In Plato's Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher describes the way most people live their lives. They sit, Plato says, deep in a cave, sheltered from the real world of experience and ideas. Instead of thinking for themselves, they sit, captivated, and watch shadows cast by the hands of their rulers dancing on the cave wall.
And in this way the rulers, the shadow masters, remain in power. The people, distracted, don't examine their lives, don't seek for the truth and don't question the actions of their rulers. Most don't ever walk in the light of the sun, in the real world of truth and self-knowledge.
This story, the Allegory of the Cave, written more than 2,000 years ago, has meaning in today's world — where the shadows on the cave wall are broadcast into our living rooms and available for rent at the local video store.
Plato is among a host of ancient and modern writers whose works form the subject matter of Humanity in Perspective, a class offered free to low-income Portlanders by a collaboration of the Oregon Council for the Humanities and professors from Reed College.
The idea, said Reed English Professor Nathalia King, one of the course's instructors, is to impart to its students a sense of the broad progression of Western thought and, by extension, their place in that progression as Americans.
"All of the material we read — the students seem to find it extraordinarily relevant, not only to their personal lives as citizens or as people who are being pushed around by the state," King said, "but also to their political lives, to international politics."
King said the Allegory of the Cave particularly hits home in this sense.
"When students read it, they often say to me, 'I'll never read a book or watch television or see a movie the same way again,' " King said.
The class begins with a study of the first great Western democracy, that of the ancient Greek city of Athens. Students examine questions central to the humanities, such as the relationship between the individual and the community; the nature of ideals like truth, justice and beauty; and the notion of virtue and what it takes to be a virtuous person. Along with Plato, they read and discuss the works of the great dramatists Sophocles and Euripides; the philosophers Socrates and Aristotle; and the historian Thucydides, among others.
During the second half of the course, the focus changes to the modern United States, where students examine the founding documents of the republic and explore the intellectual thread that connects America with the ancient Athenian democracy. Their curriculum includes works from Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Howard Zinn, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Toni Morrison.
Much of the emphasis in the American half of the course is on the troubles encountered by an evolving democracy like the United States — extending the ideals of freedom and self-determination to all Americans, not just the privileged few. Students examine the ongoing struggle of women, African Americans and other minorities toward full equality.
But the course doesn't just involve reading and discussing the dusty works of ancient thinkers or the writings of modern Americans. A deliberate focus is placed on evaluating the course materials in a historical context, King said. When the broad sweep of history emerges that has led us to the present day — where ordinary individuals enjoy a greater degree of personal freedom than at any other point in history — the importance of being an active participant in civil society becomes apparent.
Kay Dawson, a 2004 graduate of Humanity in Perspective — or HIP, as it's called — said studying the ancient and modern thinkers helped link her personally to contemporary politics.
"Aristotle moved my very soul." Dawson said. "I voted for the first time in many years and the feeling was inspiring. Politics was always a dirty word for me, but I found myself going to the library for books on political parties and how it all works.
"I'm not sure I can express the effect the HIP class had on me completely because more is revealed to me all the time. Someone will make a comment that reminds me of Thomas Hobbes or (Euripides') The Medea. The feeling I get is a very deep sense of satisfaction."
The course also delves into the darker side of democracies — the tendency to use their dynamism to dominate other cultures.
"In the HIP course we parallel the rise of the Athenian polis and the fall of the Athenian Empire to the rise of an American polis and to what could be the fall of the American Empire," King said.
Ultimately, King said, her fellow Reed professors and their collaborators, the Oregon Council of the Humanities, hope that the HIP course will inspire its students to pursue further intellectual enrichment — perhaps even a four-year or graduate degree — and to deepen their involvement in their communities. And from the feedback she and her fellow instructors have received, they're on the right track.
"Every time I teach it, people say to me, 'this course changed my life,' " King said.
Humanity in Perspective is a seven-month course offered from September through March each year at Augustana Lutheran Church, 2710 N.E. 14th Ave. Classes run from 7 to 9 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays. Tuition is free, as are books, on-site child care and bus tickets.
To apply, call 503-241-0543. Applicants must be at least 18 years old and be able to read an English-language newspaper.