The allegory of the cave, attributed to Socrates by Plato in The Republic (375 BCE), depicts human knowledge as emerging from a struggle between our senses and our reason. In this story, prisoners are chained inside a cave so that they are only able to see one wall. A fire behind them projects shadows onto the wall, and all the prisoners’ knowledge derives from those shadows, known through their senses.
As Plato tells it, one prisoner breaks free from his chains, and by the light of reason, directly perceives the force that animates the shadows. This rebel then returns to the others to free them. Plato ends the story with Socrates concluding that the prisoners would view this rebel as a threat and kill him. Then fourteen years after this story was written, Athens condemned Socrates to die by poison.
Apparently though, Plato was the one intent upon drawing conclusions, not Socrates, who devoted himself instead to a life of cooperative argumentation. The scientific method that shapes our world today emerged from Socratic Inquiry, a method that searches for inconsistencies in any belief as a way of seeking truth. Plato’s purpose in telling the allegory of the cave was to illustrate his own belief that society should be ruled by philosopher-kings. Politics in Athens was straining between authoritarian and egalitarian tendencies 2,400 years ago, pretty much as politics always has.
Science, too, since its founding, has strained between “settled” hypotheses and the unexpected. Concerning the interplay between established scientists and newcomers, Israel Scheffler says, “Our expectations strongly structure what we see, but do not wholly eliminate unexpected sights. To suppose that they do would be, absurdly, to deny the common phenomena of surprise, shock, and astonishment . . . The genius of science is to capitalize upon such disharmony for the sake of a systematic learning from experience.” (Science and Subjectivity, 1967)
Where Plato sees human progress following from the triumph of reason over sensation, Scheffler praises the corrective power that observation brings to settled hypotheses. Either way, in our everyday lives, we are each left with the responsibility of choosing which way to direct our attention (despite the demands that clamor) and where to concentrate our thoughts (despite the difficulty).
As a guide for self-direction, early Friends turned to “. . . the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life, and heaven, and earth . . . [that we] may be preserved . . .” They sought to “Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads all over the earth, the wisdom of creation, which is pure.” And they were instructed to “. . . minister to the spirit that has transgressed . . . whereby in them [we] may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless [us].” (George Fox, 1656)
By calling ourselves Friends, we inherit these instructions. We are not instructed to help anyone see things the same way we do; nor are we instructed to enlighten anyone with any truth. Our faith commits us to bless others. And it commits us to coax others to bless us. If the “genius of science” is to learn from disharmony, then surely an egalitarian faith, one that submits to no human authority, carries a similar genius.
Even though our integrity calls us to bear witness to our experiences and defend causes we believe in, when we face someone who deeply disagrees with us, we can work to perceive something in them that we recognize as honorable. Recent secular examples of such bridge-building are encouraging. Kansas activists went door-to-door this July to defend women’s healthcare rights on a statewide ballot. After winning their referendum, one of the women explained their approach: “We believe every Kansan has a right to make personal health-care decisions without government overreach – that’s obviously a conservative-friendly talking point.” (Washington Post, 8/3/2022) Similarly, LGBTQ activists in California used “deep canvasing” in 2012 to develop one-on-one mutual understandings between themselves and voters who opposed same-sex marriage.
Whatever might exist outside the cave of our sensory experience, Creation’s shadow-dance is sufficient to teach us mere mortals more than we are able to learn. This cave is not solitary confinement, and these shackles allow us to move. We are enmeshed in a living world, right here, right now, with all these other crazy creatures. They can teach us how to be a blessing, if only we will pay attention. ~~~