“We can easily forgive a child when he is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” ~ Plato
What I initially find intriguing here is that the quote above was written 2500 years ago and is still relevant today.
This month I’ve been reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote and continue to be astonished at the wit and wisdom captured in this 16th century classic story, considered by many to be the first modern novel. As one reads the book it is about so much more than the strange tales of a knight errant who tilts at windmills. Like classic stories of all time, it conveys classic truths about all facets of life. It is remarkably entertaining and even hilarious at times. Yet because it is a “classic” many if not most people imagine it to be dull and a waste of time to read.
I don’t know if public education is to blame for this attitude toward classic literature, or whether contemporary culture is at fault with its emphasis on things fast paced and modern. I only know that there is a fantastic array of great literature at our fingertips offering diversions both stimulating and insightful. Most surprising is how relevant these great books are.
In reading Cervantes one quickly notices that his own knowledge of classic literature is vast, citing passages from Homer and the historians of ancient Greece. The guy spins it all out in a tapestry of images that make you think and, at times, make you laugh out loud.
The story is primarily about Don Quixote, a gentleman of La Mancha in central Spain who has imbibed too many tales about the great deeds of knights and chivalry. But it is far more than this. Was he a madman? A modern existential hero? Or did he have a vision that his peers have lost? He certainly had a very different, even strange, way of interpreting the world and his experiences in it.
In more than one section of the book his friends and family try to get him to see himself as they see him: off his rocker. But the storytelling reveals that their own motives are less than pure. Who is it who needs to be unmasked?
Has Don Quixote created this role as a heroic knight in order to avoid facing up to the emptiness of his own situation? Has he created this fictional self because he can’t face his real self?
In truth, we all have things about ourselves which are difficult to face. It is to our great merit when in humility we can face up to our limitations and weaknesses. Self-understanding is the first step toward self-improvement. Much like renovating an apartment, the task of personal growth is managed one room at a time. It’s an important project, and one that requires commitment because it takes a lifetime.
This post originally appeared on my Ennyman’s Territory blog in the summer of 2007.