(Advance Warning: For some reason, every single time I tried to upload pictures to this blog post, my computer REFUSED to let me. And everyone knows that a book without pictures is a boring read! So, read on if you dare.... Sorry.)
I have a secret.
I read dead people.
Their books I mean. It's a dangerous habit though. You know why? Because, in doing so, you just might learn something. Such as this:
Around 380 BC the Greek philosopher Plato, student of Socrates, wrote a book called, The Republic. It is considered to be one of the great works of Western Philosophy. Worth the time to read. Seriously. (Although, I'll shamefully admit that I tried to re-read it recently and, after four kids, it was somewhat more difficult than I remembered it being the first times through!)
The book includes one of the most tragic stories every written (in my opinion) - "The Allegory of the Cave". It is written in the context of a dialogue between Socrates, Plato's teacher, and Glaucon, Plato's brother. (See, it is worth reading if only to hear such great names!!) The allegory is told by Socrates, in which he tales the tale of a group of captives. These captives have lived their entire lives chained in a cave, facing a blank wall. There is a fire lit behind them and the chained people have spent their entire lives watching the shadows on the blank wall, cast by figures passing in front of the fire. They see only shadows, and hear only echoes.
Having never seen or known anything else, the shadows and echoes are as close as the prisoners have ever come to viewing reality. Insofar as they even believe that the shadows and echoes ARE reality to its full extent. They have a small world, which their mind is completely able to wrap around, and they think they fully understand reality.
Socrates then explains how a philosopher (literally: "one who seeks/loves/has knowledge and wisdom" or "one who thinks") is akin to a prisoner who has been freed from the cave and is able to realize the extent of his previous ignorance. What he once thought was the fullness of truth, he now recognizes as, literally, only shadows and echoes of truth.
(Predictably, the most tragic part of the story follows later - when the freed prisoner goes back to other captives and tries to free them. They shun him, ridicule him and refuse to believe him. They are too comfortable in the belief that shadows and echoes are the full extent of truth that they a) can't wrap their mind around the idea that there might be more and, b) hate the freed prisoner for trying to push them onwards toward the truth.)
This story haunts me. I feel it loom over my shoulder, like a dark stranger following me down the street. What do I think that I know, which in reality is just shadows and echoes and not true knowledge? And the real tragedy is that I can't answer that, I can't know what I don't know. You know? (Sorry, couldn't resist the redundancy.)
Such is the paradox of education and knowledge. The more you learn, the more you realize that you don't know. Education - and by that I mean truly learning - is the key to discovering your own ignorance. You think you have a handle on the world, and then....BAM you learn something that opens your eyes to a whole realm that up to now you never even imagined existed.
Back to the point: Any given moment I can look back at myself in the past - last week, last year, 10 years ago - and see clearly how far I have come. And I can say to myself, "Past Self, you really thought you had your act together. You really thought you knew something. But hindsight makes ignorance glaringly obvious. Clearly, Past Self, you were just chasing shadows and echos."
I can tell myself that, and I do (though maybe not in those exact words) but I know that I am still chained to the wall of ignorance and my "Future Self" is going to look back on me in this moment and say the exact same thing. It is a vicious cycle. So I repeat - I am haunted by that story.
So, all I can do is strive. To keep learning, chasing secrets waiting to be unlocked. To keep analyzing, trying to expose the smoke and echoes. To refuse to be chained and fixated on a blank wall. And to seek reality in reality, instead of seeking reality in an empty wall.
(Stay tuned. I’ll post part 2 and the agricultural connection in a few days. With pictures.)