“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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