Socrates: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Glaucon: That is certain.
There is a wonderful tale written by Plato called “The Allegory of the Cave”. To summarize the story, a man makes a discovery and wishes to tell everyone he knows. But his description goes against the beliefs of those around him and he feels his knowledge separates him from them. Eventually, he realizes that the only way for them to understand him is for them to find the truth themselves.
The crux of the story is that our characters in need of truth have always been prisoners in a cave where they have had very little light. In order to find the truth, they must exit the cave. Shady descriptions of the outside world will not do. But with a bright sun, this will be quite painful …so they wait until night. The dimmest of light, the stars, then becomes the first thing they gain knowledge to. As their eyes acclimate to their new environment, many things — things whose existence had been mere suggestion — become very real to them. After a time their eyes can handle brighter lights and they can see many more things. And finally, after much patience and some discomfort, they can view their world in full sunlight.
The rest of the story is rather convoluted and a bit of a strain to swallow, but what Plato was trying to do was set up an allegory for how discovery works.
It’s been 20 years since I first read The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s The Republic. I read it while in Governor’s School, where we then had a lively discussion about whether it was possible to fully explain a new discovery to someone without any direct proof. Could they be persuaded that you weren’t misleading them? Could they believe in something that went against their everyday perception if you drew out your argument logically and without flaw, though you had not a shred of tangible evidence to support you? In the end, the man who left the cave and made a discovery viewed the others as being ignorant, but conversely (and here’s the real kicker!) the ones left behind who did not see the truth viewed the one with knowledge as being ridiculous.
I spoke with a preacher friend of mine this past week, who also happens to be a science teacher. While debating the efficacy of hands-on versus verbal strategies, he said something quite profound. He said, “Our perceptions become our reality.”
That’s really deep. I’ve been thinking about all the topics it could be applied to — science, politics, religion, those crazy Tea Party-ers, and of course our self-perceptions. It’s something so universally true. Wish I had thought it up. (I realize he surely didn’t think it up first; but like when Einstein published E = mc² and said that it’s simplicity revealed it’s truth, it’s one of those things that just sounds profoundly awesome because of it’s simplicity.)
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