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Exploring Plato's CaveExploring Plato's Cave
August 23, 2010

Convocation Remarks: Exploring Plato’s Cave
August 23, 2010
President Thomas R. Rochon

Behold! Human beings living in some sort of underground cave dwelling, with an entrance behind them, as wide as the cave and open to the light. Here they live, from earliest childhood, with their legs and necks in chains, so that they have to stay where they are, looking only ahead of them, prevented by the chains from turning their heads. They have light from a distant fire, which is burning behind them and above them. Between the fire and the prisoners, at a higher level than them, is a path along which you must picture a low wall that has been built, like the screen which hides people when they are giving a puppet show, and above which they make the puppets appear.

Picture also, along the length of that wall, people carrying all sorts of implements which project above it, and statues of people, and animals made of stone and wood and all kinds of materials. As you'd expect, some of the people carrying the objects are speaking, while others are silent.

They are strange prisoners, like ourselves, and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the back wall of the cave.

Source: Plato, The Republic, Book 7, 4th century B.C.

In this passage, drawn from perhaps the most famous allegory ever written on the human condition, Plato takes on the voice of Socrates who imagines us all as prisoners in a cave. As Socrates explains to his student Glaucon, our heads are rigidly fixed to look in front of us at the shadows cast on the wall by unknown beings behind us, whom we cannot see.  Because we have always been this way, we do not suspect the existence of those beings, or indeed of anything in the universe other than the very limiting view of the shadows in front of us.

As you can read in the pamphlets set at your place, Socrates goes on to explain that because we are human and we have the power of learning, we examine our limited universe with care. We notice the differences among the shadow-shapes, and we name them. We notice any regularities that may exist in the order of their appearance or in the relative speeds with which they move. We develop a predictive system that enables us to anticipate which shadows will come next. Because of our love of learning, perhaps we bestow honors on those who are particularly good at observing, codifying, and theorizing about our universe. But all of our human ingenuity does not change the fact that our understanding of the world in which we live, and even of the cave in which we are chained, is deeply limited and fundamentally flawed.

Do we live in a cave and are we able to see only the shadows projected on its wall? The modern counterpart reference might be to Jim Carrey’s character in the movie The Truman Show, who grows up unaware that his entire life is a 24/7 reality TV series. The truly frightening thing about Plato’s image is that the prisoners don’t know they are in a cave, any more than Truman Burbank was aware that he lived in an artificial world. If we did live in a cave, prevented from fully seeing our world by metaphorical chains, we would also be as unaware of that fact. The more daring intellects among us might consider the possibility that our perceived universe is artificially limited, but in the end there would be nothing in our experience to suggest such drastic limits to our vision. On the contrary, like the slaves in Plato’s story, we take great pride in our ever-expanding understanding of the world around us. 

What would happen if somehow we broke free of our chains and had an opportunity to look at the cave behind us? What if we could see the people who were casting the shadows that previously constituted our total field of vision? What if we saw even further -- beyond the mouth of the cave and into the world beyond? Socrates muses that even if we were freed we would turn our gaze only reluctantly, using neck muscles that have long since stiffened into a single position. Our eyes would squint in distress as we looked toward the light and we would at first be unable to see much. Shown the people and objects that have been casting the shadows, we would not at first understand that they are real and the shadows that had previously been our whole universe are just epiphenomena. Were we to leave the cave itself and go out into the world, we would become even more disoriented.

We would, in short, need time to grasp the new realities we have been shown -- both our minds and our bodies would at first limit our sight. It is, after all, a deeply uncomfortable experience to break beyond the boundaries of what is known and familiar.

In fact, Socrates tells us that the voyage to knowledge is incredibly demanding. For if you go into the sunlight and become accustomed to the wider world, you will never be able to return to your fellow prisoners and be one of them. You will take no pleasure in their games of naming and predicting the shadows, because you know they are only shadows. They, in turn, will think you have become useless, because your eyes, now adjusted to the light, will no longer function well in the darkness of the cave. You would be a laughing-stock, according to Socrates; it would be said that you have “come back from your journey to the upper world with your eyesight destroyed, and that it wasn’t worth even trying to go up there.” Socrates surmises that if you proposed that others return to the upper world with you and see the sun, the other prisoners would attempt to kill you rather than follow your lead.

I am sure you are way ahead of me here and that you know what I am going to say next: that your education at Ithaca College is an opportunity to break free of the line of prisoners watching shadows on the wall, an opportunity to explore the rest of the cave, an opportunity to exit the cave altogether.

I like to think, at least I hope, that we are in much better shape in our grasp of reality than the prisoners in Plato’s cave. Perhaps I simply lack the imagination and daring of the true philosopher, but I think we know the difference between shadow and substance. At the same time, I believe we would be foolish to imagine that we have seen everything there is to see. And we would also be foolish not to acknowledge that the things we have yet to learn may fundamentally alter our understanding and interpretation of the world we already know.

This is the spirit with which I hope you will approach your education at Ithaca College. It is a spirit of risk taking, of intellectual adventurousness, of being willing to expand your boundaries of sight and knowledge, and even of being willing to look at the sun. (Metaphorically only, of course!)

If you are going to get everything possible out of your time as a student here, then you must bring with you the spirit of a fearless explorer, willing to go not just where others tell you to go but instead where your own path takes you. And, as Lily Tomlin once said, "Just remember, we are all in this alone."

That line makes me laugh every time, but fortunately it’s not true. Only you can decide what part of the cave you will ultimately make your own, but we have an amazing faculty and staff who can show you its various chambers. Of special importance to your education are the faculty, whose classrooms and laboratories and office hours beckon you to formal instruction and informal mentorship. Our faculty are highly credentialed experts in their fields, but they are also your partners in learning. Will the faculty present stand, and will you, the class of 2014, greet them with applause in anticipation of all they will do for you?

If my conversations with alumni are any guide, the greatest thing about your Ithaca College experience will be that you are a full partner in shaping your own education. We provide the guidance, the facilities, and the support that enable you to create your own performance, to undertake your own research, to design and shoot your own video, to practice your craft, to initiate your involvement in the community, and write your own story.

You will be assisted in this not only by the faculty, but also by staff and fellow students who are part of our residential community. Every friendship, every involvement in a club or organization, every commitment to a sports team, every time you volunteer in the community, you are adding to your education. The IC campus itself is laid out in a way meant to draw you into camaraderie with others and to offer aesthetic pleasure. You are most definitely NOT in this alone.

For two years I have walked this campus, seeing it but not really seeing it. Then last summer I spent a day working with the grounds crew, irrigating playing fields and weeding flower beds. I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of the flower beds in front of Job Hall and the Muller Center until I had spent a few hours on my knees, weeding them inch by inch. Now I cannot walk past them without pausing for a moment to take in their beauty. I was like Thoreau -- learning about beans through patient planting and hoeing.

I know your residence hall accommodations are not deluxe, but as you get to know them you will appreciate that they have an essential beauty simply because they are your home. As Thoreau wrote in Walden, our First Year Reading, "My dwelling was small and I could hardly entertain an echo in it; . . . [However] All the attractions of a house were concentrated in one room . . . and whatever satisfaction parent or child, master or servant, derive from living in a house, I enjoyed it all" (page 228).

I know we have students here who are living in Clark Hall -- let me hear from you! 

I spent a day last summer cleaning the bathrooms and kitchens in Clark Hall with Mr. Art Sims, who is the facilities attendant for your building. Clarkies, I hope you appreciated the cleanliness of your rooms, and especially of the shower stalls that I cleaned, as you moved in!

In short, my experience last summer working on the grounds and with the cleaning crews reinforced for me the basic truth that there is enormous pleasure and insight to be had simply from paying close attention to your environment. Plato and Thoreau each tell us the same thing: that wisdom comes from a patient and thorough exploration of our mental and physical caves, in which we take nothing for granted, and in which we find links between the smallest physical detail and the biggest mental construct.

Class of 2014, you are here because you have talent, and your work to this point in your life has translated your talent into accomplishment. If you have had a chance to read my blog post on the members of the freshman class, you know the depths of my respect for all that you are and all that you bring to our campus. Every one of you has the opportunity not only to succeed at IC, but to truly thrive here -- to excel and to be transformed. You will reap the full benefit from being part of our community of learners to the extent you commit to a full exploration of the cave and of the marvelous lands that lie beyond.