I recently read a few chapters of Thoreau’s Walden. I was particularly struck by a line in the conclusion’s final paragraph: “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Having had some time to digest this quote, I wish to delve further into my potential understanding of it.
Upon reading the line in question, I began to parallel its meaning with that of a different text I’ve read. Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” is an extended metaphor describing the plight of one forced to live out his life chained in a cave. All he knows of the universe are those shadows that happen to pass over and those echoes that reverberate off the cave wall. Hypothetically, he is freed and allowed to glimpse the fire behind him that enables the shadows to be cast. The light of the fire hurts him and the sight of objects that play owner to his familiar shadows confuses him. He runs from the light. He is then forced outside the cave, forced to witness the sun. Angry at his exile from the cave and fairly blinded by the power of the sun, the man is slow to adjust. Given time, he is able to look upon shadows, reflections, physical objects, and finally, the sun itself. Having seen the light, returning to the cave seems a decent into darkness. The prisoners he returns to conclude that his expedition outside has left him blind. Their resolve hardens even more thoroughly against a similar fate befalling them.
The journey of the prisoner into the light is to be equated to the path to enlightenment. The shadows on the cave wall are “shadows” of the truth, reality of existence, tangible knowledge. In not knowing the limit of their perception, those not yet enlightened believe in the face-value appearance of their world. When finally privy to more and more of the truth, they are reluctant to accept their previous perceptions as false. Eventually, they come to accept this grander scope of reality; they become enlightened. Upon speaking to their former peers, however, they cannot adequately relate their discoveries and are, therefore, discounted.
When the afore mentioned Walden quote metaphorically mentioned a blinding light, I could not help but recall that moment in Plato’s Cave when the prisoner first steps into the sunlight. His eyes were “put out” by the intensity of the truth, by the enormity of the shift from the world he had known and the one he was entering. Essentially, in the moments those dragging him from the cave knew would lead to his enlightenment, the prisoner could not possibly understand a thing that was happening to him. Not only could he not digest his novel situation, but the entirety of his established understanding was wiped out in a moment. Far from simply leaving him blind and suffering, sight of the sun discredited all of the life he’d led thus far. In this way, light left the prisoner in darkness.
Further parallels can be drawn between Plato and Thoreau’s words. Thoreau says that, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” In other words, in order to make discoveries we must realize there are discoveries to be made. Chained, facing the cave wall, we are unaware of our ignorance and wallow in it unabashedly. “There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” There is always more to discover; ours is not the only sun. There are infinite truths to be revealed.
We mustn’t be content to sit back and watch the marionettes play as the chains that bind us go untested. When we become comfortable with our perceptions, we should challenge them. Turn them on their heads. Approach them from different angles. Enlightenment comes gradually, but it needn’t be forced. As long as we resist retreating to the too-familiar cave, our eyes cannot help but adjust to that light which puts out our eyes.