“Imagine a cave,” Socrates asks of Glaucon, his most loyal acolyte and Plato’s big brother.
“Right-o,” says Glaucon.
“Now imagine a line of people,” continues Socrates. “They are manacled at the wrists and neck and so are forced to sit there in that same spot all the time, unable to move either their body away from that seat or their eyes away from the wall in front them. They cannot turn their heads in any direction and can see nothing other than what is going on before them, which is up against that wall.”
“Which is what? What do they see there, Socrates?”
“They see a play, Glaucon. A play of shadows, a shadow play. You see…”
And as if Socrates had, through some highly accomplished app managed to visit our era, he described to his student what goes on in our cinemas, where people sit in the dark watching intently whatever a projector behind and above their heads, is shooting at a wall in front them. Shadows. Shadows going back and forth.
In the forties, those despairing days and years that followed the devastating war, when I was but a kid in Greece, cinema tickets were very cheap and, since the war had demolished most of the country and employment was a rare thing, people flocked into those dark places and there they could and would sit all day. Shadows in that dark room were far preferable to the reality outside.
And I can still hear the voices of the young men behind me explaining to their girlfriends the subtleties and intricacies of the plot. Who was that man, who was that woman and what likely was their next action. Annoying distractions and noises for everyone else.
And that’s where Socrates took his student Glaucon. To a dark cinema where these people sat there since childhood, forced to know nothing other than what was happening by and to those shadows upon that wall. To all intents and purposes Socrates’ men were prisoners of the dark and of the shadows in the same way that we were, in those cinemas, straight after the war.
There was a low wall, a parapet, behind the prisoners and a fire behind that parapet and between that wall and the fire, people carrying all sorts of objects on their heads walked up and down talking to each other but because of the parapet, only the shadows of the objects they were carrying appeared on the wall in front of the prisoners. Just like in our cinema. A light projector behind us and a bit above us.
Through echoes, the voices of the people carrying those bounced off the wall and it seemed to these prisoners that the shadows talked to each other.
Talking shadows was, to the prisoners, a reality. Real life. Reality shows as real as in our screens. It was the only reality they knew.
And they would spent their time playing all sorts of games with each other; trying to remember what came before, was one such game, guessing what will come next was another or what objects came together and suchlike. Whispering boyfriends.
Praises would then be awarded to the winners of these games, games played upon the shadows
Eventually, one of the prisoners is forcefully dragged out of there and brought up to the surface of the earth. Unsurprisingly, at first he had great trouble adjusting his eyes due to the glare of the sun and his mind to the new environment full of bright objects, full of real objects, full of real life. He could now distinguish the real articles from their shadow which the sun from high above cast. The tree was one thing and its shifting shadow quite another. The truth came from the sun which shone upon it!
This excites him so much that due to his love for his fellow man, he rushes back down into the cave to tell his mates. To educate them. To teach them the difference between truth and illusion. Between the real thing and its illusion, its lookalike, its ringer, its impersonator.
But his mates, instead, ask him to play the games they knew so well and because the man knew these were false, would not entertain the idea. This led them to conclude that his trip up to the world of light had damaged not only his eyes but also his brain. Going “up there” to the light is a very bad thing, they concluded. “We must never go there ourselves and must never allow anyone else to do so. Our chains are a great thing for preventing us all from doing this.
They have invested too much of their psyche (“soul” in English) to this belief of illusion to throw it all away for something else. Much like the refusal of the pope’s (Urban Viii) men to look into Galileo Galillei’s telescope. To accept that the bible had an error as huge as that was too much for them and to accept that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, well, come on, Galileo! Be real! This was “vehement heresy!”
“My name is Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Alqunun… and I want asylum.”
In this way the 18year old Saudi woman begins her new life.
“Call me Ishmael.” Is the first sentence in Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
“This is the reality,” both folks are telling us. This is my real name. This is I and this is who I am.
Melville chose the biblical character, Ishmael, the son of Abraham and of his servant, Hagar because he, Ishmael, had to endure the harshness and cruelty of banishment, a banishment into the desert. The name Ishmael (or Yishma’el,) means “God will hear” and in his case god did, at the very crucial time when Ishmael, parched to his last breath, had a well of water suddenly appear before him.
Melville’s Ishmael was banished into the wild desert of the oceans and was the only one to survive the adventure against Moby Dick and the sinking of the Pequod, the ship he was on.
Melville’s Ishmael escaped the cave of the vast, brutal ocean.
Young Rahaf has escaped the relentlessly brutal cave of Saudi Arabia and wahabism.
Caves and walls. They go together. Walls make caves. Ideology makes caves. Religion and bulging wallets make caves. Wars definitely make caves.
Criminals make caves.
All man-forged manacles as William Blake put it.
All organised religion is a world of fantasy, the nastiest fantasy of them all. When you enter it you enter a world as real as and as ludicrous as that of Alice’s “Wonderland.” And though Alice could tell and did tell those in that world what she thought of their deeds and views, religion will have you, at the very least wearing ludicrous garments -some with straps around your arm and little boxes on your forehead, others covering your whole body (and thus your “self and soul”) or your face with outrageous beards (the male form of covering the self and soul) or have crosses and other symbols hanging from your neck- or, at worst, have you beheaded in a public square, more readily so if you’re a woman than a man.
You would think that by now, by this era of enlightenment having become so readily available, people would look into the texts that tell them how to behave and how to think -from what clothes they should wear to what food they should eat, to what words are appropriate or inappropriate regarding their god and even to how they should arrange the cutlery on the table- and say to themselves and to each other, as did Alice, “this is ridiculous! This is obscene! This is criminal! This is misanthropic!”
And then simply get out of that nasty nightmare. Stop feeding it.
It is a nightmare that has started over two and a half thousand years in the Old Testament series of myths and legends, then just on 2019 years ago by the New Testament series of similar myths and legends and finally some 1400 years ago by the Koran series of similar myths and legends.
And for far too many people these myths and legends, unlike all other myths and legends, have attached themselves to their psyches and thereupon they feast, much like all other parasites do.
Why don’t they do that? Why don’t they read those books alongside a whole lot of other books and learn, like Socrates’ escaped prisoner, to discern the real thing from its imposter?
Tariq Ali (as did many others, of course) gave us the answer in his “Clash of Fundamentalism:” (words to the effect) “all religion is political”
Religion is run by men and not by a god or a number of gods and prophets and saints and other religious bureaucrats with ridiculous costumes and grotesque amounts of power; and their who have a firm hand on who does what and how and it is their rule is absolute and unquestionable.
Utterly oppressive. Utterly erasing your personal identity. Utterly removing every single personal desire and subverting it to their will.
Rahaf Mohammen Al-Qunun had the courage and the boundless audacity of a youth to look into those myths and legends and into the politicians who ran it, saw the brutality that no human, let alone a god -had he existed- would accept as virtue and fled and, I dare guess, saw the evidence of that relentless brutality countless of times in the blood-soaked public squares of her country; and she looked into the religion of the country and, fully cognisant of what the consequences for her were, rejected it.
She had to then escape her country, her home which was not a home, nourishing and nurturing her self and her soul but a dark cave, a reality show that was not at all about reality.
What happens next to her and because of her I don’t know and for now I don’t care.
The latest news is that she plans to use her freedom to campaign for others. All power to her right arm and may that arm manage to close down all caves.
My interest in this matter is upon a human being who said “no” to the State. A fanatically religious, brutal and uncompromising, an inhumane State.
Luckily, a country that sees light and shuns darkness, Canada has given her asylum.
Australia is still arguing the toss.
It is the story that Sophocles had turned into a play, a tragedy, which he called “Antigone.” Antigone a woman who acted according to her conscience and not the bloody minded and ignorant will of the State. She hanged herself in the cave in which the king had banished her. Her lover and the king’s son, killed himself, hatred towards his father burning his eyes.
The oppression of the people, be it by religion or by legislation or by wealth or by power is as old as the hills -and the hills are pretty old!
The reason Socrates took Glaucon into the imaginative world of the cave is because he wanted to discuss where men stood in respect of their education and ignorance, so he showed him both worlds and asked him to compare.
Caves are a fortress of stability, as is ignorance. Ignorance does not move. The ignorant do not want to move. Their shadows are all they need in life.
Knowledge does. It moves. It is in a state of constant flux, as Heraclitus put it some 2,500 years ago. “No man ever steps in the same river twice” and “change is ever present” and “everything becomes.”
The cave is the exact opposite image to that of the open air theatre which the Greeks of the 5th C. BC had invented and loved. It was an open place where up to 16,000 people would attend and it asked questions. It asked the audience to think, to move, not only their bodies, the humours within it but their minds, their souls.
And so Socrates had delivered to Glaucon the starkest possible contrast of scenarios and doing so, pointed out where education and non education lie.
As Galileo was being led out of the court after his sentence was announced, he muttered, “And yet, it (the Earth) moves,”
“And yet it moves!”
Let us never forget that “it moves!”
Interestingly but not for us here, Socrates uses the word “people” in the early stages of the dialogue but does not take long before he gets to the point he wants to make when he drops the PC camouflage of “people” and uses the word “men.”
Plato, “The Republic,” Book Vii 514a ff
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Beautifully written and such a major lesson so gently expressed that one can only hope that many will read it and that, of those who do, many will understand and, even against all that has conditioned them, decide that the light is preferable.
Thank you. Reading this has made my day. Yet, it’s only 13.43.
Thank you very much, non.
…and your words made my day!
Very good and interesting article, George..you have proved me wrong when I say that an article over 1000 words will lose the attention of most bloggers…
But I have a general complaint against those early writers and sages in that they had so much opportunity to create fresh one liners and new imagery to conjure up because they had a “clean sheet” of paper to work on…like that one about never stepping in the same river twice thingo…well..that’s THAT one gone then..and even IF one comes up with a snappy little adage or maxim..like..oh, say : “The road between flattery and mockery is VERY short and VERY straight”…..who’s going to credit one?…nah…lucky them, they had a clean field to harrow…but hey!…they did a bloody good job with that plough!…
Anyway…above all that…nice one…Ta!
There are real caves like the one the young Thai boys were rescued from…
Then there are the different man-made ones, like the Cinemas that George refers to: they are my favourites…
In some countries the jail-cells still resemble dark caves…
Last night I happened to watch a crime drama on SBS on Demand…it was a German show, the criminal was leaving the prison… I was surprised by the nice cell, it reminded me of my cosy little office upstairs….
Then there’s the Don Dale Detention Centre….to sad even to write about….
Cheers George. Thank you.
What a mad bad world billions of us have forced upon us by those mad bad despots. And we blame and shame and brutalise those sensible enough to flee seeking succor and freedom.
The Socrates we know and love is a creation of his bright pupil Plato.
Socrates was an old knockabout who had fought in the wars against the Persians, but when he was older they came and told him they reckoned he was the “wisest man in Athens”. Naturally, he saw through the trap straight away and denied it, saying, “all I know is I know nothing”.
He knew how likely, how little mere mortals knew of any real value, as is demonstrated in the cave story and the illusion of appearance, even experience since it serives of an inevitable lack of complete vision, that is of the human condition, which is defined in “limit”
They did get him in the end, charging him corrupting the youth and denying the gods, and at age seventy, after defending himself before the assembly and refusing to take the easy out and leave Athens, was made to drink hemlock and died quickly from the poisoning.
I’ve always thought that in a funny way philosophy, through Christ, is emphatically endorsing Socrates’ question of what constitutes value and meaning, “to die for”. A more recent example could be the white rose group slaughtered by the nazis for resisting Hitler.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is/was widely used in teacher education as well as in Philosophy 101 courses. This short video explores the possibilities and implications for the modern world.
Much for discussion. How do we know etc (epistemology.)
As always – it’s a great read.
MN, many thanks for your info and your link.
The “read” is certainly great but this particular video has a number of errors and a few excursions from the text which harm somewhat Plato’s original message.
It is important, for example to note that the men in the cave were chained, that they were effectively imprisoned there, unable to move either their bodies or their vision in any direction at all and were forced to see and believe only what was (to bring the story outside of the allegory and into reality) forced upon them by others. People who had no contact with them, people doing their own thing, people who went about their own business not caring what effect that business had upon the chained men. Fake news, shadows of news, etc.
Also, the man who went up into the world of the light (our world, Socrates will call it) was, in Socrates’ telling, forced to go up. Dragged up there, in fact.
And so on.
These aren’t major detractions but they are there.
Socrates is trying to describe education by comparing it with non-education or with something that acts as an imposter of eduction. Fake education. “manufacturing consent,” type of education. The difference between the world of sight and that of the mind. It is in the world of the mind, of understanding, and of intelligence, that the ‘idea of the good” resides, the pursuit of which was what gave rise to this allegory.
Imagine that in the world of mythology, Apollo is the god of -among many other things- the head, of the light and thus of enlightenment, of understanding, of thinking and of wisdom. As well, therefore, of the appreciation of beauty in all things: art, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, dance, etc
His opposite is Dionysus (aka Bacchus) who is the god of the exact opposite. Of the beheaded man, of the man who answers not to intelligence, not to the head but to the instinct, to the world of the rest of the body which is inside it, deep in inside it, the heart or the spleen or the vapours (humours, “in good humour or in bad”) and the Greeks had a week-long festival in his honour, (the Dionysian festival) during which they “decapitated” themselves -and thus removing Apollo from their soul- by getting drunk and acting according to their instincts rather their minds, feelings rather thoughts, which resided deep inside their body, in the dark, in the reasonless world, well below the world of the head, the source of light and intelligence.
The Greeks saw the need for the balance of obeisance to both gods, to both parts of our nature but, of course, at highly disproportionate amounts.
Sorry if I’m covering a ground you’re familiar with.
George this is an Allegory – defined as: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Note it’s about ‘interpretation’. And about ‘hidden meaning’. (And there’s any number of versions.). With that in mind, I refer to:
A modern educator might ask whether those chains were physical or mental? And does it really matter? And whether physical or mental chains are more effective in limiting choices made or considered? Whether we imprison ourselves by failing to question – even the most basic assumptions. Even though we are supposedly free? Whether we create our (mental and social) world – or are created by it? What is ‘reality’? What is ‘truth? Why no women?One could go on and on – because we are talking about the Socratic method here. Endless questions and all that.
Remember also, Plato was of the view that people were born with real true knowledge (embedded like seeds waiting to grow) and the education process was all about raising that to conscious levels. (His epistemological view.)
Exploring that one question might be worth semester or two as I recall.
Of course, MN.
So much to do with cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, contingency and pre-conditionality, epistemology and ontology.
Sorry guys but the motivation behind the writing of this article was to discuss closed, cave-like minds and the effect such minds have upon innocent people like Rahaf; not Plato, nor Socrates but to point out the sheer destruction of a soul. Innocence and wisdom are choked by such ignorant, uneducated minds, minds that reject the light and the knowledge of the truth, preferring the play of shadows.
I have spent many years studying Greek Philosophy so I do know and love these guys. I have translated some Plato and will get back to him at my earliest opportunity. I delivered many lectures on him and continue to do so.
The comment I made regarding MN’s link was aimed at showing that the maker of the youtube was editorialising Plato’s text, thus impeding the ability of others to make up their own mind about what it was that Plato had Socrates say and for what reason.
Opinions should come after the illumination of the text. This is something that journalists worthy of their salt should know and practice religiously.
Analyses of this text (“allegory” being but one of many names given to it, “simile” yet another) are rightly great in number and depth. All sorts of subjects might be discussed by referring to it but it is important to see the original text as it really is and not as it is interpreted.
Imagine if someone bible-bashed us with an inaccurate quote attributed to Jesus or someone of similar significance!
I also wanted to relate Plato’s two worlds with that seen by Australia’s behaviour and that shown by Canada (and New Zealand) regarding refugees. Which nation lives in a cave, a cave that fosters darkness, ignorance and rejection of the truth and which lives under the light, which fosters truth, wisdom, art and love.
This is also one reason why the myth of Prometheus was invented.
Please allow me this indulgence:
…nor did I wish the focus to turn upon the works of Sophocles or William Blake, or Heraclitus, or Herman Melville.
I am particularly angered and frustrated by this govnt’s and this opposition’s shameful attitudes towards anything to do with human rights, with humanity itself and with its unconscionable misanthropy.
If I sound a little too belligerent in my articles, this is the reason.
I ask for no forgiveness for this belligerence.
“I also wanted to relate Plato’s two worlds with that seen by Australia’s behaviour and that shown by Canada (and New Zealand) regarding refugees. Which nation lives in a cave, a cave that fosters darkness and ignorance and which lives under the light, which fosters truth, wisdom, art and love.”
… and you did that very well. Thank you.
Many thanks, nonsibicunctis! And may I take the opportunity to say what an apt name for the topic we’re discussing!
My minimal knowledge of Greek Philosophers came from my Latin teacher, and that was a very long time ago…
It’s never too late to learn some more, keep the stories coming George, we need some enlightenment in these dark times , at times I feel we are in a tunnel,or is it a cave; let’s have some light….
Our fish are dying, but Rahaf is safe.
On creating a modern mythology.
I have from quite a few years ago come to the conclusion that the western world..and perhaps even further than that limited realm..needs to be rescued from the suffocating and debilitating disease of middle-class ideology…that being a type of conservativism in political thought and multi-cultural acceptance and the accompanying death-blows of crazy-radical-entrepreneurial economics.
I have come to a conclusion in my own mind that about the only thing that can save our own western culture that has been transplanted to these ancient lands, on top of an existing ancient culture, is to create anew alongside those aboriginal mythologies…NOT WITH USING those ancient myths of the indigenous peoples…THEY have their own journey through time they are travelling, and our short interruption these last couple of centuries is but a hiccup in their story….But creating anew a separate…yet now joined at the hip through circumstance….mythology using the history and incidents that have occurred to US as a colonising people in this “new land”…
We need to create a continuity of story-line from the earliest days of settlement…toward the future, so as to give guidance…to shine a light down a darkened path that leads onward.
I prefer to use my working class experiences to create the hero/ heroines of this new mythology..We have no aristocracy that can claim warrior/kingship status and dominate our lives and dreams, we cannot use the middle-classes, as their “dreams” are so pedestrian that one would die of the boredom of predictability after the first page…so I use the working classes with their rough and ready incompetence / ability to “make do” where desperation and poverty stare them in the face..for there is accidental “honesty” in the desperate person who would steal and lie for the family well-being…be it clumsy, stupid or inevitably incriminating..there is a certain nobility in the struggle of the poor…so I will make them my heros..
I have written several little episodes with a mythological connection theme…one I have put up here a long while ago…
Another is a deliberate attempt to elevate Ned Kelly to heroic mythology status..
An Arrogance of Power.
Quite so, Helvi. A million fish die outside the cave whilst those inside it are playing with and discussing the meaningless behaviour of shadows.
Parliaments and Congresses are caves (“The Cabinet shall look at this bill and decide.” Replace the word “cabinet” with :”cave.”)
Churches, cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and temples, (never mind the hight and the glitter) are all caves.
Stock exchanges and banks are caves.
Ans all the cave dwellers who cannot look -refuse to look- anywhere else other than in front of them which is but a wall of shadows. Nowhere near the light, nowhere near the truth, nowhere near the disasters their ignorance creates and perpetuates.
The radical Enlightenment had also denounced what is written in this moving article. One pioneer here was the early 18th c French rural priest Jean Meslier, the first atheist communist. He penned a furious condemnation of the aristocrats and their henchmen the church, leaving his manuscript to be read post mortem. I have read the original manuscript and seen how the angriest brown ink phrases are etched into the paper. This physical link dissipated the centuries in a way no printed version ever could.
Daniel R DeNicola’s work ‘Understanding Ignorance’, 2017, has a section called ‘Ignorance as Place’, which analyses the philosophical implications of Plato’s Cave.
For J Carli: once Lenin turned communism into elite rule a new Cave was imposed. Sartre wrote in the 1960s that history is cyclical, that every liberation turns into a new tyranny. So, what is left? ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’?
Josephus…we all live in our own particular “cave”, but it is our imagination that liberates us and allows us to fly above this earthly existence..unfortunately, there are those who do not know how to or do not wish to “fly”…and it is to those that the lesson or example of mythology must be sung.
And THAT is where the story-tellers come into the frame.
I heard this little anecdote from my sister many years ago when I was staying with her in the small village where she lives….in Italy. It happened to her father in law.
Proverb : ” Bread and cheese at home is better than roast meat elsewhere”.
Parable. ; Nicolle detested polenta! So that when he came home from the fields and spotted the polenta on the stove, he started thinking fast.
” I won’t be here for dinner, ” he said as he flung a scarf around his neck ” Giovanni has invited me to his table tonight.” and he rushed out the door before his wife could say anything.
Little did he know that his wife had cooked up enough polenta for all the relatives in the village. all he saw was the little she kept for themselves ! So he rushed over to his son’s house as fast as his little bow-legs could carry him.
There, he milled around in front of the fire and chatted small talk while the wife prepared the table.
” You’ll stay for dinner, father? she queried “…we’re having polenta.”
He winced at her in horror…”Oh bugger!” he said to himself..then ;
“No, no, caro…er..my sister, she has invited me to her table for dinner…speaking of which..I better hurry on..” and he flung his scarf on again and hurried out the door.
‘Hungry, hungry, hungry..” he whispered in time to his quickening steps and his stomach rumbled as he passed through his sister’s front door.
‘Ah…Nicolle! ” she greeted him..” just in time for dinner. Sit down, I’ll get you some polenta!”
” Gesu Christo!” he cried as he flung his hands to the heavens..” doesn’t anybody in this town eat anything but bloody polenta!?” and he stormed out leaving them with open mouths and a slammed door. He came home to his own kitchen with a long face and slumped shoulders. He was beaten and resigned to his fate, polenta it would have to be.
His wife (who knew his dislikes by now) glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and smiled. She reached into the oven and pulled out a covered dish which she placed in front of the dejected man at the table and uncovered a bowl of ravioli and cheese….Nicolle’s face lit up into an ecstatic smile and he sighed very, very deeply. His wife patted him on top of his head…
“Better, you see, to eat at your own table, rather than run around town for scraps from others.”
Nicolle nodded his head gratefully, for his mouth was full of food.
The demise of the improptu story-teller , or raconteur has to be one of the greatest losses to Australian culture…with the conversion of many old-style front-bars to chic, up-market fashionista hangouts for the aspirational tradie, the loss of ‘habitat’ of these marvellous species is certain…as the consumption of alcoholic beverages is grist to the mill for the mood and pace of the yarn…sure, you can “attend workshops” where semi-professional “story-tellers” go about their business at a cost of so much per hour (cash)…but it would be like listening to the bending of plastic.
The beauty of an impromptu yarn, is that it can catch you unawares as you go about eating your lunch, or taking a sip on a beer at the bar..and the raconteur will, without visible prompting take up the “slack in chatter” and remark..something like..: “Now that reminds me of this chap up north I met many moons ago . . . “ …and there is a metaphorical drawing of ears and chairs.
I met a bloke like that up in a mining camp I worked at many moons ago…Kevin Cotton was his name..he’d be long dead by now..but Christ!..could he tell a yarn…side-splitters they were..the dust on the floor of the rough mess shed being raised with the stamping of his foot as he made a point and the rats in the rafters scurrying when his voice was raised in excitement making a exaggeration…
But he too was a man harried by the demon drink…the muse’s toll…
I know of others..one young bloke down at The Seacliff was a trier…and he was good too!..but he had to pick his audience, as his stories usually revolved around too gross exaggeration for the more worldly listener and would be met with an askance glance and a mumbled ; “Bullshit!”….I’ll tell you about him someday.
But it has to be agreed, temperance and adult storytelling do not go together…