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Philosophy Made Simple

Allegory of the Cave

Rudy took up philosophy late in life. He wanted some answers, an explanation, or at least a chance to ponder the great mysteries, before it was too late-love and death, the meaning and purpose of human existence, moments of vision, the voice of God, the manifest indifference of the material universe to injustice and suffering, the insanity of war, the mysterious tug of beauty on the human heart. What did he know about these things? Not a lot. But something. He'd never had a college education. He'd turned down a basketball scholarship at Michigan State University in order to go to work for Harry Becker up in Chicago. But he hadn't peddled avocados for thirty years on the South Water Street Market without learning a thing or two about life, and Helen, his wife, had practiced all her lectures on him when she'd started teaching art history at Edgar Lee Masters, dropping her slides one at a time into the projector on the dining room table, the front end propped up on a couple of paperbacks so that it cast a slightly top-heavy image on the wall over the sideboard. So he knew a little bit about Beauty too. Beauty with a capital B: not just a pretty face or a picturesque landscape, not just a Greek Aphrodite or a Renaissance nude or a Turner sunset, but something that might shoot out of an old man's face or out of a side of beef, sharp as his carbon steel kitchen knives, sad as bent notes on his guitar, but joyful at the same time.

Rudy'd met Helen after a basketball game in Gary, Indiana, back in 1925. He'd played for a semipro team sponsored by the commission merchants on the market, the South Water Bluestreaks. Helen's uncle, who worked for the Leshinsky Potato Company, next to Becker's on the market, was one of the refs and had introduced them after the last game of the season, in which Rudy'd made the winning basket. A week later, Saturday night, they'd taken the trolley up to Rogers Park to see Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera at the new Granada Theater, and afterward they'd walked down to the lake. By the time Rudy got home it was three o'clock in the morning, but he wasn't tired.

Helen had been dead for seven years now; Meg, their oldest, had a law degree and two kids and was planning to go back to work full-time; Molly, their middle daughter, was teaching social dancing at the Arabesque Dance Studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while she studied to get her real-estate license; Margot, the youngest-a book conservator at the Newberry Library on the near North Side-had just gone to Italy on the spur of the moment, right after the big flood in Florence.

What had happened? Where had it gone? Life? His life? What would happen to him now? Looking back, he wondered about the scholarship. Of course, if he'd accepted it, everything would have been different, wouldn't it? He'd never have met Helen; he and Helen would never have bought this old house, never have had three daughters; Helen would never have gone to Italy and met Bruno Bruni, and so on. On the other hand, maybe in a parallel universe he had accepted it. And maybe in a parallel universe Helen was still alive, living in Italy with Bruni. That's what his daughter's Indian boyfriend, Tejinder Kaal, nephew of the philosopher Siva Singh, seemed to be getting at in an article that Molly'd sent him. Rudy hadn't been able to make head nor tail of the article, which had been published in a journal called Physical Review Letters. Parallel universes. What a crock, he'd thought, but then Tejinder's picture had appeared in the science pages of Time and Newsweek, along with sketches of ghostly people from parallel universes superimposed on photos of a playground (Newsweek) and a cemetery (Time). Both Time and Newsweek cited one of Helen's favorite poems, "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost, because, according to Tejinder, there were no roads not taken.


Thanksgiving was the same as always-turkey, dressing (dry and moist), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocados stuffed with chutney, cranberry relish, apple pie-except that Margot was still in Florence, and Molly had stayed in Ann Arbor in order to be with Tejinder. Dan, Meg's husband, had taken the car to get gassed up for the trip back to Milwaukee. Meg had put the boys down for a nap and was helping him with the dishes. Rudy was washing and she was drying bowls and plastic containers and wooden spoons-all the stuff that didn't go in the dishwasher-and spreading them out on towels on the kitchen table.

She and Dan had just bought a house up in Milwaukee, and when she said, "Pop, uh, we've, uh, been kind of wondering," Rudy thought she was going to ask him for some money, which he didn't have enough of. But she said, "We've, uh, kind of been wondering about having Christmas in Milwaukee this year."

Rudy rinsed off his hands, dried them on a dish towel, and poured himself another cup of coffee from the pot on the stove. He wasn't sure who was included in the "we."

She started to talk a little faster. Now that Philip was in first grade and little Danny was starting nursery school, she said, she needed to get out of the house. She'd joined the newly formed National Organization for Women, she said, and she was going to start working for a firm of young lawyers in Shorewood-Berlin, Killion, and Wagner-and expected to be very busy getting her feet on the ground; she'd be lucky to get Christmas Day off. Molly was working hard too and would probably be staying in Ann Arbor anyway, Meg explained, so he knew they'd already talked it over. The train schedule was really impossible, and Molly had sold her car, and TJ had relatives in Detroit. But all he, Rudy, would have to do-and Margot, if she ever got back from Italy-was hop on a train in Union Station and he'd be in Milwaukee in about ninety minutes if he didn't feel like driving, or if the weather was bad.

Rudy's life-or maybe it was just Life-had always had a way of sneaking up on him, catching him by surprise. He'd think a chapter was about over, and then it would go on and on. Or he'd think he was in the middle of a chapter, and all of a sudden it would stop. It hadn't been so bad when he was young, because most of the chapters had been ahead of him; but at Rudy's age, six zero, there weren't so many chapters left. He hated to see a good one come to an end, which was what was happening.

"Well," he said, looking down into his empty coffee cup, "suit yourself, if that's what you really want." This was a phrase he'd used a lot when the girls were in their teens. One of them-usually Molly-would want to hitchhike out to California with her boyfriend, and he'd say: "Suit yourself, if that's what you really want."

And that's the way they left it, because just as Meg was about to say something that might have settled Christmas one way or another, Dan came in the back door, kicking snow off his boots, saying that the weather was looking bad and they ought to get going before it got dark.

After they'd gone Rudy sat down in the kitchen and started to work seriously on a bottle of pretty good Chianti that was still sitting on the table, imagining what Christmas would be like in Milwaukee, or here in Chicago with just him and the dogs, and maybe Margot, and by the time he got to the bottom of the bottle he'd pretty well convinced himself that he ought to sell the house and go down to Texas and buy Creaky Wilson's avocado grove. Creaky had died of a heart attack in September, just at the start of the season, and Maxine, Creaky's widow, had called to see if he was interested or knew anyone who might be interested. Rudy'd never raised avocados, but he'd raised peaches and apples with his dad, and he'd been handling Becker's avocado account for thirty years. Most avocados come from California-thick-skinned Fuertes and Hasses-but Rudy preferred the thin-skinned Texas Lula, pear-shaped with creamy sweet flesh. Well, he thought, swirling the last of the Chianti in the bottom of his glass, it would be a good way of making them-his three daughters-appreciate what it meant to come home for Christmas to the place you grew up in.

He went down to the basement and pulled out an old one-by-twelve board that had been lying on the floor behind the furnace ever since he'd taken down the bunk beds in Meg's old room-the board had been used to keep Meg from falling out of the top bunk-and cut off a two-foot length with a new saw. The saw-a present from the Texas Avocado Growers Association-was Japanese and cut on the upward pull rather than on the downward thrust, which confused him a little but didn't stop him.

He didn't bother to sand down the edges; he just opened a can of the paint he'd been meaning to use on the storm windows and painted:


in big black letters. Underneath FOR SALE he painted:


When he was done he brought down an electric fan from the attic and turned it on and pointed it at the sign to make the paint dry quicker, and then he went upstairs and sat down in Helen's study, as he sometimes did when he was upset or lonely. It was a small room but it held a lot of books, on shelves he'd built himself. The curves at the top of each bay were modeled on the curves of a famous bridge in Italy. Helen had given him a photo and he'd made a jig to cut the curves. The door on the east opened into the hallway, the one on the west into their bedroom. On the north wall three mullioned windows with leaded glass opened onto the roof of the porte cochere. Helen and the girls had liked to sunbathe on the roof in the summer.

Helen had been raised by an aunt and uncle. The old post-office desk, with a sloping surface and a shelf at the back, had been her uncle's. It was big and solid. Rudy had had to take the jambs off the door to get it into the room. It was where she'd graded her papers and written her articles. She'd taught art history at Edgar Lee Masters, a small liberal arts college on the near North Side, not far from her aunt and uncle's two-story brick bungalow. Her specialty had been medieval and Renaissance art, but she'd liked modern art too, and the bay on the right of the desk was filled with books about modern artists. From where he was sitting Rudy could see that the artists' names on the spines were in alphabetical order: Bacon, Beckman, Braque, Chagall, Dali, de Kooning . . . Helen was always rearranging her books-alphabetical order, chronological order, by nationality, by period-just as she was always rearranging her life.

Rudy looked out the north window at the vacant lot next door. The house had been bought by a crazycontractor who'd knocked out so many of the supporting walls that the city condemned it and finally bulldozed the whole house and filled the basement with rubble. The contractor offered to give Rudy the lot, and he'd thought about it. He could have built a garage and put in a garden, but there were too many liens against the property and no way to untangle them.

Rudy sat down at the desk and picked up a large paperback, printed on cheap paper, that Molly had sent him from Ann Arbor. It was the fifteenth edition of a student handbook called Philosophy Made Simple and had been written by her boyfriend's uncle, the philosopher Siva Singh. From the copy on the back Rudy learned that Siva Singh had studied at Oxford and then at Yale, that his scholarly reputation rested on his magisterial Schopenhauer and the Upanishads, and that no one was better qualified to guide the reader on "a never-ending quest to explore the profound mysteries of human existence."

The wine was wearing off, and Rudy was depressed, hungry too, not for more turkey, but for . . . He wasn't sure what to call it: knowledge, wisdom, certainty? Some sense of what it all meant? To explore the profound mysteries of human existence? He was tired, and lonely, and the house was empty. He always felt like this after the girls left. It was a kind of seasickness. He needed some Dramamine. But you have to take Dramamine before you start to get seasick. He went downstairs to see what the dogs were up to-Brownie, a German shepherd, and Saskia, part Lab, part retriever. Not much. They were getting old, arthritic, but they could still make it up the stairs at night to sleep at the foot of his bed. He liked to hear them breathing, liked their familiar smells.

He fixed himself a cup of coffee and went back upstairs to Helen's study and opened Philosophy Made Simple. "There are two kinds of people," he discovered: Platonists and Aristotelians. It didn't take him long to figure out that he was a Platonist. Him. He. Rudy Harrington. And in a funny way he knew that he'd known it all along, at least since his geometry class in seventh grade. The circles he'd drawn with his little compass had been imperfect shadows of a real circle, a Platonic circle, a circle that existed on another plane of reality. He'd known it all along: that the world of the senses is unstable, always changing, but that there's got to be something beyond it that stays the same, like the perfect forms: triangles and circles and squares, and ideas too, Beauty and Goodness and Love. He'd known it all along, but he'd suppressed it. Because he hadn't wanted to look foolish.

The chapter ended with a long discussion of a famous cave that Plato wrote about in his book The Republic. It was hard to figure out at first. Rudy got a piece of typing paper and tried to sketch the cave with his fountain pen, Helen's old green and black striped Pelikan with an inscription on the black cap: una cosa di bellezza. Rudy was sure it had been a present from Bruno Bruni, but he carried it with him at all times because even though the hand that once held it had long ago been reduced to ashes at the North Shore Crematorium, it seemed to him to contain-like a powerful totem-something of Helen's spirit.

He drew a cross section of a cave. Then he added some stick people facing the opening of the cave. Then he took another sheet of paper and drew another cave and this time he put the stick people facing the back of the cave. Behind the stick people, outside the entrance of the cave, he drew some jagged lines to represent the flames of a fire. Then he drew some more stick people, passing by outside between the entrance of the cave and the fire, which acted as a sort of projector. The stick people outside the entrance carried different objects that cast shadows on the back of the cave. Rudy crosshatched the shadows.

It was a rough sketch, but he thought it captured what Plato had in mind: the stick people in the cave can see only the shadows cast by the figures that pass by outside. These shadows represent the unstable world of appearances. We are the stick people, he thought. This is what we see. But there's another reality behind appearances. Real reality. Sometimes a person-one of the stick people-gets a glimpse of this reality. Maybe he manages to break out of the cave into the bright light of day, and then, just because he's a little disoriented, people think he's crazy. And if he goes back into the cave and tells the other stick people what he saw outside, they think he's crazy. Is that what had happened to Rudy many years ago in his seventh-grade geometry class, standing at the blackboard long after the other students had returned to their seats, trying to prove-with everyone staring at him-that if the bisectors of two angles of a triangle are equal in length, the triangle is isosceles? He could see it was true. It had to be true. It couldn't not be true. It had been true before he drew the triangle on the board, and it would be true after he erased it. It had always been true, and it always would be true. He could see this truth as clearly as he could see Miss Buck, his favorite teacher, sitting at her desk, looking over the top of her steel-rimmed glasses at a set of papers she was marking, making little ticks with her red pencil. He could see it was true, but he couldn't prove it was true, even though he'd memorized every axiom and every theorem in the book. And every corollary too. All he could do was stare at the imperfect triangle, Triangle ABC, that he'd drawn on the board with a piece of chalk.

Finally Miss Buck said, "You may take your seat now, Rudy."


Reading Philosophy Made Simple, Rudy made another discovery that was perhaps equally important. He may have been a Platonist, but Helen, he realized, had been an Aristotelian. She'd attended DePaul University, "the little school under the El," which is a Catholic school, but there wasn't a religious bone in her body. She had no use for another world. Other worlds spelled trouble. The Roman Catholic Church, she maintained, was the most corrupt institution in the history of the world, and other religions weren't far behind: "Just look around: Catholic versus Protestant; Methodist versus Free Methodist; Christian versus Jew; Jew versus Muslim; Shiite versus Sunni; Sephardic versus Ashkenazi; Hindu versus Muslim; Hindu versus Sikh. And so on."

No, this world had been enough for Helen. She'd had no interest in another world beyond the realm of appearances. She would have dismissed Plato's ideal forms-the real reality behind the world of appearances-just as Aristotle, according to Siva Singh, had dismissed them, saying they had no more meaning than singing la la la. Then why did she love medieval and Renaissance paintings? all those saints and madonnas and crucifixions and resurrections and epiphanies . . . ? All of a sudden Rudy understood: it was because she insisted on looking at them, as if they were just things, whereas he tried to look through them. It was the same with music. Bach's B Minor Mass or "Mr. Jelly Roll Baker," it didn't matter. She listened to the notes; he listened through them. She heard melody and harmony and counterpoint; he heard something calling him from far, far away.

Excerpted from Philosophy Made Simple © Copyright 2012 by Robert Hellenga. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown. All rights reserved.

Philosophy Made Simple
by by Robert Hellenga

  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 031601334X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316013345