The ancient philosopher Plato blazed one of the western world’s most traveled trails. Some of those who have walked on it and created side-trails of their own are the biblical writers John and Paul, theologians Augustine and Calvin, philosophers Kant and Frege, poets Emerson and Yeats, and the producers of movies such as The Matrix and The Room. Probably the best known spot on the trail is the Allegory of the Cave. I thought it a good spot for Freshmen to visit at the beginning of their liberal arts education. Before taking them there, I would ask how many had already visited it. Usually, none. So I summarize it here in case a reader has not been there—or has only a hazy memory of having visited it long ago.
People are bound to their chairs, facing the wall of a cave. They cannot look behind them, where a fire is burning. Between the fire and the prisoners is a walkway traversed by others carrying a variety of objects. Of these, the prisoners see only the shadows cast upon the wall in front of them. This is their reality. They give names to the various objects and honor those who most cleverly communicate about the shadows.
One prisoner’s chains are broken and he stumbles along an upward path, out of the cave into the organic world. He at first must shield his eyes from the sun, finding it easier to look at reflections in the water than at their source. Eventually, though, he is able to look at this new world, marveling at the beauty which so greatly surpasses that of the cave’s shadows, and even at the sun itself, the ultimate source of beauty, goodness, light.
He returns to the cave to tell others of what he has seen. He stumbles while his eyes adjust form the light to the darkness. The prisoners laugh at this and his attempts to communicate what he has seen.
I would ask my students questions of the kind that I still ask myself:
I often hike on Plato’s trail, but I also leave it. Long ago, on a warm summer day, I was contemplating the pine in front of me, assuming it to be only a shadow of true pineness and yearning for a vision of the beauty behind it. Then, “This is it! This is the height of beauty. This tree. The gleaming needles on the bough. The bough gentled by the breeze. The scent. The imprint of the fallen needles on my palms.”
For a greater vision of pineness, I might better have studied a botany book for the relationship between this pine and others; but for a greater appreciation of the abstract relationships presented in the botany book, I could continue to study this specific tree. In Paradise Lost, Milton suggests that the concrete, material universe may be a realm of beauty and goodness even higher than the realm of light from which it was conceived:
O Earth, how like to Heav'n, if not preferr'd
More justly, Seat worthier of Gods, as built
With second thoughts, reforming what was old!
For what God after better worse would build?
Trails we follow,