The Heavy – Yet Rewarding – Responsibility of Truth
By Greg Fullerton
Speaking to his young follower Glaucon, Socrates describes humanity as being stuck in an “underground den,” or cave.
We sit facing the back of the cave, our legs and necks chained to prevent us from turning around and seeing behind us.
Above and behind us a fire blazes, and between us and the fire there is a low wall, “like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.”
Our perception of truth, says Socrates, is that of watching shadows play on the wall before us.
And what would happen if one of the prisoners were to be released and “compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light”? Socrates answers:
“…he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows…
“…and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now…he has a clearer vision, what will be his reply?
“Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?”
In other words, realizing and accepting truth is a painful process, one that we desperately resist.
Ignorance is comfortable. Unlike truth, it doesn’t require us to change. Basking in ignorance is like sleeping under a warm blanket in the Titanic.
Understand that this isn’t theoretical — we kill each other over our perceptions of truth. We kill people for confronting our ignorance.
Socrates himself was killed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot for asserting that all men are created equal. When Galileo claimed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe, he was denounced to the Roman Inquisition, forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
This is heavy stuff.
A few things to learn from this allegory.
First, we should operate our lives under the abiding assumption that we’re ignorant in some way or another.
This assumption prods us to constantly be learning, to never be satisfied with our current level of knowledge and wisdom. It also allows us to be tolerant of the views and beliefs of others.
Any time we debate with others, we should always have in the back of our minds, “I could be wrong.” This isn’t a sign of weakness — in fact, it’s something only the strong and secure can do.
I’ve found throughout my life that those who cling to their perceptions the most fiercely are usually the most insecure.
Second, we should understand that, as Robert Fulghum said, “The examined life is no picnic.”
It’s tough to accept new truths. It’s tough to be committed to truth no matter what. But anything difficult comes with corresponding rewards that always far outweigh the cost.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
The third point I want to bring out is how careful we must be with “enlightening” others.
When we’ve come “into the light” in a particular area of our lives and we know we see more clearly than others trapped in false beliefs, it takes incredible skill and tact to effectively present our new-found truth. Take it from Socrates, who was poisoned for trying to present truth.
As Oscar Wilde said:
“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
In other words, some methods of teaching are more effective than others. In a great blog article, “People Who Disagree With You Aren’t Stupid,” my friend Stephen Palmer says:
“Being right doesn’t give you license to denigrate; it gives you the responsibility to persuade with love and patience. Those who feel that they are the most ‘right’ have the greatest responsibility to help others to see their perspective…None of us have a monopoly on truth. But if we did, being right is a call to serve, not a license to vilify.”
And as the old saying goes, “We attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.” Again, this doesn’t mean being weak and cowardly; it simply means being wise, effective, and patient.
Commit to truth in all areas of your life. Always strive to learn and grow. Never be satisfied with your current knowledge.
And listen to Socrates. He knew what he was talking about.
“…in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.”