As we ponder this new year, you may find yourself reflecting on your life and where you are going. What are your desires and goals for 2022? Are you progressing toward becoming your best self?
A few years ago, my wife and I traveled to Florence, Italy. During that time that I reflected much on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” as my eyes were opened to new thoughts and ideas not yet discovered. But once found, we were eager to tell others all about it!
We were enlightened and moved by the sculptures, art, music, and the Renaissance inspired by Florence. Linda pointed out that Florence, although small and relatively obscure, nevertheless served as a gathering place for artists who changed the world. It made me reflect on other gatherings of great philosophical minds in likewise small and unassuming places, including perhaps Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. It seems when Providence wants to further the cause of truth, liberty, beauty, and goodness, he gathers his servants in fertile places like Athens, Jerusalem, Florence, and Philadelphia so that the windows of freedom to our souls can be opened.
The Gallery of Slaves
The theme of becoming one’s best self through “leaving the cave” seemed to be captured best by our visit to the museum Accademia, where the famed David sculpture by Michelangelo resides. To find it we walked through the gallery of slaves where partially completed works stand as sentinels to The David, the ideal man whom we all aspire to become.
In the gallery, there are four tormented slaves still held captive in the marble from which they struggle to find their freedom. Each of these unfinished works are at various stages of mortal, mental or spiritual development as they move to a state of completeness, or perfection. As Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
The first is The Young Slave. He is early in his journey and seems burdened by a weary step with his left arm shielding his face. His back is unfinished with a burden that needs to be lifted.
The second is The Awakening Slave. The limbs and torso are strong which captures the difficult struggle to throw off burdens of the flesh or self-imposed limitations.
The third is The Bearded Slave, suggesting a man who is closer than the first two in finding freedom or special excellence he was meant to discover.
The fourth is Atlas. He carries a huge stone of weight on very wide and capable shoulders next to his head. The arms and shoulders are supporting his mental struggle, the same as which we all must grapple. Or perhaps as he struggles to exit his mortal limitations, he feels the weight of the future and the questions of eternity.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
What the hall means to me
As I pondered this room and scenes, I considered the mental, temporal, and emotional demons that I have been trying to throw off for years in my pursuit of excellence. The gallery of slaves represents the journey to becoming who I am meant to be. In the end, my complete and fully-developed self will be different from others because my gifts are unique to me. I do believe it takes immense and consistent struggle to achieve the result found in the chips and polish of the chisel and water. It is the work of a lifetime, and it is coming to recognize and then transcend our limitations.
The artists in Florence today
Linda and I spent another one of our days in Florence visiting artisans around the city. Some of these artists were doing unique things such as laying fine pieces of stone to make tables and framed scenes of Florence. Others were experts in the use of leather. Another man crafted handmade shoes. He carefully measured each person’s feet and then fit the shoes expertly to the individual. Every shoe was a work of art. As we engaged this young man in conversation, he lamented how many youths wanted to go into banking or computers, but they were not finding jobs and at the same time missing out on the chance to create something beautiful by craft or art. Everything in Florence is about artistry and allowing unique beauty to be found and frequently making beauty from ashes. The people here lament when seemingly “old things” are thrown away because of a lack of knowledge about the history of an item that once served others. Florence is a kindred city to an education in the liberal arts.
All these artists are moving forward the cause of liberty by freeing the mind, body, and soul of man. The most essential talent of a teacher is, as Socrates said, “to be a midwife to the minds of their disciples.” This suggests thoughtful and careful pursuit of truth. Each chip in the stone must be carefully considered before the act is done. This is how we come out of the stone fully formed as our best selves.