If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life.
— Plato, b. Aristocles (c.427–347 BC)
To paraphrase, the unexamined life is a life not worth living. Life is the most precious gift we have and we all take it for granted to varying degrees. I was fortunate in that my father instilled within me a love for knowledge. I have an insatiable curiosity that has been the source of constant enjoyment in my life. This love for knowledge is a value I have attempted to pass on to my own son.
One day, when he was about eight years of age, we were watching some martial arts movie and I mentioned to him that Steven Seagall couldn’t hold a candle to Bruce Lee. We rented some Bruce Lee movies and he got the “Kung Fu” bug. For most of my adult life, I have studied the martial arts under several teachers, mostly in the Wing Chun style (which was Bruce Lee’s first art). So I made a pact with my son: we would study together under a sifu (teacher) I knew, but he had to commit to become a “scholar-warrior.”
The “Scholar-Warrior” is an archetype that appears in most cultures throughout history: the samurais, the knights, the Buddhist monks, and nuns of china, etc. The Scholar-Warrior learned not only the martial arts, but also the fine arts of poetry and painting, and music; and they learned the healing arts. Scholar-Warriors were well-rounded individuals who represented the best of their culture.
My son fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. My son and I (along with my wife at the time) studied the martial art of Wing Chun for a couple of years. As part of that training, we learned many things: reiki, chi exercises, knowledge of herbs, healing arts, etc.
The following is one of the first lessons I taught my son after he took the vow of the “Scholar-Warrior”:
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Plato is considered one of the most important intellectual figures in Western history. He was the founder of the first university, “The Academy,” where students read the Socratic dialogues. The essence of Plato’s philosophy is demonstrated in the allegory of the Myth of the Cave, which appears in his work, The Republic.
In this myth, Plato proposes the following vision: Imagine prisoners chained in such a way that they face the back wall of a cave. They have been there for life and can see nothing of themselves or of each other. They see only shadows on the wall of the cave.
The shadows are caused by a fire that burns on a ledge above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners is a path lined with a wall along which people carrying vases, statues, and other artifacts on their heads. The prisoners hear the echoes of voices and see the shadows of the artifacts, and they mistake those echoes and shadows for reality.
The point of the allegory is that our purpose in life is break free of those chains and venture out of the cave into the open in order to experience reality. That “steep and rugged ascent” is Plato’s allegory of education and leads us out into the real world of sunlight and knowledge where we can truly gaze upon the sun (the sun being the allegory of enlightenment).
Plato suggests that if such a man were to attempt to return to the cave and liberate the other prisoners, they would set upon him and kill him. The allegory of the cave, with its story of the liberation of the prisoner from darkness, deceit, and untruth and the ensuing hard journey into the light and warmth of the Truth has inspired many philosophers and social leaders. But Plato meant this allegory as more than mere poetic vision. He used this work, to give it a precise, technical application. Within this application, he was able to offer a map in which opinion and knowledge are clearly marked.
The Scholar-Warrior and Swimming Lessons
I have fond memories of teaching my then seven-year-old son to swim. In the beginning, he was very nervous about being in the water and would immediately panic if left to tread for himself. Eventually, I was able to gain enough of his trust that we could begin the process of swimming lessons. First, there were the mechanics of teaching him to kick and stroke with his legs and arms and this was done while I held him. Then, in order to lessen his fear, I gained enough trust from him that he would jump into the water with me waiting for him maybe five feet away from the pool’s edge.
Eventually, he learned enough to be able to swim for himself, but his fear would not allow him. The time came when he could actually swim on his own, but no sooner than he realized I wasn’t holding him, he would react in fear, panic, and sink. At those times, I would go to him and he would cling tenaciously to me, his little heart beating wildly against my chest. At this point, it was no longer about teaching him the mechanics of swimming, but leading him to where he could trust his own ability to float/ swim.
For me, my son’s experience in swimming lessons is a metaphor for the essence of learning to love…
At the very core of the experience of being human is an intuitive sense we all possess regarding the value of unconditional love. We come face to face with the greatest joy in loving when we can hold back judgments and open fully to the vivid experience of another’s being. In addition, we feel most loved when others recognize and respond to us totally — with all their being. Unconditional love holds a tremendous power because it activates the much larger energy that connects us with the deep vastness of what it is to be human.
This is the energy of the heart.
The times we experience snatches of this unconditional love most vividly is in beginnings — when we first open to another as love, for example. I think we have all experienced times where we felt moved and inspired by the mere presence of another person’s presence. During these times, tough, frozen, forgotten places inside us seemed to melt and soften as the stream of love warmed us like a spring Sun.
Yet, especially in intimate relationships, we inevitably come up against the so-called “reality” of our fears, restraints, and caution about letting our love flow so freely. The doubts begin to surface: will we be swept away? Can we let ourselves feel this open? Will we get hurt? Our trust issues begin to surface: Can we trust this person? Will we be able to get our needs met in this relationship? Then there are the little things that don’t seem as little as time passes: Can we live with those things that irritate us in the other?
These fears compel us to place conditions on our openness: “I can only be this open and vulnerable with you if… I get my needs met; you love me as much as I love you; you don’t hurt me, etc.
You might wonder at this point what relevance does this have with the archetype of the Scholar-Warrior, or of learning (which is what all this is really about). For me, this is the basic stuff of education. It’s a little bit of a departure from standardized tests and standardized minds, but it is within this sacred heart where the mind is opened. In order for me as a father to offer my son the gift of the love for knowledge, I had to earn his trust to the point where he would literally out his life in my hands. And that’s what he did every time he jumped into the pool. This is the aspect of education that is often dismissed or that goes unrecognized because it touches on something intimate.
But don’t fool yourself: without this our children will never learn. They might learn by rote, but they’ll never learn to be free. To paraphrase: unconditional love has its reasons which reason cannot know.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization