Reflections on the meaning of life and other puzzles: Part One
By Charlotte Cerminaro
web posted June 4, 2018
One of the new personality tests out there now claims to be able to reveal quite a lot about a person with just a few simple questions, more than the computer generated, multi-step, cross-checked and verified tests that are all the rage. Most of these simple questions are based on variations of Plato’s “Cave Allegory”, later used and expanded by Pascal, Kierkegaard and others. Commentaries abound and further allegories ensue, though, when trying to answer the seemingly simple questions posed in these texts: “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?”
When Plato first used his “cave” model, he of course had in mind something much more profound than a personality test. The metaphor was nothing less than a look at life, death and the eternal existence awaiting us ‘outside the cave’. This life he likened to being shackled, with a lot of other people, inside a dark cave. Everyone is facing a wall, unable to turn or look around and this is how most lives are spent, from infancy to old age. The people can hear things going on behind them in the cave, and even outside the cave. Shadows are moving on the wall of the cave, projected by objects and beings they couldn’t even begin to describe.
The story gets interesting here because there are always a few curious people. Shackles, chains and darkness can not stop them. They must
find out what is behind them in that cave. And as unthinkable as it seems, they know there is something even beyond that cave. Day after day they twist their hands around those chains, pulling as hard as they can to get free. Those nearest them will usually tell them to stop. “You can’t get out, so give up” is what they are told by their fellow prisoners. Yet they continue undeterred until one day, one of them gets a hand free from the chains. With that, it’s easier to loosen the shackle from the other hand, then the ones from the feet, neck, waist, etc., until the escapee realizes these chains are not really physical chains, but metaphysical, spiritual shackles. With this realization, the shackles slide completely off and our escapee is liberated.
He turns his head for the first time, trying to understand what he’s seeing. There is activity behind them, with beings like themselves moving around a fire in the middle of the dim cave. The dark, two-dimensional shapes (shadows) on the cave walls are cast by these three-dimensional beings. The escapee stands up, moving uncertainly in the strange surroundings and dim light. As he begins to explore the cave he gets lost in its vast system of tunnels. It occurs to him that this is just another prison and he might not ever find his way out.
He wanders into a hidden tunnel far away from the main cave. The darkness becomes more than oppressive---heavy dread and fear drips from the walls and fills the air with a sick, unnatural presence: Death.
Despite wanting to turn back many times, he keeps going. As complete exhaustion begins to set in, faint light appears in the distance, a good deal farther down the tunnel. Encouraged, he moves more quickly toward the light, which grows brighter with each step. As he nears, the light becomes unbearably bright, but glorious and warm, like nothing ever imagined. He steps from the cave into open air and sunshine, blinking in awe and disbelief.
What he sees next defies reality and explanation. Unrecognizable living creatures moving about, colors everywhere that he’s never seen, textures, light and sensations for which he has no words, this new plane of existence is overwhelming, mysterious and beautiful, compelling and inexplicable. This is what Shakespeare called “the Undiscovered Country”. Unfortunately in this case our weary traveler can not stay, for he feels an obligation to return to the cave and tell his fellow prisoners what he has seen, to perhaps compel them to escape their shackles as well.
Upon his return he explains his journey, the best he can, to the prisoners. Instead of curiosity and questions, his story is met with disbelief and disdain. He challenges them, asks them to come with him and see for themselves, but they become angry and mock him. Only one prisoner listens with interest, quietly thinking while the others mocked. If it’s not true, how did he break free from his chains? The prisoner quietly reasoned. And with that thought, her shackles fell to the ground and she stood up. Seeing this, the traveler beseeched the others to do the same, but his pleas and reasoning were met with even more angry and violent taunts. The allegory ends with the two freed prisoners, finding their way out of the cave, never to return.
Perhaps there is something to these claims made by so-called personality tests. It is possible to understand someone better from their answers to these most important and probing questions--questions which are usually evaded if asked in a straightforward way. They are indeed difficult questions, with no easy answers. There are no boxes for checking “yes” or “no” when we pose these queries, to ourselves or others. When answered, however, they do not reveal interesting personality or character traits, as the form would have us believe. What they do is compel us to seek, and find, the unthinkable. The problems and questions that have plagued us since time began can not be evaded: Why are we born, what is the true nature and purpose of death, and what is our part in all of this? And when we do find the answers, those things that trouble and frighten humanity the most seem to lose their power, fading away like a bad dream. In the book of Proverbs we are told that it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and it is our honor to search out a matter. So we, as the weary traveler, must break our chains and search diligently for the truth, for only the truth will set us free.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2018