So…How Exactly Does Ancient Philosophy Fit into a Work of Young Adult Fiction?

Cordell Wheaton, the protagonist of my upcoming young adult novel, ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, is on a mission to find his estranged brother and reunite his family before it’s too late. With his father fighting a terminal illness and his brother, Travis, in the throes of addiction, Cordy has no choice but to load his backpack with the forty bucks he has to his name, add in a few clean pairs of underwear, and hit the open road guided by nothing but his uncanny grasp of key concepts in the realms of ancient philosophy and mythology. Here’s a young man who’s barely left the safe confines of his hometown in rural North Carolina, and he’s ready to risk it all because some dudes named Plato and Socrates armed him with all the knowledge he believes he’ll ever need.

But why? And why would a young adult author like myself bring ancient teachings into a novel he hopes will make a significant impact on the youth of the present and the future? Well, to put it simply, some of the ground level concepts conceived by Plato, Socrates, and other brilliant minds over two thousand years ago are still glaringly relevant today…perhaps even moreso.

What the hell am I talking about? Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the allegory of “Plato’s Cave”. It’s the general idea that, if placed in a cave in total darkness but for the light of a fire raging behind them, human nature would dictate that a group of humans could only piece together their collective reality through the images and details portrayed around them. So, if say another group were to stand behind the fire and cast reflection on the cave wall, the original group would naturally perceive these cast shadows as their one and only truth, and decisions would ultimately flow out of that very incomplete data set.

Plato’s Cave

It’s an intriguing idea. It’s also much less complicated than it sounds, and its application to everyday life in the present time is becoming increasingly hard to argue against on a daily basis. For, as much as we like to present our world as being hopelessly interconnected and beneficently-aided by the latest technologies, as a human race we still often find ourselves trapped in the cave–that is, inextricably mired within the established social constructs of our teams, our tribes, and our ideological equals. What’s worse? Most of us are blissfully unaware of the important events that occur and the details we never get to observe just a stone’s throw from the mouths of our respective caves. 

As someone who spent the first twenty years of his life living in the same relatively small community in the Northeast of the United States, mostly filled with people who looked like me, spoke like me, and even perceived the same dangers as me…and then spent the next twenty years as a fish out of water, soaking up cultural modes of being I never knew existed, I can tell you there’s more going on out there than most of us can tell. From within our caves.

So that’s where I started. With a character in Cordell Wheaton who’d never seen the world outside his own boundaries, now thrust outside the cave–outside the realm of his personal tortoise shell–to learn about himself, the world, and the rest of the folk in it in a way he never thought possible. Through first-hand experience. And through this character, I wanted to show young adult readers that our understanding of the world around us too often relies upon us experiencing life vicariously through social media posts rather than up front and in-person–the way humans have sharpened their grasp on the nature of reality since the beginning of time as we know it, and probably before that.

So, this simple allegorical concept of the cave, which weaves its way through the entirety of On the Way to Birdland, was magnetized to a whole host of other philosophical concepts and questions, such as the nature of Arete (honor) for example. And, of course, these philosophical concepts began popping up in droves as I read through piles of mythological tales, all presumably designed to communicate these all-important lessons about our humanity.

For a young man with little to no life experience and a real lack of confidence in his physical abilities, the need to latch on to concepts that helped guide him on his journey was a necessity for Cordell Wheaton. It proved that the time he spent alone wallowing in his bedroom about his lack of friends, passing the time with his nose in philosophy books was not time wasted. It was actually what prepared him to step out into life. Real life. The one outside the cave and directly in the brightest patch of sunlight.

But what’s more important is that Cordy’s base of ancient knowledge and guidance allows him to gain a firmer grasp on his own blurred reality, to move well beyond his comfort zone and gain a true understanding of people, places, and ideologies that may have differed greatly from what he was used to in his own backyard. And that, my friends, is why philosophy and mythology play such a major role in my upcoming novel.

Because sometimes we all need to be reminded of life’s most important lessons, even if we think we already got a handle on them way back in ancient times. I think our present begs to differ.

I hope you’ll pre order a copy of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, which officially hits shelves on May 4. And, if you do, please support local, independent bookstores like SUNRISE BOOKS, where you can pre order a signed copy today!

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