PLATO: A JOURNEY TO THE COMPLETELY OTHER
Plato's vision of self-transformation can be found in two important texts: in his Allegory of the Cave from his book The Republic, and in his dialogue The Symposium. At first sight, these two texts seem very different from each other: they speak to us in different metaphors and use different concepts. Nevertheless, I suggest that we can regard them as two aspects of the same vision.
In the Allegory of the Cave, the spiritual journey takes us out of our cave, out of the narrow world of shadows, in other words out of our everyday way of understanding. In the Symposium, the metaphors are different. Here, the discussion is about love. The spiritual journey takes us from a low level of love towards higher and higher forms of love: from love of concrete objects to spiritual love.
Despite the differences, both texts describe a radical self-transformation in which we transcend our everyday world. This is not a vision about improving what we already have, or about adding new things to what we have, but rather a complete change of our world. What Plato envisions is not a search for a better cave or for more beautiful objects—but rather, a transformation that takes us beyond every cave, beyond every pretty object, indeed beyond everything familiar. It takes us beyond everything we know in our everyday life, towards horizons that are completely new. And indeed, in both texts the power that motivates us to change is a yearning for perfection, for fullness, in other words for the pure essence of everything.
So the two texts are really two perspectives on the same basic journey towards radical self-transformation. But there is another point of similarity, which is perhaps at the heart of Plato’s vision. To see this, note that in both texts the goal of the journey is described very vaguely, with hardly any details. What exactly does it mean to see the sun? This is obviously a metaphor, but a metaphor of what? What kind of experience or knowledge does it express? Similarly, what does it mean to see the essence of beauty? What does it mean to experience not just this beautiful thing or that beautiful thing, but to experience beauty itself?
Plato says very little to explain these questions. Although he describes the beginning of the journey quite clearly, he leaves the end of the journey vague—and he does so on purpose.
This suggests that the end-point of Plato’s journey cannot be explained in terms of things which we already know. Nothing in our familiar world can be used to shed light on the kind of experience or knowledge that awaits us. The end-point of the journey is completely different from anything we know.
In short, the spiritual journey proposed by Plato takes us to a place that is completely other, where even our fundamental categories no longer apply, a place which is also completely different from us. And this means that in order to get there, we must lose our world, we must lose our usual ways of thinking, and lose ourselves—or if you wish, we must die, intellectually speaking and spiritually speaking. We must die to our ideas, to our concerns, to our tastes and preferences, and to everything that defines us. This is, indeed, the most extreme self-transformation possible.