In Plato's Republic, Book VII, Socrates famously imagined the majority of men as captives in a cave, lit only by firelight behind them, unable to shift position or see anything but shadows on the wall. The captives are perfectly free to talk among themselves, and they spend their days naming the shadows and debating the relative qualities of each. Some, we might imagine, become experts at classifying or comparing shadows, achieving professorships at U. of Cave. But still they're debating the bare outlines of reality, not reality itself.
To simulate Plato's parable today, even the bonfire would have to go. Our cave is more like a sealed echo chamber, restricted to those immediate senses such as touching, smelling, and especially hearing. But not sight. Its inhabitants, though unbound and free to wander, wander in the dark. Gravitating in the direction of the sounds that appeal most to them, they adopt and repeat the phrases that resonate, adding embellishments of their own. Louder and louder, pronouncements bounce off the walls. If challenged on logical or factual grounds, the ultimate pronouncement rings out: I have a right to my opinion!
Columnist and talk-show host Larry Elder recently found himself in the echo chamber-at a dinner party, seated next to a woman eager to let him know how much she despised the president. In an effort to understand why, Mr. Elder discovered that her complaints were nebulous: Bush lied to get us into war; only his rich oil buddies benefit under his "regime," etc. She had no facts, no stats, no quotes from the president to back this up; her words were echoes bouncing off boilerplate. When he tried to point out where she was factually incorrect, or at least lacking, she bristled. "Don't I have a right to my opinion?"
Socrates had an answer to that: "Opinions divorced from knowledge are ugly things." Mere opinion, by his definition, was a creature of shadows, formed on the shifting image of the temporal world. The cave-dwellers imagine that they see, but one vital element is lacking. "Though vision may be in the eyes and its possessor may try to use it . . . yet without the presence of a third thing specifically and naturally adapted to this purpose, you are aware that vision will see nothing."
That "thing" is light. Other senses, such as hearing and smelling, need no such medium; the noise goes directly to the ear and the stink to the nose. But one cannot see without the intervention of light, and where light is limited, so is vision. Or as the Psalmist says, much more succinctly, "In Your light do we see light" (Psalm 36:9).
Socrates was interested in getting at the truth, a quest that drove his hearers to distraction and eventually earned him a death sentence from the democratic citizens of Athens. But today, after half an hour of trying to conduct a reasonable dialogue, Socrates might have begged for the hemlock, just to relieve his aching head.
The loudest "opinions" expressed, not just at dinner parties but on reputable media outlets, appear to be based on accusations that somehow become self-evident truths. Shadows in caves bear some resemblance to real things, if only in outline, and if opposing sides at least agree on the outlines, they can have an argument. An argument in the classical sense, that is: an attempt to mediate between opposing sides. But if one side consists of "hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, misanthropic frat boys, shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, nihilists in golf pants, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, hacks, fakirs, [and] aggressive dorks"-i.e., Republicans, according to mild-mannered Garrison Keillor in a 2004 New York Times opinion piece-it's all over but the shouting.
Even if he was just blowing off steam during a stressful election cycle, Mr. Keillor's rant is one example among many of how opinions become shriller and wilder with each bounce off the echo chamber. They no longer rise even to the level of opinion. They are more like dreams of what the speaker desires to be true, within the prison of his own mind.
And here Scripture speaks again, if we would only listen: "When dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity," says Ecclesiastes.