You have probably seen it a hundred times — you will find it in many collections of quotes (online and in print) as well as posters and tshirts. The full quotation, of course, is “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light” and invariably it is attributed to one of the greatest philosophers of all time: Plato. Only problem is that Plato, who lived around 428 to 347 BC, never said this. Oops.
Attributing this quote to Plato is not far-fetched, perhaps because it is understandably conflated with his well-known allegory of the cave. In his seminal work, Republic (written about 380 BC) Plato writes about a discussion Socrates had with some Athenians. Socrates described the following setting: there are humans chained to the side of a cave, facing a blank wall. Because they are deep inside the cave, they cannot see the outside world — all they can see are shadows (“forms”) of things that pass by the fire. Consequently, they give names to each of these shadows. These shadows are the prisoners’ only reality. One fateful day, one of the prisoners breaks free and ventures out into the real world and is astonished by what he sees. Feeling sorry for his fellow men, he returns to explain how amazing the real world is, and that all they have seen and known is an illusion — merely shadows on a wall. You can imagine the response: most think he is a few peas short of a pod. And they stay put — better to stick with what we know then to walk out into the light, following the ramblings of a crazy escapee. And that image leads us to the meaning of the allegory: don’t stay chained in the dark, go out and explore the world, question everything. Socrates said it best at his trial (described in Plato’s Apology), “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
The discussion of dark and light aligns neatly with the allegory of the cave, right? I mean, the sentiment is quintessential Plato? Not so fast, Padawan. To find the true source of this quote you will need to step into a time machine and transport yourself almost 2,500 years later — to 1997! Alas, the true source of this quote is not an ancient Greek but a very modern Canadian — namely, Robin Sharma, a writer and motivational speaker. This famous quote appears in his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, a self-help book that was published in 1997. According to the author, the book “gently offers answers to life’s biggest questions as well as a practical process to help you create prosperity, vitality, happiness and inner peace. This inspiring tale provides a step-by-step approach to living with greater courage, balance, abundance, and joy. A wonderfully crafted fable, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari tells the extraordinary story of Julian Mantle, a lawyer forced to confront the spiritual crisis of his out-of-balance life. On a life-changing odyssey to an ancient culture, he discovers powerful, wise, and practical lessons that teach us to [live a fuller, more meaningful life].” Something that Plato could definitely give an enthusiastic high five to. Of course, Plato, would not be happy with the false attribution of the quote. But imagine Sharma’s annoyance of having his aphorism being universally attributed to Plato — “Hey, Robin, you stole that great line from Plato, didn’t you?” It’s about time that we give this living author the credit he deserves. Share this post when you see someone mistakenly attribute the quote to Plato and truly enlighten them (pun intended).
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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting
For further reading: They Never Said It: A Book of Fake, Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions by Paul Boller, Jr. and John George