Now, on the eve of my 45th birthday. Midway between the beginning and the end of my life -- if I make it to 90 years. What have I learned? I am humbled by each passing year of life. I knew more, and even felt immortal when I was a teenager.
Plato said that one is not ready to be a philosopher until the age of 40. In my youth, I found this idea difficult. When I grew up, I wanted to be known as a "philosopher." Time has proved Plato right. It took until well past my 40th birthday to be humbled by all the twists and surprises of my own life.
One of my favorite philosophical teachings is Plato's Allegory of the Cave. This is a metaphor that suggests just how difficult it is for a human being to acquire knowledge of reality. We are like cave dwellers, ignorant of where we are going; forgetful of life's past lessons.
The common human condition is a life of ignorance. We are like people living in chains at the bottom of a cave. In addition, we are bound to a brick wall with our faces directed to the very back of the cave. Behind our backs on the wall's other side, slaves move placards that project shapes upon the wall for us to look at. Worse yet, the projection light comes from a fire lit behind the slaves. The images on the wall flicker with the light from the fire.
You escape from the chains. You turn and realize that the images on the wall are not the things themselves. You begin to notice a passage upward. A whitish light is coming through a tunnel. With great difficulty you climb the tunnel until you get outside the cave to the clear blinding sunlight of high noon. Eventually you adjust to this light and begin to function at this level of brightness.
It is wonderful to be free of the illusion of the cave. But compassion and, maybe, loneliness, drives you back down the dark pit of the cave to tell tales of the sun. There your friends put you back in chains; you must have gone mad to think these images on the wall are projections from a bonfire's light. What could this "light of the sun" possibly be?
The Allegory of the Cave inspired me to look at the human situation within a vast universe for beyond the little concerns of the human pride. Nowadays, this allegory seems unimportant to most people. "Reality" is like a strange word that has little meaning. "Virtual reality" is more exciting to the public eye than actual reality. Perhaps we think we can be "consumers" of reality. Just another product to buy off the shelf.
Most of the time I do not know what is happening except fleeting images on a day- to-day basis. This view opens one up to deeper investigations. Is this not what science is all about? By asking simple questions like, "Why is grass green?"; we open to ignorance and relax away from pride.
Real knowledge is beyond the details of scientific, mathematical theories. It is beyond all the historical details and news stories that we constantly feed ourselves. It is easy to find false opinions -- just read the daily news. As a child, I would sometimes confuse a shadow in the moonlight for a cat or dog.
The Oracle of Delphi's motto is, "Know Thyself." This is the highest knowledge. The only knowledge that you can absolutely verify. Balancing one's checkbook, feeding the goats, and changing the oil are important practical worldly actions. But that is not all. The self follows us throughout all these activities. There are few external rewards for self- knowledge, but inner wealth accummulates and compounds.
We owe it to ourselves to live fully in the present, yet be able to see ahead and appreciate the past. This is an act of courage; the way we move toward the light at the top of the cave. Today I have to balance the check book for the business, tomorrow write some invoices, the next day do a few collections. Oh, then there are dishes and clothes to wash.
I am only one of over five billion people here on planet earth. This earth is a small globe going around what already seems like a large solar system which is within a galaxy of hundreds of millions of stars. This Milky Way Galaxy is only one of countless galaxies in a universe so large that it would take 15 billion years at the speed of light to make it from one end to the other. I am a speck.