The Allegory of the Cave

Not long after I returned home from Prague, I was invited to attend an executive seminar at Case New Holland, the tractor and combine company that was gobbled up by Fiat in 1999. This session was held at the company’s headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin on a set of dreary winter days. The leader of the seminar, whom I had not yet met, believed the conversations and discussions in the course would be enriched by having people included from outside the company who brought different perspectives. One of the management team asked if I would attend as one of the outside guests. I was not entirely sure why I accepted the offer in fact I almost turned it down, thinking of all the things that needed to be done back at the office. The seminar would last 3 days. But Case was a client of ours and I was sadistically curious when my host dropped a pile of books in front of me including writings by Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Martin Luther King and Dostoevsky and told me I needed to have them read within two days and be prepared to discuss them.

Despite my old love affair with philosophy, the bloom has fallen off the rose. I could not remember the difference between Hegel and Marx and while I knew if I was to remember anyone it should be Kant, I had no idea anymore what they had all be talking about. I certainly could not recall Aristotle, except that he was Greek and I was sure I skipped class when Plato was taught. Dostoevsky was so intimidating that I hesitated to pick up his work and when I did, it was done fearfully. I was certainly not going to be in any position to discuss this in two days.

But the two days passed and I did my best to be prepared. I arrived early to get my bearings and enjoy the calm before the fury. But the fury was already there and he was an 85 year old Polish man on a mission.

Zymunt Nagorski came to meet me in the hall. He was shorter than I was, had a long aquiline nose, a head of neatly combed grey hair and clear blue eyes that flashed with challenge and humor at the same time. “I have been waiting for you”, he said. “You are the one I have not invited. But I have read your biography. It was very interesting”. I was quite certain at that point that he was intrigued, but he had not found my biography interesting at all.

Zymunt Nagorski (or Zyg as he would ask us to call him) was born in Poland in the early part of the last century. He had fought in the Polish Army at the time of the German invasion and then managed to flee the continent after Belgium surrendered to Germany to make his way to Scotland. In the winter of 1948 Zyg, his wife Marysia and his two eldest children immigrated to America. Zyg’s life, I would later learn from his autobiography “From Warsaw to Wherever” (Scarith, 2007) was filled with adventure, opportunities taken, failures learned from and regrets carried forward. Even though in the years since our first meeting we have become very dear friends, I never ventured to ask too much about his life for fear of treading on old wounds. For those first three days spent together in Racine in his seminar would bring forth in me some very fundamental human questions about our existence on earth which only a man who had faced deep pain, guilt and love could facilitate.

While Plato did not show up until the second day it did not make much of a difference to my preparation. For I was to realized that life was to prepare me for Zyg, not books.

We all sat quietly waiting our fate. I could smell the nervousness in the room. People fidgeted and looked busily at their books. The man next to me shuffled his feet and shifted in his chair. Zyg furrowed his brow and looked around the room in silence like a hawk seeking prey and opened the discussion by posing a series of questions: “Are we cave dwellers? Do we have limited vision? Why should we leave our caves? And when we have seen the light, are we willing to take the journey back down to the cave without being forced to?”

In The Republic, Plato gives us the Allegory on the Cave. This is the story of men who live in a cave and carry out there work in semi darkness. Day after day they see only the shadows of themselves against the wall of the cave and the shadows of one another as the light from the fire behind them is cast on the walls. If someone where to speak and their words were to echo off the walls, the men would think it was the shadow speaking. To them the truth is literally nothing but the shadows. But if the men were released and allowed to stand up and move around they would see a light in the distance at the entrance to the cave. But to stand up and turn around and see the small glimmer of that light would be painful to a man and he would suffer sharp pains in his neck. If a man then decided to walk towards the light he would drag himself up a steep and narrow tunnel and be forced to look directly into the light. It would sting his eyes that were used to the dark. Eventually he would emerge into the open and be outside the cave and would see the sunlight and the reflection of himself in pools of water and realize things to be as they really are, not as shadows against a wall. If he were then told he had to back down into the cave, he would most likely go unwillingly. When he returned to the darkness he would find it hard to see until his eyes adjusted once again. When he told the cave dwellers about the light, they might neither listen nor care. But for the sake of the good of all the men, he who had seen the light must return to the cave because even when his eyes are adjusted back to the conditions of the cave, he could still see better than any of the cave dwellers who had remained. That sight and insight could help the cave dwellers to live in a slightly more enlightened state and not simply fight over shadows, but over greater things as well.

Plato says that those who succeed in seeing the light should resist continuing to seek the light for their own benefit and return to help those who have been left behind. ” Do you agree with Plato?”, Zyg asked.

The room was silent. He got up and walked over to stand behind a cowering participant, “Would you be willing to limit individual freedom by requiring those who succeed to help others who are less fortunate — possibly by sharing their rewards with them, or curtail in their future opportunities by, in effect, turning around and going back to help those that remain in the cave?”

What on earth was he talking about? I quickly leafed through my notes and yellow underlines to try to find some answer to his questions pleading silently that he would not turn those hawk eyes on me next.

What was the cave? Was it our paradigm, our unenlightened set of beliefs, our prejudices, our conclusions, or our ego? Or was it a physical condition like poverty or illness? Perhaps it was more simply the material world of possessions and desires that trapped us into thinking that was what life was about?

What was the light? Was it knowledge, was it enlightenment? Or was it education and health? Perhaps it was a heightened state of spirituality achieved through meditation and the abandonment of material needs?

One of the participants in the room spoke up and said “I think this was my favorite reading”. Zyg’s face relaxed momentarily and his eyes softened “and why is that?”, he asked. “Well I think we are all cave dwellers and most of us spend the better part of our life seeking the light and trying to find the greater meaning for our being here on the earth. Certainly if I were to discover that I would have no interest in going back down into the darkness. But I think we have to if we think we are going move humanity forward.”

Zyg turned away from the speaker, expressionless and seemingly unimpressed and trotted around the room looking for his next victim.

In the years since those tense days in Racine, I have returned to the Allegory of the Cave and tried to make sense of something to which in my life I had not really given much thought. Do those of us who have had the opportunity to see the light, to be educated, to be enlightened, have the obligation to turn back and help those who have not had the same opportunity? Why do some people do this without question and others do not? Why do most people never leave the cave?

Who are those special few who do and why do they choose to stand up, turn around and take that long difficult journey from darkness to light, only to return to it in the end?

May 15, 2008

“In the world of knowledge, the idea of good appears last of all” – Plato

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