Plato’s Cave

Everyone’s heard of Plato, to some extent anyway; ‘Greek bloke, lived quite a while ago, had a beard’ is probably the limit of what could be considered universal knowledge. This he most certainly was, but what made him famous was his work, for Plato was taught by Socrates and was one of the finest philosophers and thinkers to grace human history. His greatest work was ‘The Republic’, a ten book piece exploring the nature of justice and government through a series of imagined conversations, hypothetical situations, metaphors and allegories.  One of these allegories has become especially linked to Plato’s name, which is somewhat surprising given how little the actual allegory is known to the world in general, so I thought I might explore it today; the allegory of the cave.

Plato believed in a separate level of reality, more fundamental than the physical world we encounter and interact with using our body and senses, that he called The Forms. To summarise briefly, a Form is the philosophical essence of an object; in the real world, a shelf is three bits of wood and some nails all joined together, but the Form of this is the ability to store some books within easy reach, for example.  Without the essence of shelf-ness, the shelf literally is nothing more than some wood, and ceases to be a shelf on a fundamental level any more. Similarly, when we turn a piece of plastic into a toy, we have fundamentally changed the Form of that plastic, even though the material is exactly the same.

Plato based most of his philosophical work around his Theory of Forms, and took the concept to great extremes; to him, the sole objective scale against which to measure intelligence was one’s ability to grasp the concept of the Form of something, and he also held that understanding the Form of a situation was the key to its correct management. However, he found his opinions on Forms hard to communicate to many people (and it can’t have helped that he was born to a rich family, where he was given plenty of opportunity to be intelligent, whilst many of the poor were uneducated), and some considered him to be talking rubbish, and so he came up with the allegory of the cave to explain what he was on about.

Imagine a large group of prisoners, chained to the wall of a cave for some unspecified reason. They are fixed in position, unable to move at all, and their necks are also fixed in position so they cannot look around. Worst of all, however, they have absolutely no memory of the world or how anything in it works; in many ways, their minds are like that of a newborn toddler trying to grasp the concept of the world around him. Everything they are to know must be learnt from experience and experimentation. But in front of them, they can see nothing but bare rock.

However, there are a few features of this cave that make it interesting. It is very deep and comprises multiple levels, with the prisoners at the bottom. On the level above the prisoners, and directly behind them, is an enormous fire, stoked and fed day and night (although being at the bottom of a cave, the prisoners don’t have any concept of day and night), brightly illuminating the wall that the prisoner’s see. Also on the level above, but in front of the fire, is a walkway, across which people walk along with their children, animals and whatever items they happen to be carrying. As they cross in front of the fire, their shadows are cast onto the wall the prisoners can see, and the sounds they make echo down to the prisoners too. Over time (and we’re presuming years here) the prisoners get used to the shadows they see on the wall in front of them; they learn to recognise the minute details of the shadows, to differentiate and identify them. They learn to call one figure a man, another a woman, and call others cat, dog, box, pot or whatever. They learn that sometimes it gets cold, and then hot again some time later, before reverting back to cold (thanks to the seasons). And then, they begin to make connections between the echoes they hear and the shadows. They learn that man shadows and woman shadows talk differently from one another and from dog shadows, and that basket shadows make hardly any noise.

Now remember, we’re presuming here that the prisoners have no memory/knowledge of the ‘real world’, so the shadows become, to them, a reality. They think it is the shadows of a dog that make the barking sound, and that when the shadow of a clay pot is dropped and breaks, then it is the shadow that has broken. Winter and summer are not caused by anything, they merely happen. What is to us merely an image of reality becomes their reality.

Now, Plato has us imagine we take one of our prisoners away; free him, show him the real world. As he says, if we suppose “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real?” Wouldn’t he be simultaneously amazed and terrified by the world he found around him, to see a fully-fledged person causing the shadow he had once thought of as a fundamental reality? Perhaps he would be totally unable to even see, much less comprehend, this strange, horrifying new world, unable to recognise it as real.

However, humans are nothing if not adaptable creatures, and after some time ‘up top’ our freed prisoner would surely grow accustomed to his surroundings. He would see a person, rather than their shadow, think of putting something in a box, rather than seeing a black square on a wall, and would eventually feel confident enough to venture out of the cave, look at and comprehend the sun, and eventually even recognise it as “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing”. (Plato often used the sun as a metaphor for enlightenment or illumination from knowledge, so here it represents the prisoner’s final understanding of the nature of reality).

Now, our prisoner could be said to be educated in the ways of the world, and after a time he would surely think back to those long days he spent chained to that wall. He would think of his fellow prisoners, how piteous their lives and their recognition of reality was when compared to him, and how much he could teach them to aid their understanding and make them happier. “And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honours, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which?”. So, Plato has our man return to his cave, to his old spot, and try to teach his fellow prisoners what reality really is.

And it is here where Plato’s analogy gets really interesting; for, rather than accepting this knowledge, the fellow prisoners would be far more likely to reject them. What are these colour things? What do you mean, stuff goes ‘inside’ other things- there are only two dimensions. What is this big fiery ball in this ‘sky’ thing? And, after all, why should they listen to him; after so long away, he’s going to be pretty bad at the whole ‘guessing what each shadow is’ business, so they would probably think him stupid; insane, even, going on about all these concepts that are, to the prisoners, quite obviously not real. He would be unable to educate them without showing them what he means, because he can’t express his thought in terms of the shadows they see in front of them. If anything, his presence would only scare them, convince them that this strange ‘other world’ he talks about is but a feat of madness causing one’s eyes to become corrupted, scaring them away from attempting to access anything beyond their limited view of ‘shadow-reality’. As Plato says, “if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?”

To Plato, the world of his Forms was akin to the real world; true, enlightened, the root cause of the physical reality we see and encounter. And the real, material world; that was the shadows, mere imprints of The Forms that we experienced as physical phenomena. We as people have the ability to, unlike the prisoners, elevate ourselves beyond the physical world and try to understand the philosophical world, the level of reality where we can comprehend what causes things, what things mean, what their consequences are; where we can explore with an analytical mind and understand our world better on a fundamental level. Or, we can choose not to, and stay looking at shadows and dismissing those willing to think higher.

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An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.