On Thursday morning, there was a great deal of smoke in the air—so much smoke that when the sun rose, we could look at it. Not just when the sun’s edge was a golden gem on the horizon, glittering through the trees: when it was half an hour up, we could still look at it, like a dull red light in the grey sky. It was small, strangely and almost frighteningly small, when it was revealed to be only the apparent size of the moon.
But it reminded me of the physiological impossibility Plato describes in the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, Plato tells of a people trapped inside a cave, able to see only shadows on the cave’s wall. One of these prisoners is freed, and forced to turn so that he can see the fire and puppets which were making the shadows. At first, though, he is dazzled by the fire, and does not believe that the puppets are half so real as the shadows he has known all his life. Yet despite his resistance, he is brought up out of the cave and into the daylight. Gradually, he is able to see the things of the upper world; shadows first, later things in moonlight, and at last the sunlit world. Then, says Plato,
Last of all, he would be able to look at the Sun and contemplate its nature, not as it appears when reflected in water or any alien medium, but as it is itself in its own domain.Plato, The Republic, Book VII, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford
However, this is impossible. We have not eagles’ eyes, and to look on the sun “in its own domain” is impossible for us unaided. Yes, the Allegory of the Cave is an allegory. Plato is not speaking only of looking at the physical sun, but of beholding ultimate goodness and truth. But I think the allegory might be extended. As we cannot look at the sun itself, so we cannot really understand—being finite—the ultimate truth.
As Dr. Peter Kreeft says in “Ten Uncommon Insights About Evil in The Lord of the Rings,”
Another surprise to us is that it is sometimes “better not to know,” as Merry wisely says of the Eucharist-like waybread or lembas. (For the folly of wanting to know too much and believe too little about that lembas, the Church was split.)
And the Church has been split many times for the sake of understanding. In The Fathers of the Church, Mike Acquilina writes:
Arius’s literalism tended toward rationalism. He saw no way that the Divine Word could proceed from the Father yet still be co-eternal. So he proposed that Jesus was merely a creature, as was the Holy Spirit…
The sun is a good deal easier to see when it is obscured by a thick smoke or fog: but the sun is not really a dull red disk in a grey sky. Nor, when it appears so, does it give light nearly so well.