Who would have thought that Mother’s Day would bring us the spectacle of churches attacked and Supreme Court Justices sought out at home to be demonstrated against and vilified for their reasonable beliefs? Indeed, many things in the contemporary world seem hard to believe.
The idea that everything we experience could be an elaborate deception goes back at least to Plato. Freshmen at Wyoming Catholic College have recently been working through the Republic; in Book VII they encounter the “Allegory of the Cave,” which presents just such a scenario. Socrates imagines citizens in a cave, bound so that they can look in only one direction. Over the course of a lifetime, they become adept at reading the shadows projected on the wall by others of whom they are unaware. Like anyone who follows the news today, the citizens know “who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out,” as Lear says to Cordelia. The shadows are their reality, unless one of them finds himself free of his bonds, witnesses how the shadows are made, and makes his way up out of the cave to the light of day.
René Descartes repeats the thought experiment in Meditations on First Philosophy, where he begins with radical doubt—the supposition that everything he experiences is the work of an evil deceiver. Famously, he finds one point of certainty: the recognition that even to be deceived, he must be thinking, and if he is thinking, he must necessarily exist. He cannot not be and be deceived at the same time, which means that the principle of non-contradiction still holds.
With modern technology and its capacities, the idea of the world as total deception has revived in ways that echo both Plato and Descartes. Just at the end of the last century, several years before our freshmen were born (a jolting thought), The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999) both offered versions of the cave. In the first, Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man brought up from birth unaware that he is the star of an elaborately staged reality TV show. The movie has some classic lines; my favorite is when Ed Harris as “Christof” loses track of a wised-up Truman and needs more light to find him: “Cue the sun!” he says, and up it comes in the middle of the night.
In The Matrix, intelligent machines suspend human beings in pods and use them as a bioenergy source while capturing each consciousness in a shared simulated reality. In only for the plot’s sake, there must be a way out. Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus says to Neo (Keanu Reeves), “You take the blue pill… the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill… you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The metaphor of the red pill that strips away all illusions entered the culture before 9/11, and it continues to be useful, even in conservative Catholic contexts. (Oddly, the Wachowski brothers who made The Matrix are now the Wachowski sisters.)
Traditionally, educators—“leaders-out,” in their etymological roots—have the task of finding those capable of escaping from the cave. By revealing the (sometimes distant) sources of opinion, aiding the ascent to true understanding, and shaping sound views in those who may not grasp the whole truth, higher education ought to question passively received notions that stifle the life of the mind. These days, however, a vehement insistence on illusion seems to have taken hold on college campuses. Challenges to comfortably woke views are likely to be punished with a proactively compliant righteousness. I think of St. Vincent’s in Pennsylvania, where political philosopher David Azerrad commented in his lecture that Kamala Harris’s being both black and female influenced her selection as the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate. This obvious truth drew censure from the college’s administration and a ban on future speakers who might say something else that everybody knows. It’s acceptable to celebrate the fact that Harris and Ketanji Brown Jackson are the first black women in their roles, but verboten to say that the choices were race- and gender-based, even though everybody talked about little else for months.
“Academic freedom” means what, exactly? When I spoke at the Philadelphia Society back in October, I quoted Martin Heidegger’s famous statement, “Questioning is the piety of thought.” One worry is that uneasy blue-pill colleges will keep blocking off all possible exits to the cave. But another is that colleges and universities supposedly encouraging “free inquiry” will import a kind of “Blaine amendment” into intellectual inquiry.
Although this anti-Catholic amendment, proposed in 1875, was never adopted nationally, many states (including Wyoming) picked up its stipulation that no state funds could be used for religious schools. By analogy, an intellectual “Blaine” would mean that “free inquiry” must exclude God in anything but a formal and notional way. In other words, the officially sanctioned “red pill” of questioning might reveal any number of unpleasant and disillusioning things. But soul-stirring hope would be forbidden, as would the revelation of beauty and holiness. God might be referenced as “what some benighted people in the cave still believe,” but not affirmed and loved confessionally as the source of all truth and light, not to mention the real world.
Closing off inquiry is a worry, no question—but closing off the difficult way out of the cave and up to God is not a worry I have at Wyoming Catholic College.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.