Down to the Piraeus

Could I possibly graduate without a last return to where it began? As thoughts turn towards the turmoil of life in the real world, memories of a cramped room in Kuhlman Hall and the first chill of an idyllic autumn can’t help but surface. Plato’s Republic, the first text many of us encountered on arrival to campus, serves as the progenitor for much of what we do here — and in this moment reads as comforting clarity in the tempest of an uncertain future.

The dialogue, and much of Western philosophy for that matter, emanates from its now canonized first line: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday.” Offered by the text’s protagonist (or antagonist, as he’d surely prefer), Socrates, it recollects his descent down from the elevated hilltop marketplace of the Agora to the Aegean port called the Piraeus — a community that served as a home to the outsiders of ancient Athens: vagabonds, adventurers and foreign merchants mostly. There, the gadfly engages his interlocutors in a discussion of justice and the good life that still evokes both admiration and aversion today.

Thumbing through my copy, Book VII of the dialogue hosts Plato’s discussion of the cave, perhaps the most enduring allegory in the Western canon. There, we find a community of prisoners condemned from birth to a life chasing illusory shadows, chained up so as to forever labour in a state of near-understanding as flickering images dance around them on the cave walls. That is, until one day when a prisoners gets loose, and stumbles his way up and out into the dazzling sunlight beyond the cave. Though initially overwhelmed, our protagonist soon finds his footing in the shimmering world outside, and is afforded the opportunity to study the forms that he has long known in faint silhouettes.

Now, faced with the possibility of an illuminated life, we might expect the freed prisoner to stay forever out in the sun. But then, something rather odd happens. The prisoner, for one reason or another, is compelled to rejoin his companions within the cave. In doing so, he descends back again to the place of flickering shadows.

Here, the metaphor becomes clear enough. For just as the prisoner descends down to the cave, so too does Socrates descend down to the Piraeus at the text’s outset. Eschewing the world of dazzling lights, both embrace the decision to descend and to engage the community there not from on high but on equal ground.

In a similarly-titled essay for the Harvard Advocate about a decade ago, then-undergraduate and now-author Mark Chiusano offered a rather gloomy interpretation of the descent to the cave, likening it to Odysseus’ lonely travels down into the underworld in Homer’s Odyssey. But I prefer to think about the journey a little differently. Imagine, if you’ll indulge me, the joyous return of the freed prisoner to his friends. I like to envision the delight of a homecoming as he selects to live once again amongst those with whom he has always belonged — to share with breathless enthusiasm the tales of his adventures above.

Now, this movement is often read — and indeed Plato intended it — in the spirit of paternalism and an elitist arrogance. Truly, the allegory of the cave serves to support Plato’s fraught assertion that philosophers, those who had left the cave, ought to rule with dominion over those trapped below. But I like to imagine an alternate possibility because, well, I can.

At the end of my college years, the descent to the Piraeus now reads with striking clarity as a reintegration into community, an opportunity to once again be amongst others in the real world and to mingle the stumbling experiences outside of the cave with the realities of life within.

Over the last four years, we have been granted a dazzling stint in the sun — the chance to ascend to the heights of the Agora. Now, the moment has come. We are compelled to return to the Piraeus, not in the spirit of an ugly paternalism but with a sense of responsibility that never forgets the necessities of curiosity and humility in all things. Such an approach reminds me of a somewhat-clichéd line from The West Wing, in which President and Nobel Laureate Josiah Bartlet reminds us, “Having talent and education doesn’t place you above the rest of the world. It makes you responsible for it.”

It is in this sense of service that we are called back from the world of undergraduate pursuits. We are compelled to use what we have gathered these last few years — of love, of justice, of compassion — in joyous return to those around us.

Mom, Dad, Daniel — thank you, now and forever.

By. Ryan Kambich

Ryan Kambich is a graduating senior. During his time with the Newswire he has served as the Opinions & Editorials Editor, the Distribution Manager, a copy editor and a staff writer.