Eastern Kentucky Coal Mine

In preparation for a course on the ethics of work and leisure, I was able to videotape (by the light of our helmets) five miners in an eastern Kentucky coal mine. We were a half-mile back under a mountain, discussing both the satisfactions and the dangers of their labors. (They compared themselves to astronauts, who, every day, went “where no man has gone before.”) And though we were surrounded by darkness at the end of a bewildering (for me) set of twists and turns, the whole thing was intricately and rationally structured. I knew this because I’d seen the map (replicated here) in the control trailer.

In this man-made cave, I thought back to Plato’s cave allegory in the Republic. There, he pictured the epistemological plight of human kind, comparing us to prisoners chained and facing a wall upon which shadows played. These shadows were the product of items paraded over a bridge between the prisoners and a fire burning at the other end of the cave. Problem is, those in bondage didn’t know these were shadows at all, for they were oblivious to what was going on behind—and above—them.

On Plato’s model, the cave represents the world of human perception and opinion, ridden both ignorance and ignorance of that ignorance. The answer is to break free of one’s chains and climb out of the cave into the sunlight to see things as they really are. The ones who do this are the philosophers, who, through dogged dialogue, home in on the nature of the big things—justice, knowledge, love, courage, etc. These “Forms” are what they are despite what men may think. Indeed, there may be no justice whatsoever on earth, but there’s still capital-J Justice, an ideal existing in its own realm.

But back to the cave. While Plato pictured it as a natural cavern, I think we can extend the analogy to cover man-made, subterranean rooms and tunnels. By this, I mean the web of popular conceits, the deliverances of conventional wisdom, and the structures of peer pressure and professional advance. It connects with the Christian notion of the influence of the big three sin inducers and seducers—the world, the flesh, and the devil—all at work to corrupt our understandings and behavior this side of the grave.

The Greek word for “world” is kosmos, from which the Russians got the word, ‘cosmonaut’ (“universe navigator”) and from which, surprisingly, we get the word ‘cosmetics.’ In the latter case, it has to do with the facial arrangements involved in makeup, the presentation-order of things before one makes a public appearance. Similarly, there is an arrangement of things deployed against the truth of God (the “world” that we’re told not to love in 1 John 2:15), and it’s reasonable to say that much of the entertainment, educational, and political realm constitutes this “world.” And, so, we see a range of film producers, tenured professors, veteran congressmen, bloggers, print journalists, pollsters, magazine publishers, tour directors, booking agents, gallery owners, ad men, novelists, spin doctors, religious gurus, vocal athletes, naturalistic scientists, talk show hosts, etc. cranking out an unholy mess. Of course, there are good folks in all these sectors, but the predominating perspectives are sub-Christian if not anti-Christian . . . and increasingly at odds with just plain common sense and decency (as, for instance, with the transgender movement). So, right along, fools are digging shafts, bracing the current excavations, and chaining up the populace as best they can, so that they can extend and secure the ruinous error of their networks.

Of course, they’re always opening new mines and closing old ones. In an appendix to his book, State of Fear, Michael Crichton surveyed the American excitement over eugenics, which swept the nation (including the leading universities and courts) before World War II. Hitler gave the theory and practice a bad name, so that mine played out. Chattel slavery based on “the curse of Ham” was all the rage in the early eighteenth century, but the “worldly” notions that sustained it fell out of fashion. Always, though, other ruling stupidities (e.g., postmodernist relativism) rush in to keep the world in bondage, unable to “get it” in the most important ways. We’re in a cave all right, but one of our own design.