The Word Embodied
Escape from Plato’s Cave
“I am the light of the world: anyone who follows me
will not be walking in the dark,
but will have the light of life.” (Jn 8:12)
Throughout the Fourth Gospel we find a range of statements in which Jesus makes solemn pronouncements about his identity and mission. They are the great “I am” sayings, which are not found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.
In the eighth chapter of John, for example, Jesus reveals that “I am he” from above, who does what the Father wishes. More startling he says, “Before Abraham was, I am”—an echo of the words uttered by the God of Moses.
This transcendent implication of the “I am” is further complemented by what can only be called a litany of salvation names.
The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel portrays himself as the vine without which we would be groundless and barren. He is also the bread of life. He is the good shepherd. He is the gate. He is the way, the truth, and the life.
But what is particularly interesting in the context of the Gospel story of the “man born blind” is Jesus’ announcement, “I am the light of the world,” which is found in both the eighth and ninth chapters.
The healed man was in physical darkness from birth. The sight Jesus gave him not only allowed him to see the world, but to embrace his healer in faith.
More damaging than the man’s organic lack of vision was the spiritual blindness of his neighbors and the Pharisees. They had eyes but could not see the truth. Some of them could not even accept that the cure was real, even though the man said, “I’m the one all right.”
The Pharisees first reject the grace of healing under the pretext that it was done on the Sabbath. Surely good cannot come from that. Then they entertain the possibility that the poor fellow was never really blind. Even the testimony of the parents cannot convince them.
The Pharisees insist that the man deny the very gift of the sight he has been given and renounce the giver. But since he assures them that Christ must be from God, they expel him from their premises. “You are steeped in sin from your birth, and you are giving us lectures?”
When Jesus seeks out the man and receives his profession of faith, he utters the paradox that the sightless see and those who think they see are really in the darkness of sin.
The Fourth Gospel’s stark contrast of appearances and reality, true and erroneous opinion, light and darkness, is often seen as a result of Greek and Gnostic influences. But such contrasts are not limited to this gospel, nor are they a theme of the Greeks alone.
We know that in the selection of David as king, the Lord told Samuel not to judge by mere appearances or by any other human standard, for God sees differently than mere humans. Paul calls his Ephesians children of a “light” that produces every kind of goodness, justice, and truth. Christ himself embodies the promise of the psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
The story of the blind man does, however, ring a bell for anyone who has ever read “The Myth of the Cave” in Plato’s Republic. There we find a story of all humanity chained in a darkened cave throughout life.
These captives can see nothing but flickering images on a wall—shadows, appearances, illusions—which they take for reality. One prisoner, liberated from the chains, makes the arduous crawl upward to the world of the shining sun.
When he returns to the cave with his tales of the new-found source of light and the life and warmth it gives, the prisoners think him crazy. They simply deny his experience. It just can’t be. The chains and the amusing images on the wall are reality. Thus his conversion is ridiculed; his invitation is resisted.
This is how the Greek Plato describes the intellectual assent of the soul to truth. To contemplate divine life is to find freedom; but it is also to encounter opposition from “the evil state of man, misbehaving in a ridiculous manner, arguing over shadows and images.”
Clearly there are parallels between the Platonic myth of the cave and the story of the man born blind. Each figure is given new sight. Each is rejected by the inhabitants of the old world. And even the so-called wise authorities would rather cling to their chains and discuss the shadows than embark on the journey of faith.
As opposed to Plato, however, for whom the sun was the absolute form of good, the light the blind man of the gospels saw revealed not merely an unchanging and perfect world of ideas, but the face of the Son of God.
In the light of his life, those who have embraced the vision have encountered the ultimate reality: not pure being or absolute form, but an eternal community of persons in relationship. The “I am” indeed gives light and life. Far more wonderfully, our God gives and receives love.
The words of the old hymn “Amazing Grace” remind all of is who know that, once blind, we now see:
When we’ve been here ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University