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Journey Classes Discuss Plato’s Allegory of the Cave  

An image of three statues of philosophers.This week in the Core, many students are reading Plato's Allegory of the Cave. This story appeals to many first year students because they are, in a sense, exiting the "cave" of high school for the new and, hopefully, more enlightening experience of college. In my own Journey classes, I have often asked students, what is your "cave," and found some interesting answers. Some students will talk about how they were in a closed world in high school, and they chose to go to a college, Seton Hall, perhaps farther away or different in some other way from the one most of their friends were attending. Some simply thought of the "cave" as being their home and childhood life, which they are now leaving behind. 

In a sense the cave is a safe, but limited, space. It is easy to go on the way one has always gone along – interacting with the same people, never thinking outside the box. But what is really exciting about life – and the intellectual life of the university – is that we can explore a subject or several subjects (and the journey never ends) more and more, deepening our experience of the light – that world outside of the cave, which – though seemingly safe – was only the world of shadows, of illusion. So, students would not be leaving all the good things of their "former" life behind – the cave would only be those parts of it that might have limited their vision, or their understanding of Truth. Biases, as Bernard Lonergan says, can limit us from exploring further than we might, and they can also keep us locked in a cave of being only with others similar to ourselves. The Truth outside the cave, calls us further and deeper into knowledge of ourselves, others, and the world around us. 

In a Catholic university, this search is connected with the experience of Truth, conceived of as not only intellectual knowledge but as a Person. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," so for any Christian Truth is always connected with Christ, and the kind of life – not just intellectual life—he introduced to his followers. Those of other faiths also understand Truth to be connected with religious experience; we think of the references to Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, and, in fact, all the great religions of the world link the concept of Truth with living a good and noble life, ultimately with love. For Plato (and for Socrates as Plato presents him) Truth is always more than intellectual, not simply acquisition of knowledge, but of wisdom, understanding, depth of spirit. 

"What great minds can do" is Seton Hall's newest motto, and we know that they can do a lot. They can help us to understand great texts (as in the Core and literature classes), or scientific problems, or sociological studies, or any number of interesting and provocative ideas. And this use of the mind is truly a holy and a noble thing – as Plato saw it, moving from the cave of shadows, to the light of day, to the real world under the sun (of Truth). But a great mind can go even further if motivated by the heart – with love offering inspiration that can transcend even the intellect. Plato suggests this ascent through love in Socrates' account of the teaching of Diotima in The Symposium, another Core text many students read. I always teach it in my Journey classes, and it is a wonderful preparation for the later text of The Divine Comedy. In this great work, which many Journey students will read later in the semester, Dante depicts this ascent in the experience of his love, first for Beatrice and later for God, leading him eventually into the heart of God, of love himself. Dante truly emerges from a cave of selfishness and sin, which he learns to reject on his journeys through Hell and Purgatory, and becomes finally free to experience "the intellectual light full of love" that is the life of heaven. 

So, the Allegory of the Cave can be looked at as the true beginning of a journey that ultimately never ends. As Beatrice says to Dante: 

If in the fire of love I seem to flame 
beyond the measure visible on earth, 
so that I overcome your vision's force, 
you need not wonder; I am so because 
of my perfected vision—as I grasp 
the good, so I approach the good in act. 
Indeed I see that in your intellect 
now shines the never—ending light; once seen, 
that light, alone and always, kindles love…. (Paradiso, canto 5, Mandelbaum translation, Digital Dante)

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  • Nancy Enright
  • (973) 275-4847
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