Plato Was a Backpacker

Travel Books: Frank Bures looks a long way back to fellow traveler Plato and the seeds of wisdom

12.15.08 | 12:10 AM ET

Plato shadowsPhoto by Kent Wang, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Not far into Will Durant’s book The Story of Philosophy, I came across a startling fact. In his chapter on the Greek thinker Plato, after discussing the politics, history and geography of ancient Athens, he mentions that, due to political unrest, the philosopher was forced to leave the city-state in 399 B.C.

“Where he went, we cannot for certain say,” Durant writes. “Twelve years he wandered, imbibing wisdom from every source, sitting at every shrine, tasting every creed. Some would have it that he went to Judea and was moulded there for a while by the tradition of the almost socialistic prophets; and even that he found his way to the banks of the Ganges and learned the mystic meditation of the Hindus. We do not know.”

I had no idea Plato spent so much time on the road. Like most students, I was assigned to read The Republic in college—several times. As I recall, it seemed like an interesting set of mental exercises, a decent bunch of questions, with maybe even some worthwhile ideas about how society should be run. (Don’t all college students think they’re philosopher-king material?) But Plato the traveler?

One thing did make a huge impression on me: Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, in which Socrates and Glaucon are having a chat about—what else?—the plight of humanity. Imagine, Socrates says, some people in a cave, chained so they can only see the shadows of things on the wall, not the things as they really are: “They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them.”

Glaucon is taken aback. “It is a strange image,” he says, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.”

“They’re like us,” Socrates replies. “For in the first place, do you suppose such men would have seen anything of themselves and one another other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them?”

“How could they,” Glaucon asks, “if they had been compelled to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”

Indeed. I remember reading this and feeling a sharp pang of recognition, then reading about the guy who is dragged out of the cave to see things as they are for the first time: Not absolute, solid things at all. Just shadows on the wall!

This was heady stuff, and it resonated. Of all “The Republic,” this seemed like the most brilliant and telling critique—just as relevant to our society as it was to Plato’s. At the time I didn’t really understand why this was so powerful for me. Now I think I do.

Oceans of ink have been spilled about what Plato meant when he wrote this story. Was it about the ascent of the soul? Was it about true perceptions of the forms? Was it about proper education? 

Or was it, I wonder, about travel? 

After a little more research, I found that indeed Plato had traveled quite a bit. Yet he didn’t document his voyages like Herodotus. He didn’t keep a diary, or draw any sketches. In fact, he didn’t seem to write much about these travels at all. 

But scholars have pieced them together. According to Jeno Platthy in Plato: A Critical Biography, the philosopher made at least five separate journeys for periods of years to Italy, Sicily, Egypt and “the East.” The later journeys are better known, some of which were made for political reasons. The earlier ones, less so. For example, in his second trip abroad, he supposedly lived in a rented house in Heliopolis (now in Egypt) and helped pay for his time abroad by selling oil. 

Yet it’s Plato’s first trip abroad that holds the most mystery and promise. Pletthy writes that Plato scarcely mentions this adventure, because, “even to himself, such a journey could have appeared ... as a youthful fling abroad, not worthy of recollection which could not be tied to later meaningful historical events.”

A youthful fling, indeed. Plato was 27-years-old and a student of Socrates when he set off for Italy to try to learn the secrets of the Pythagoreans in Acragas. Once there he was “plunged into banqueting,” and there is a cryptic (and disputed) reference to him “never sleeping alone at night” while in the city. Later, he wrote that the residents “build as if they would live forever, and stuff themselves as if they’re eating their last meal before they die.” 

To me, this sounded a lot like Plato’s gap year, his study abroad. And I knew the effect that kind of thing can have on a person, because when I first read the allegory of the cave, I had only been back from my own year in Italy (where I slept alone plenty of times) for a few months. I was in the midst of possibly one of the worst cases of reverse culture shock on record. 

I was questioning everything. Not just the big things. Everything. What I ate. How I dressed. What I believed. Which sports I watched. I thought about how the world worked and how I thought it should work. In Italy, it had all been done differently and worked just fine. Maybe better in some ways. Yet I found myself back among my compatriots who had no real interest in the fact that so many aspects of our lives were arbitrary. Shadows on the wall! It was like they’d been compelled to keep their heads motionless throughout their lives.

This reckless questioning is not the same as wisdom. But I can easily imagine a young Plato coming home from Italy and wanting to scream from the rooftops: “You lemmings! Must we all eat olives and figs?”

It is a powerful experience to see that things don’t have to be the way they are, that our societies and our lives can be arranged otherwise. This is one of the great gifts of seeing the world. 

It can be like coming out of our cave, blinking and looking. It feels like the first time you’ve seen everything. And while that may not be wisdom, it may well be the beginning of wisdom—mine or yours or Plato’s—which is what we hope to find when we have left our caves behind.