In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, human beings live all their lives in an underground cave with their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move or turn their heads. They can only see their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which a fire, blazing behind them, scatters across the cave wall.
Jean teaches the Allegory in the UW-Odyssey Project, a humanities course which offers hope to people living at the margins. Three years ago she began teaching the Allegory in Wisconsin prisons. A more powerful transformational text can hardly be imagined. Odyssey students identify readily with the plight of prisoners shackled and fettered and kept underground all their lives.
Plato insists that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In the intensive give and take in the Odyssey Project, students begin to examine their lives, develop critical thinking skills, discern new possibilities for the life of the mind. They move from reaction to reflection, experience breakthroughs and arrive at a sense of hard-won self-worth, many for the first time.
Plato makes his meaning clear: “the prison house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun and the journey upwards is the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world.”
At the end of the Allegory, Plato admonishes those who have experienced freedom not to remain in the upper world but to descend again among the prisoners. The clearest sign that students have internalized the meaning of the Allegory is when they volunteer to go back down into the cave. Eugene Smalls, whose mother died giving birth to him in prison, is now a prison chaplain. James Morgan, who just turned sixty and was incarcerated for most of his adult life, works to rehabilitate men recently released.
The journey does not end with self. As Cicero said a thousand years ago, “we are born for one another.”