The Cave of ignorance in concert with a frog
At school, I was never taught how to take notes or any other language skills like making summaries or scanning a text. State schools in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t teach these language skills. Thus, in my first year at university, I had no idea how to take lecture notes. In biology lectures I took notes loose sheets of paper with very narrow lines, and I wrote very small. I was trying to squash the notes into a small space to make them more accessible for revision. My writing is hardly legible, and so when it came to revising the notes, I had to trawl through the scrawl. I gave up taking notes and stuck to the textbook. In the second year, my notetaking improved, but I have still struggled to read my own handwriting.
The first year of Medicine was done on the main campus and not at Medical School, because none of the first-year subjects were medical subjects but the same as Bachelor of Science. first year. I seldom visited the Medical School. I once visited the anatomy room. There were cadavers on slabs at different stages of dissection. I hated the smell. The budding doctor took a quick peek and fled.
The Med students at the University of Cape Town seemed to know nothing but medicine. There were exceptions like Stanley Sagov, whom I met a few years later. He had so many varied interests and was a very talented musician. After qualiying as a doctor, he moved to the United States. In 2002, Stanley received the Doctor of the Year award by the Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians.
I hated being uneducated. By “educated”, I mean knowledge of such things as literature, music, philosophy, history. I began to read books on philosophy. Up to the age of seventeen, my reading repertoire consisted of Biggles, the Hardy Boys, Jeffery Farnol, Rafael Sabatini, Cathy’s glass-topped coffin (was it glass?) in Wuthering Heights, and some Afrikaans books like “Skankwan van die Duine” (Skankwan of the dunes – about a pigmy in the Kalahari).
In the final exam, I passed Chemistry and Physics, and failed Zoology and Botany. Botany was a half course (a semester course). I was allowed to write supplementary exams in these failed subjects.
I got a vacation job as a waiter in the main hotel in Gordon’s Bay, a seaside village with narrow streets and a small beachfront. The beach was across the road.
I brought Plato’s “Republic” with me, a softcopy Penguin Edition. Plato is the seminal philosopher of the ages. And the Republic is his most influential book. Alfred North Whitehead is famous for his quip, “the European philosophical tradition… consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979
Between waitering shifts, I read Plato on the beach (in the photo). The sea air got into the pages. They gradually lost their smooth crispy sheen, and the book swelled to twice its size. My head hadn’t felt so swollen with wisdom since my Biggles days.
After three weeks reading Plato – time that should have been spent on my zoology and botany supplementary exams – I realized that I had been living in a cave of ignorance all my life. The material world was no longer the real world. Or rather, there were other worlds more real. As my prospective Professor of Political Philosophy, Andrew Murray, used to say in his “rooms” to his little band of students: there are many levels of reality: there’s the real, the really real, the really really real, and so forth. The material world – the domain of zoology and botany – belonged to the gross level, Plato’s level of ignorance. The“allegory of the cave” (also called “simile”, or “analogy” of the cave) in Plato’s “Republic” is about ignorant men who take the shadow for the real thing, but eventually – through progressive steps in learning – arrive at true knowledge.
So what if the greatest doctors study it. What about the greatest philosophers. Do I have to be a great doctor. What’s wrong with being a great philosopher? A great Jewish philosopher.
After three weeks at the hotel in Gordon’s Bay I came back home to Claremont. I went to see the Dean of the Medical School and asked him whether I could take off a year to do a year of philosophy. He consented on condition that I passed my supplementary exams. If I didn’t, I would have to repeat zoology and botany. Instead of studying hard for the sup exams, and immersing myself in the “real”, I continued on from where I’d left off on the beach at Gordon’s Bay. I “plunged deeper” into the really really really real.
The exams arrived. The zoology practical. The candidates stood in a queue at the entrance to the laboratory. I was about half way down the queue. They were handing out specimens for dissection: dogfish, frog, dogfish, frog, dogfish frog. Let me see: every second person is getting a frog. How many are in front of me. Let me see: there’re 11 in front of me. If I stay where I am in the queue, I’ll end up with a frog. Please don’t give me a frog. Anything with blood in my hands will end up a mess. I try and jump a place in the queue. It doesn’t work. I’m done for.Hey, they’ve changed the order; frog, dogfish, frog dogfish. I’ll be ok, I’ll get a dogfish. Hey, what’s that! Frog, frog, dogfish, frog, dogfish, dogfish, – I hold out my hand – FROG!
I sliced open the frog along its midriff and pinned it on the board. I had to expose it’s veins and muscles and draw what I saw. My scalpeI “deftly” slashed the aorta. My trilling fingers couldn’t stanch the bloodflow. The frog’s innards turned to pulp. The concert was over. I failed the practical. In the botany practical, I had to dissect some plant stems. I failed the botany practical as well. I couldn’t put the blame on blood for this one.
One reason why I did so badly in my science practicals might have been the dismal lack of training at school. As I pointed out, I never once in all my schooling – at Wynberg, Wellington, and Herzlia in Cape Town, even got to touch a test tube or a scalpel. Another reason might have been – and which could be closer to the facts – that my fingers were more adept at playing the guitar than at playing “doctor doctor.” With regard to the classical guitar, it was only six years later that I began to learn the guitar.
I notified the Dean that I was giving up medicine – for philosophy. Such a move was uncommon, and, for most, perhaps a crazy one. To give up medicine for philosophy? It was hard to get into Medicine. Not very sensible at all. What can you earn as a philosopher? Can you “work yourself up” – Issy’s favourite question – not up into a frenzy, but up the ladder? Can you eventually own the place where you do the philosophy?
The following year (1960), I registered for the first year B.A.