"And now I say, consider this: If the person who had left the cave were to go back down again and sit in the same place as before, would he not find now, as he descends from the sunlight, that his eyes are filled with darkness?" — Socrates, in Plato's Republic
"HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME" — T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Immediately after Donald Trump was "elected" last November, I started doing some emergency reading. The first book I picked up was Martin Luther King's autobiography. It was a book I'd already been meaning to read, and I knew MLK's example of peaceful, stubborn, courageous protest was about to become intensely relevant again in the United States of America.
Later, more recently, I returned to a book I'd read a few times before: Plato's Republic. This is the book that culminates in Socrates's vision of an underground cave, filled with shackled prisoners. Sunlight trickles in through an opening somewhere, but the prisoners can't turn their heads to see the light. They can only see the shadows cast by objects that pass in front of the light.
This is a model of the soul, of course — but it is the human story Socrates paints that gives Plato's masterpiece its dramatic dimension. One prisoner manages to escape his shackles and climb out to see the bright sunlight itself. But he cannot make the others in the cave understand what he has seen, and in fact is so dazzled and disoriented from his own first glimpse of sunlight that he is not sure what he has seen himself. The prisoner has seen the path out, but he cannot persuade others to follow, and is doomed to return to darkness.
Plato wrote his awesome books two and a half millennia ago. We humans have stumbled in light and wallowed in darkness ever since. Our technologies give us power and our will power makes us free, and yet a moral darkness still envelops us.
This has left us so discouraged and defeated that most people I know consider ethical philosophy itself a useless waste of time. Our moral world is cold and wet and dark, and we are accustomed to our cave. The Republic was written so long ago that it now appears to tell a story of past failures, rather than future possibility. Indeed, Socrates's story of the cave is too often seen as a tale of hopelessness, like that of Sisyphus, who must roll a stone uphill forever.
But that was not the story Socrates wanted to tell, nor the story Plato wanted to write. Plato's Republic is meant to be a work of inspiration, not of irony.
On planet Earth in the year 2017, it seems to me that we cannot safely dwell in our cave much longer. The walls are collapsing, and the beams of sunlight are breaking up. We have to gather our courage and prepare to explore where we have not explored before. The fact that ignorance and fear surround us does not mean that we are fated to live in ignorance and fear forever. But we may be reaching a point where we either need to leave our "cave" of defeated and discredited moral philosophy or become swallowed up inside it.
This vision will be my guide as I struggle to rediscover my own mission as a writer, a political philosopher and a pacifist. I'm not here to admit defeat. But I do understand that most people consider the entire universe of moral philosophy to be a dead letter, a waste of time, a sad joke. This means that our current moral philosophers suck at their job. We need to do better. Time is running out.
Well, I'm really not interested in stepping out of the cave alone. As Socrates's story reveals, there's not much gain or satisfaction in that.
I do have hope for an end to the political sickness that infects our world, though many people I know have completely lost their hope. And I intend to use my writing platform to do everything I can to explain why I have hope, and what exactly I am hoping for.
I found the above photo of a lava cave in California on this online gallery. For whatever the symbolism is worth, I'm happy to report that the same photo gallery includes this shot. I'm not hanging around this cave any longer than I have to, friends. I'm looking to find the way up and out.