dwelt on them and even when I think of the cave, I don’t tend to consider the people who are trapped in the cave of shadows because I love the trek of the Philosopher King, the power in escaping. Because to me, the Cave Allegory is about beating the odds and seeking knowledge – because you know it must be there, waiting to be found.

But, there is that pesky question of The Prisoners, those who are forced to believe that the shadowy life they lead is truth. We know these people. We are them. Even those of us who think we shun it, that forced doctrine of wayward “truth”, in what way are we prisoners of our own ignorance? In what ways do we keep our children faced forward, never peaking for the light?

The obvious answer, for my family and me, is that we are non-religious (my husband and I are atheist and we are raising our  children without dogma). However, there is a huge, glaring BUT with this situation – as part of the western tradition, just about every single cultural tradition, piece of literature, music, philosophy, everything is heavily impacted by The Bible. Thus far, Mr and I have largely stayed away from Bible stories in a bid to simply not deal with dogma but, we have inadvertently chained our children in our own  cave. To understand Western cultural traditions, they will need to know the stories from which they derive – seriously, try and listen to Bob Dylan or read Mordecai Richler and understand them (beyond the surface).

The power believes infuse into The Bible comes from the rhetoric that surrounds the text and that part of it? As parents, it’s up to us to determine the rhetoric and in order to ever call bullshit, the kids will need to know the stories the shadows are telling. It’s like watching a movie with the sound off.

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