February celebrates coziness and delightfully offers love-soaked respite from the cold. It attempts, even if it does so in a very contrived way, to make a bitterly chilly time seem full of ardor and creature comforts. We open February’s backpack not on the trail, like we usually do, hiking for meaning and purpose. Instead, we open it in a warm, fire-lit enclave. A space full of dancing shadows and recognizable interpretations. Here, smoky familiarity and established habits greet us with particular ease.
Inside the philosopher’s backpack this month we see the Forms, we hear echoes of essence, calls for truth. Mesmerized, confused — perhaps even alarmed, we listen to Socrates’ student and Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, tell us about the famous allegory of the cave.
Challenging us about our perceptions of reality, Plato famously likens our human condition to that of prisoners in a cave. Chained from childhood to one another in a darkened space with a fire lit behind us, casting shadows on the wall, the cave becomes our representation of reality — albeit a false one. Misinterpreting time-honored representations as real entities, Plato poses the question that prisoners, like us, “so confined would have seen nothing of themselves or of one another, expect the shadows thrown by the fire-light on the wall of the Cave facing them, would they?” We would come only to “recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects.” Certainly, we would become frightened and skeptical at the proclamation that “outside the cave” there exists a different world, one with sunlight, starry skies and freedom.
As Plato’s allegory unfolds, we hear how a cave dweller who dares to escape the cave is blinded by the sun’s radiance. It would take time for his or her eyes to adjust to the new light, of course. Tragically, upon returning to the cave to emancipate the others still chained inside, the former cave dweller faces ridicule and disdain. The prisoners mock him and conclude that his eyesight was ruined by his ascent. If they “could lay hands on the man who was trying to set them free and lead them up, they would kill him,” according to Plato.
He warns us that it takes a special type of person — a philosopher, in fact — to be able to escape the cave and then to live to tell about it. The burden of seeing the sun, the immensity of experiencing the truth, is not to be underestimated. However, the risk is worth the reward. The worth of the sun is in its wise authenticity. And, that authenticity is everything.
February’s philosophy suggests that we must brave the elements and face the storm of change if we ever hope to see beyond our own shadows. Perhaps the fabled groundhog had more to teach us than we thought. If we don’t want to be frightened of our own shadows, our own insecurities, our own misgivings, we must venture beyond the warmth of what we know, beyond what we believe to be true.
March is around the corner, with her wild winds, sunbursts and torrential rains. Genuine experience is there for the taking. If we want the winter of our minds to come to its cyclical due, if we want to experience the birth of renewal, we must progress beyond what is comfortable. The shadows are entertaining, the cave is warm and inviting and there are many who are willing to stay and keep us company.
The sun both blinds and illuminates. It can be a scary climb to the aperture of our personal caves. But, the air of authenticity, once breathed outside of the cave, is not forgotten. It is compelling, magnetic and unrelenting. No, this air has no substitution, no replacement. No more smoke and mirrors, shadows or untruths. It’s time to begin the climb, February’s backpack in hand. It’s time to genuinely breathe.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.