The story of the Beaver Bog is true. It is also an allegory.
The meaning of the allegory can best be explained with reference to another allegory.
“Let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened. Behold: human beings living in an underground cave…” (Plato, Republic, Book VII)
In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the prisoners cannot look around them. With such a narrow view, they see only reflections of reality that fall their way. Yet they are smart and proud. They compete to see who knows the most about the reflections. If someone speaks to them about a different perspective, they ridicule the speaker’s ignorance.
Plato’s allegory can be read as an allegory about human awareness of animal consciousness.
If we think humans have the mind for engineering, but beavers don’t, we are like prisoners who look only in one direction. If we think accounts of animal intelligence are “unscientific,” we are like prisoners defending our right to be gatekeepers of our narrow two-dimensional knowledge. If we think beaver fans are guilty of irresponsible anthropomorphism, we are like prisoners who ridicule visitors with wider experience.
If we think the local asphalt patchwork is the higher engineering achievement, we are like prisoners who mistakenly believe our low consciousness is the higher one.
That’s really what I wanted to say: that most of us are confused about the boundaries of consciousness. We do not know how to sort through data from intuition, emotion, spirit, dreams, and thus we find them terrifying. We pave over them with asphalt, with new structures, with gardens of growing projects. Yet the data of consciousness are still there, desperate to find expression.
It’s not easy to articulate this! I understand why I prefer an allegory.
I understand why the writers of classical rabbinic midrash prefer allegory. Often they will explain their theological teaching by saying, “An allegory…” Often the best they can do to analyze the allegory is provide a little starter key – the opening lines to a Biblical metaphor they hope you will recognize. They hope that as you read you will use the key to unlock the allegory that will in turn unlock the core idea.
Some ideas move beyond the boundaries of the consciousness words were created to serve: like the subtle presence of God that changes nothing about the world and everything about our perception of it, or the levels of awareness that words have not yet been written for…
When I try to talk about those ineffable ideas, it helps to share a story that makes me think about the ideas. And then to hope that one who hears the story will also think about them.
Perhaps as they analyze the story, they will succeed with words where I have failed.
Or perhaps they will not succeed, and the ineffable awareness will be passed from teacher to student only in the form of allegory.
Like the stream that flows under the street…