As I sit down to read yet another dusty tome of Plato, I feel a familiar pricking at the back of my mind. A voice begins to goad me, the same one which robs me of peace and sleep, its tone earnest and demanding. Turning my inner mind towards the questioner, I cock an ear, ready to listen.
“Why do you read these books? You spend evening after evening pouring your time and effort into reading – to what end?”
I smile to myself, cocksure in my answer to the question.
“I read because I want to understand the world more clearly.”
“Really? Then tell me, Tim, what glimpse of wisdom have you gleaned from these ‘great’ works?”
“Well, I have learned to question the ideas that I once held to be sacred, and to try harder to understand the truth.”
“You are a funny fellow, I ask a question, and you answer with a riddle. What is this truth that you seek?”
“Well, I believe that truth is the good, that intangible thing to which we all aspire. I doubt that anyone ever has fully beheld it and that humans even can comprehend it – but I think that the pursuit of truth is a noble venture.”
“So, if you ‘believe’ that this truth is unattainable then why do you read, if a task is impossible why waste effort in the venture?”
“With every book I read, I am exposed to another point of view, one that hopefully challenges my understanding of the truth. If every perspective contains a molecule of the true, then by examining other viewpoints we can gain a better understanding of truth in the abstract.”
The voice takes on a sardonic tone, clearly dissatisfied with my answer.
“You cannot even answer a simple question, for all you are doing is glorifying a lost cause.”
My temper begins to flare, a bead of sweat tracing from my temple down my cheek.
“Science is an incomplete discipline, yet no-one would mock the achievements which science has attained with its incomplete corpus of information.”
“How interesting, I thought we were discussing these old works of philosophy that you keep piled around your bed in such great mounds, not science and all its wonders. But perhaps this is a fortuitous diversion, for now, I ask you why do you not look to science instead of these musty books to understand the truth?”
“Well, science is more the discipline of understanding the how, rather than the why. It explains the nuts and bolts of the universe while I want to dig underneath and find the meaning behind it all.”
“How dare you besmirch the name of the noblest of pursuits in an attempt to advance your prideful folly. For surely, you are suggesting that science is incapable of providing an answer to ‘why,’ just to justify your continuous myopic reading.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that by focusing on some ethereal ‘meaning’ that you have missed the reality squarely before your nose – that there is no meaning, that all that exists is the physical world, one giant chemical reaction that is slowly resolving to an endpoint and then… nothing.”
“You take advantage of my ignorance, for I do not know enough about science to counter your point.”
“Which is my point exactly: what great wisdom do you hope to find in these tomes, written by long dead white men? What possible relevance do they hold today?”
“Well, you present me two questions, the answer to the first is that they form the framework on which we think about the truth. The great mountain we attempt to scale is marked by the trails and footholds of those who went before us. We should attempt to understand the routes they took, and take note of the pitfalls they were unable to avoid. As to your second question, I reject your assertion about the meaningless of reality, for if there is no meaning why should I not merely lie down and let the ravages of time consume my body, returning this corpse to the dust from which it came.”
“Ha, bold words often spring from the mouth of a coward. You approach the verge of the abyss, unable to comprehend the nihilism of reality, and then fall back in terror. Your biology drives you on: to feed, to sleep and to breed – and so you construct these petty mind games to justify your existence instead of facing the only truth that matters.”
“Here, at this point, we reach an impasse. For no matter how fiercely you needle me, I find the position of irreverent nothingness in your argument unconvincing. But, in at least one point I think you are right.”
I lay aside the book in my hands, back onto the huge wave of texts which threatens to break over my head and drown me in a torrent of paper. Carefully tugging another book from a neglected corner of the horde, I turn its worn cover over in my hands: a copy of the Upanishads.
“Plato is far from the only source of wisdom.”