The pain of learning


Why does real learning necessarily involve a sort of painful process? Why doesn’t it come more easily, more naturally and more pleasurably? Is there some obstacle in our path, some resistance that has to be overcome or some illusion that we must get rid of before real learning can begin?

Socrates answers all of these questions in his famous ‘Allegory of the Cave’ (Plato, Republic, 7.514a).

He describes our situation of ignorance as one that has been well-established since childhood: we dwell in ignorance (a dark cave), we are unable to move beyond that position of ignorance (“legs and necks fettered…remain[ing] in the same spot”] and although the path to knowledge is open to us (“a long entrance open to the light”) we cannot take it. Why? Because we are hypnotised by shadows of images flickering on the walls of the cave and echoes of sounds heard in the cave (things we assume to be ‘real’ and ‘true’) and we take these to be ‘reality’ and cannot imagine that another reality exists. Is this situation our fault? No. It is simply what we have always known.

According to Socrates, the process of learning and change involves many stages: a release from old preconceptions and assumptions (freedom from the fetters); a sudden shock (sufficient to make one “stand up suddenly”); a changed viewpoint (turning one’s head around); a recognition of true knowledge (the “light”) and pain (“pain…because of the dazzle and glitter of the light”). To realise that one’s knowledge has been built on a false foundation necessarily involves pain and a feeling of being “at a loss”. Do we enjoy this realisation? No. Our first instinct is to run back into the cave with its flickering images, and to dispute the existence of any reality outside of the cave. How easy and comfortable it is to settle back into our original position and to forget.

We must be compelled, by someone else, to overcome our unwillingness to leave our subterranean home:

“[But if] someone should drag him thence by force up the ascent which is rough and steep, and not let him go before he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, do you not think that he would find it painful to be so haled along, and would chafe at it, and when he came out into the light, that his eyes would be filled with its beams so that he would not be able to see even one of the things that we call real?” (Plato, Republic, 7.515e-516a)

Adjustment to the light, says Socrates, takes time and involves a gradual heightening of awareness. First, our eyes must adjust to seeing shadows, then reflections, then the objects themselves, then the light of the heavens, the stars and the moon, and eventually, the light of the sun (Good) itself.

This allegory applies to all forms of learning and education for all forms of learning are difficult. But Socrates had his eye on self-knowledge and knowledge of the Good above all other things and this learning he regarded as the most difficult (and precious) of all.

This allegory does not have to be read, as some would have it, as a sad reflection on the human condition, man’s hopelessness and ignorance, and his unwillingness to change. Amongst other things, it teaches us about the constant presence of Good; the very real possibility of a transition from ignorance to knowledge; recognition of the pain of realisation; acknowledgment of the realities of fear and struggle and internal resistance; our need for help from others; and the happiness that comes with achieving real learning.

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Header image:

Gold stater of Rhodes (c.125-88BC): radiate head of Helios (reverse side has rose with bud on right, grain stalk on left, above moneyer’s signature ANTAIOY).

Image sourced from

G325 An Exceptionally Rare Greek Gold Stater of Rhodes (Islands off Caria), of Extreme Rarity as Compared to the Prolific Minting of Silver and Bronze at Rhodes




The Daily Odyssey


“Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now

in the waves and wars. Add this to the total –

bring the trial on!” (Homer, Odyssey, 5.244-48)

I wake to the sound of Odysseus’ words ringing in my ears. Arise! March on! There is more labour to come and there is nothing to be done but to take the load upon one’s back. A job to get to, a book to write, a house to clean, children to raise – bring the trial on!

The journey always has its perils. Instead of a vast and perilous wine-dark sea we have bad drivers, endless traffic, red-light runners and roadwork monsters. Once we enter our workplace, quiet and dark like a cave, it is as if we are about to be swallowed up by a giant of some kind, for we know not when we might escape, or whether we will ever escape at all. It looks innocent enough, but the challenges are lurking, like Scylla and Charybdis and the clashing rocks.

Some days are like Circe herself: outwardly charming to begin with but with a hidden intent to bring out our beastly side. The trick is to follow the god’s advice and stay immune. Some days are like Calypso: we lose ourselves in her sweet deceptions and when we return to look at the clock, we find, to our horror, that we have just lost ten years in what seemed like minutes. Some days are like a journey to the Underworld: a virtually impossible test of bravery, strength and endurance, punctuated by an unexpected phonecall from our mother.

Then there are the Sirens: self-doubts, worries and old wounds from the past that haunt us and seek to distract us from the task ahead. We must fill our ears with wax and row with all our might.

And of course our colleagues: well-meaning and brave companions who are committed to accompanying us until journey’s end but not always the best at following instructions. For instructions equivalent to “do not open this bag” and “do not eat this cattle” can be seen in virtually every workplace fridge and they are hardly every followed.

Battling with the ‘gods’ takes all our strength and forbearance. Do not anger Poseidon or you will be tossed upon the stormy sea like worthless driftwood; beware Zeus and his thunderbolt that screams “You’re fired!”; pay heed to Athena the wise, grey-eyed goddess with her quiet perceptiveness and good humour.

Now, it’s 5pm. Expect to feel a little washed up and washed out, as if you had just been stripped bare and spat out by the sea and left upon a rocky beach. The palace of Ithaca is in sight but, you can’t go home yet for there are problems. Big problems. Last-minute tasks, lined up like eager suitors, are determined to stop you from getting home. Calm and cunning is required. Disguise yourself like a beggar, trust hardly anyone at all, and plan carefully. Your final effort to push through these obstacles must be calm, considered and merciless.

At the door of your home, there is one final test for the day, this time with loved ones. You have been through a great deal, but you must prove yourself to those who know and love you best. The routine questions “how are you?” and “how was your day?” are really not that different from those that passed between Odysseus and Penelope: “are you still the person I fell in love with?” and “do you remember what we have built together?”. The answer is, and must be, emphatically: Yes! Home at last.


Header Image: Red-figured stamnos (jar) showing Odysseus and the Sirens