Friday, February 10, 2012

During my lectures on ethics and professional development I frequently discuss the importance of perspective and learning from the experiences of others. Sometimes to make my point, I share one of philosophy’s most famous fables, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. I cannot summarize it any better than I did inLessons From Prison. So rather than try I am sharing the exact text from the book.


Besides offering preventable lessons, I could also offer advisory lessons. Despite good intentions, bad decisions or life circumstances sometimes led us into adversity. This was a universal, human condition. When such challenges came, I hoped that those with whom I shared these lessons could find confidence to power through. We may succumb to temptations, but time immemorial offered countless examples of our resilience. We could thrive through turmoil and emerge stronger from adversity.

The question was would people listen. Plato, the immortal philosopher, wrote about the challenge of conveying lessons to be drawn from human experience. In his classic book The Republic, Plato told his story known as “The Allegory of The Cave.”

In that fable, Plato asked his audience to imagine a subterranean cave. A group of people had lived their entire lives in that cave. Not only were they confined to the cave, but Plato described their movements and perspectives being restricted because they had lived their entire existence fastened to a pole behind them.

As a consequence of their circumstance, the people in Plato’s cave could not comprehend or fathom the fullness of life. They had nothing more than what they could learn from their limited perspectives. By only being able to look straight ahead, they misperceived shadows for reality. Reflections from bouncing light rays brought illusions that those in Plato’s cave felt certain were authentic.

That life of limited perspective was all that the dwellers of Plato’s cave knew until one of the inhabitants broke free. He climbed out from the cave and emerged into all the splendor of the world. For the first time, he saw more than the reflection of light. He felt the power of light itself, with the sun beaming upon him and illuminating all around him. Suddenly life was more than a collection of shadows that he saw projected on the wall. Instead, he saw and experienced life itself.

Upon his discovery, Plato’s cave dweller returned to the subterranean chamber that had heretofore been his only world. He was eager to share the lessons that he had learned about the world, to help others exchange their illusions for the beauty of reality. Instead of embracing those lessons, however, Plato told us that the fellow cave dwellers rejected such descriptions.

People have a natural propensity, Plato’s allegory instructs, to perceive the world in accordance with their own perspectives. Conveying lessons from human experience represented one of man’s greatest challenges. That was why Hegel advised that we had a duty to record our histories. We had to do our best to instruct others in order to prevent the cycle of mistakes. What got you here won’t get you there. I would do my part to enlighten others through the lessons I learned.

Justin Paperny


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