The Enlightenment Error
Plato’s allegory of the cave (Republic, Bk. VII) is the most memorable and detailed presentation of a belief that was essentially shared by classical thinkers in general, namely that a societally constructed view of reality is a necessary condition of life for all humans, although a minority of men may gradually, through a painful process of spiritual reorientation, begin to find their way toward the cave’s exit, and the sunlight outside.
The modern Enlightenment, in both its profound original uprising during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the trivial popular revival it is enjoying today, rejects that classical belief in favor of the view that universal human reason, freed from the distorting limits of social convention, can approach truth directly and without mediation.
The problem is that when the Enlightenment view ceased to be a hard-earned philosophical position arrived at by a few great minds after a lifetime of grappling with Plato and Aristotle, and straining against religious orthodoxy — when it became instead the comfortable, default assumption of the age, with British movie actors and celebrity popularizers from the professoriate preaching to the converted in mainstream forums, in self-help bestsellers, in popular “debates,” and on social media — the jig was up. The Enlightenment has, perhaps inevitably, falsified itself. Our indoctrinated and dogmatic faith in universal human reason freed from the limits of social convention — the religion of atheism, material science, political progress, and human perfectibility — has become the shadows on our cave wall.
Where is our Socrates, who will teach us how to release ourselves from this bondage? Who will help us to slowly turn around, adjust our vision, and recognize the two-dimensionality of the objects being held up before the cave fire to produce the shadows on the wall that we have mistaken for unquestionable truth? Where is the educator of souls who will guide us along the path up to the Earth’s surface, and teach us perseverance and courage as we are at first blinded by the sun, and fearfully begin to long for the safety and familiarity of our seat before the shadows on the wall?
Our Socrates, I suspect, is on tour this month, starring in a philosophical comedy revue with Stephen Fry, which will be available soon on YouTube.