All night, my eyes were downcast, tethered to books and papers and the computer screen. Enervating flatness. By the time my work was done, the night sky was hinting at daylight, and I knew I’d reached the point of no return. I turned to Thoreau.
“Morning,” he wrote, “is when I am awake and there is dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.” He alluded to “a higher life than we fell asleep from.” He announced: “To be awake is to be alive.” I decided to go for a run.
I went to the woods because I wanted to wake up, to wipe the goo of drowsiness from my eyes, to see. As dawn proceeded slowly past the horizon, I scampered up Whitney Avenue, listening to sentimental music and managing, more or less, not to laugh at the almost caricature-ish romanticism of it all.
Autumn dresses East Rock in yellow and orange, dapples of red, tinges of green left over from the summer. A mile from my dorm room, I felt as though I had come upon another world. Wind wove, full of grace, among trees reaching skyward, branches brandishing their colors, leaves twirling down to join the foliage mosaic of the ground.
A squirrel darted along a fallen tree and sprang up to the upright trunk of another. I felt a stab of gratitude, an overflowing gratitude that seemed to ooze out like the sweat that stuck to my shirt. Who else, in that moment, should resound in my ears but Coldplay? “Birds go flying at the speed of sound, to show you how it all began.”
Looking up at the birds gliding overhead, I sensed pointedly how it all began. I thought of Plato’s description, in the Timaeus, of the world’s creation. “This, then, is how it has come to be: it is a work of craft, modeled after that which is changeless, and is grasped by a rational account, that is, by wisdom.” Craft, yes. But looking at the birds, goggling at the clouds and the treetops, one might wonder: Was nothing more at play?
In Raphael’s School of Athens, it is the Timaeus, in book form, that Plato holds in his left hand. With his right hand he points upward, enjoining us to ascend, via intellect, to the higher world of Forms.
In high school, aspirant philosopher that I was, I revered Raphael’s depiction of Plato and all that it represented. My chief objective was truth. I scoured books and strove to understand the world “by a rational account,” to attain to a disinterested grasp of the highest realities. It was all very sensible.
But ascending East Rock, marveling at the overabundance of floral-faunal verve, I concerned myself less with sensibleness than sensibility. The eyes of mankind — as the poets perennially testify — have seen elves in the woods, nymphs in the water, gods in the sky. They have sensed, in short, a personality behind nature.
And is there not something closer to true sight in the man who sees fairies in the grass instead of photosynthesis? Edgar Allan Poe lamented the “dull realities” of science, those “peering eyes” that fail to perceive the spirit behind the matter. Have we been so busy tinkering with our microscopes and telescopes that we have forgotten how to see with human eyes?
What was missing from my high-school mindset, I have come to think, was love. Love does not seek disinterested knowledge but intimacy. Love does not, with the Platonist, revile the natural world for its lowliness, nor dissect it, with the scientist, in order to unearth its secrets. Love cherishes the world as something charged with a transcendent grandeur.
Raphael, with his High Renaissance techniques and consummate craftsmanship, struggled nobly to bring Plato to life, to endow him with the height and width and depth of a human being. But the painting remains a painting. Inexorable flatness.
The Good to which Plato points us — his ultimate ground of reality — is impersonal. Creation is a work of art but not of love. As we ascend to the world of Forms, we are emptied of personality, of the faculty of love — the will. It’s no wonder Plato expels the poets from his ideal republic. They celebrate personality and ascribe it to the gods. They see the hand that sways the trees.
When I reached the top of East Rock, I sat down and looked out over early morning New Haven. Alarms, no doubt, were sounding. A car here and there trundled languidly along. “We must learn to reawaken,” said Thoreau, “and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”
I looked for Silliman College, my home, but could only make out the nearby Church of St. Mary. Directly above my head, the sky was split. On one side was open air, the horizon glowing orange. On the other, covering the city like a blanket, was a thick mass of purplish cloud. It seemed — however slowly, however invisibly — to be receding.
Sometimes when you’re running and the cold air dampens your eyes, you refrain from wiping them, and possibly, though there’s no way of knowing, you contribute something of your own to their crystal outpouring, something not from the cold air, and all the while you ask yourself, is it possible? Is this joy?
Having descended from East Rock, I entered St. Mary’s. It was All Souls’ Day, a time to remember and to pray for those persons who have passed into the next life. At the front of the nave, on the left side, a statue of Saint Dominic stood above the pews. With his right hand he pointed, like Plato, to the heavens, and with his left hand, like Plato, he held a book. Resting on the book, however, was a church, a building for upbuilding, a temporary home for eternal personalities called to eternal community.
Eight centuries ago, St. Dominic founded an order of preachers to combat Albigensianism, a heresy denying the goodness of creation. Today, standing tall, in the fullness of three dimensions, he looks out at us, at our blindness to the createdness of creation.
He looks as though — preacher that he is — he would have a word.
“Wake up, Yale!” he shouts. “God is alive, and he is truth, and he is love.”
Bryce Taylor is a junior in Silliman College.