In Book VII of Plato’s Republic, Plato tells an allegory illustrating one’s obligation to spread truth and reality to make other lives better.
Plato tells the story of an underground cave that holds prisoners. The prisoners are chained far from the mouth of the cave, unable to move their heads or get up. Behind them lies a path to exit the cave and a fire. In front of the fire, figures are moving and performing various activities. Shadows and darkness are all that the prisoners see as real, and they are completely unaware of the world above.
However, once a prisoner breaks free, the situation changes. Free from his chains, the prisoner sees that there is a way to exit the cave. His initial steps into the sunlight are painful, as his eyes are forced to evaluate light when all he previously knew were darkness and shadows. Though his initial experience was harsh, the enlightened individual eventually adjusts to the sunlight and the true world above.
After experiencing the true and real world above, the individual earnestly desires to share his enlightenment with his companions who are still in the cave. According to Plato, out of “pity,” he returns to the cave and tells the others that they have been living in bondage, in darkness, and apart from the true world.
While I was reading this allegory, the enlightened individual immediately reminded me of a journalist. Like the individual, journalists seek truth and in the similar pursuits of truth, there are obstacles. Both are forced from their chains of ignorance and the shadows of what they think is true. Furthermore, sometimes the truth is troubling, painful, and unwelcome, like the first rush into sunlight after darkness. But once one enters the light, one can never see the darkness the same way. As journalists, sometimes what we discover is disturbing, like corruption in public office or heinous crimes committed, validating the cliche, “the truth hurts.” Of course, the truth can be dangerous. When the enlightened individual descends back into cave, he is not necessarily welcome. For one thing, his eyes, after becoming accustomed to the light, are unfamiliar with the darkness. The individual is no longer one of the prisoners. Also, Plato makes it clear that the prisoners would kill the individual if he tried to loosen others and lead them out of the cave. Likewise, journalists are not ordinary citizens, as they have additional training and certain obligations that the average person does not have. Journalists have also risked their careers and lives while seeking the truth.
More important are the reasons the individual or journalist brings truth to those in literal or figurative darkness. Though Plato calls it “pity,” farther into the chapter he discusses the issue of running the state and how only certain enlightened and educated classes could be entrusted to manage the state. To him, the state was everything, since the title of the book is and he saw the state as a microcosm of life.
I see journalists obligated to present the truth, not out of pity, but to help others govern their state or make informed decisions in their lives.