Plato’s Cave Resurrected – Bert Olivier 3/28/24


Having lived through more than four years of systematic subjection to gaslighting as well as misinformation by the mainstream media, governments and non-elected, private global companies, those among us who sojourn in the land of the awake and awakened, would understand the metaphor of ‘looking at shadows.’ And if you do, perhaps some readers might recall that in the 4th century BCE there was an ancient Greek philosopher named Plato, who invented a myth involving shadows to explain the congenitally deceptive character of the human world in space and time.

If you have studied philosophy and you haven’t heard of Plato’s allegory of the cave, there’s something missing in your philosophical education. But if you have, you may also know that some commentators have observed that it is probably the first imagining of what we know as the film theatre, given the crucial idea of something being projected onto a flat surface.

In Book 7 of Plato’s dialogue, the Republic, Plato’s spokesperson, Socrates, relates the allegorical story of a community of people who live in a cave, with their necks chained in such a way that they have their backs to the cave opening and can only look at the cave wall. Behind them there is a road with different beings moving along it, and behind the road and its users there is a big fire. Even further towards the entrance, behind the fire, is the cave opening, with the sun shining brightly outside.

Here is the first crucial part of the cave myth: the light from the fire behind the road casts the shadows of the creatures and objects moving along the road on the cave wall in front of the cave prisoners, who – because they cannot turn around – perceive these shadows as real things, and conduct conversations about them in ‘shadow language’ as if this is all there is about ‘reality.’ This is obviously similar to the ontological value that many contemporary people attribute to television and movie images, as well as to those internet-mediated images that appear on computer screens – they behave as if the images are real.

The chained denizens of the cave represent human beings, of course, and the allegory is Plato’s way of saying that human beings are like the cave-dwellers in erroneously attributing ‘reality’ to the things of sense perception, which are like shadows compared to the objects of thought. The latter, by contrast, are the only truly real entities, according to Plato.

The second crucial part of the cave myth is encountered where Socrates recounts how one of these prisoners (probably a woman, because women tend to be less conventional than men in my experience) painstakingly manages to remove the shackles from her neck, and succeeds in turning around and making her way out of the cave, past the road and the fire, into broad daylight. It takes some time for her eyes to get accustomed to the bright light, but when she finally sees the extant world in all its splendour, she is understandably astonished, and can’t wait to share her discovery with those in the cave.

In passing, one should note that it is easy to deconstruct Plato’s derogation of sensory perception in favour of abstract thought, by showing that he is dependent on the recognisable meaning and validity of precisely what he argues against, namely sensory knowledge, for his metaphysical philosophical argument to ‘work,’ not only in the Republic, but in the Symposium too.

One should take particular note of Plato’s account of the newly ‘enlightened’ person’s return to her tribe in the cave, for here he reveals great insight into the relationship between the true philosopher (or artist, for that matter), and society. Why? Because he intimates what all true philosophers and artists experience from time to time. The person who returns to the cave community to share their unbelievable discovery of the real, sensory world outside the cave with them, runs the serious risk of not being understood.

After all, how would she describe something for which the cave inhabitants would lack a vocabulary? Theirs is attuned to shadows. She would therefore have to devise a novel language to share her newly acquired knowledge, and as we know from history, novel ideas are all too often frowned upon by those who cling to convention. In fact, such individuals risk nothing less than their lives in their attempts to ‘get through’ to their erstwhile community, who, in all likelihood, will regard them as being insane.

Recall Vincent van Gogh, whose art – particularly his use of vibrant colours in a Victorian world accustomed to black, grey, and dark brown – was incomprehensible to all but his brother Theo, who managed to sell exactly one of Vincent’s artworks in an uncomprehending world. (Listening to Starry, Starry Night, by Don McLean, imparts some insight into this.) …

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