ALICE VON HILDEBRAND Catholic News Agency November 27, 2018
Plato’s name has been mentioned more than once in these pages. He deserves to be mentioned once again. Hopefully, you are acquainted with his great work, the Republic. In case you have not, may I urge you to read it, especially Book VII, which has inspired what I am about to tell you.
But one man – we shall call him the philosopher – manages to liberate himself from his bonds, and reaches the exit of the dark cave in which he was born and has lived all his life. The moment he comes outside of his prison, the brightness of the sun’s light will blind him. Being used to darkness, his eyes are incapable of standing daylight. The poor prisoner will necessarily assume that his situation has worsened: for before he could see something; now he sees nothing.
But slowly his pupils will adjust to his new environment, and for the first time in his life, he will perceive real objects – at first only those within his reach. This perception will open the eyes of his mind to a terrible and for him revolutionary truth: up to now, he has confused shadows with reality. A Copernican revolution takes place in his life! To become aware that he has lived in error since his very youth is an earth-shaking discovery. But by now our hero’s pupils are capable of looking upwards, and the last thing which he will be able to behold – because of its luminous brightness – is the sun, the source of all light. Plato points to the fact that the more sublime a thing is, the more difficult will it be for weak-sighted human beings to perceive it, even though it is most real and luminous, being the very source of everything else, just as the sun is the source of light.
The philosopher can now draw the conclusion that man can be blinded both by darkness, (because of lack of light), and by light when the very luminosity of an object is too strong for his weak eye sight to contemplate.
He now recalls the sad fate of his fellow prisoners, and instead of enjoying the beauty which he has perceived, he decides to go back to the cave, and inform them of their error. Plato here clearly hints at the fact that truth is "ours" and should not remain the "property" of a single individual who has been blessed with discovering it.
Out of loving concern for the welfare of the unfortunate prisoners, the philosopher decides to re-enter his place of birth. But upon doing so, he finds himself plunged into darkness. Once again, his sight fails him, but this time, for the opposite reason: there is too little light. Nevertheless, gropingly he finds his way back to his old place.
The prisoners – as usual – kill time trying to identify the shadows appearing on the wall; the first one who succeeds is, of course, the smartest. The philosopher who used to be good at the game, is now totally helpless; having seen real objects, shadows strike him as so unsubstantial that he can no longer victoriously compete with his companions. As a result, the latter come to the conclusion that anyone who leaves the café should be punished by death, for by so doing, he comes back without his eyes. (An obvious reference to the fate that Socrates suffered because he tried to make men "see"). It is worth noticing that the prisoners show no interest whatever in questioning the philosopher. They are so used to their conventions, their prejudices, and their petty concerns, that they have no longing whatsoever to transcend the narrowness of their views. They are used to their dark cave and feel comfortable in it. (Kierkegaard expressed the same truth by pointing out that many men actually choose to live in the cellar of their house).
We are back to our pet theme: blindness can be caused by an excess of light, or by a deficit of light. But in both cases, the result is identical – we cannot see.
May I assume that by now your spirit of discernment has been so refined that you immediately see how catastrophic it would be to confuse the two cases: blindness caused by too much light, and blindness caused by too little light? In one case blindness results from our own weakness; in the other case, by a deficiency on the object side.
You must have observed that when people see badly, they usually lay the blame on the object, very much as when people are getting hard of hearing they will accuse others of not speaking clearly.
The point I am trying to make is that there are plenty of things which the human mind cannot fully penetrate: let us call them "the mysteries of being" (following Gabriel Marcel’s terminology). We cannot fully know them not because they are obscure, but because our intellectual eye-sight is too weak. In such cases, we should humbly acknowledge our deficiency, and not lay the blame on the luminous object whose light is too strong for our weakness. On the other hand, some objects are truly opaque, and for this reason our mind cannot penetrate into them. You see that the two cases are, once again, at antipodes, and yet how tempting to confuse them and assume that the cause in both cases is identical.
I wonder whether the middle ages (which produced a St. Anselm, a Giotto, a Dante, a St. Thomas Aquinas, a St. Bonaventure, a Duns Scotus, and so forth ) have been called the "dark ages" because their light was so strong that it blinded those looking at it. It is certainly amusing that the eighteenth century called itself, "the age of enlightenment," if we keep in mind that it has produced a Voltaire, a Rousseau, a Hume, a Diderot, and so forth, who – it seems to me – are dwarfs compared to their medieval counterparts. But this is off our topic. I have just yielded to the temptation to share this thought with you.
How important it is for all of us in human life to determine whether we are blinded by too much light, or whether we cannot see because we are surrounded by darkness. Once again, wisdom will be necessary, and I assume that you have decided to strive for it with every fiber of your being.