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.

“The most honest three and a half minutes in television history”

OK, I know this should have been put up on Wednesday, but I wanted to get this one right. Anyway…

This video appeared on my Facebook feed a few days ago, and I have been unable to get it out of my head since. It is, I am told, the opening scene of a new HBO series (The Newsroom), and since HBO’s most famous product, Game of Thrones, is famously the most pirated TV show on earth, I hope they won’t mind me borrowing another three minute snippet too much.

OK, watched it? Good, now I can begin to get my thoughts off my chest.

This video is many things; to me, it is quite possibly one of the most poignant and beautiful, and in many ways is the best summary of greatness ever put to film. It is inspiring, it is blunt, it is great television. It is not, however, “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…” as claimed in its title; there are a lot of things I disagree with in it. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure on our protagonist’s reasons for saying ‘liberals lose’. If anything, the last century of our existence can be viewed as one long series of victories for liberal ideology; women have been given the vote, homosexuality has been decriminalised, racism has steadily been dying out, gender equality is advancing year by year and only the other day the British government legalised gay marriage. His viewpoint may have something to do with features of American politics that I’m missing, particularly his reference to the NEA (an organisation which I do not really understand), but even so. I’m basically happy with the next few seconds; I’ll agree that claiming to be the best country in the world based solely on rights and freedoms is not something that holds water in our modern, highly democratic world. Freedom of speech, information, press and so on are, to most eyes, prerequisites to any country wishing to have any claim to true greatness these days, rather than the scale against which such activities are judged. Not entirely sure why he’s putting so much emphasis on the idea of a free Australia and Belgium, but hey ho.

Now, blatant insults of intelligence directed towards the questioner aside, we then start to quote statistics- always a good foundation point to start from in any political discussion. I’ll presume all his statistics are correct, so plus points there, but I’m surprised that he apparently didn’t notice that one key area America does lead the world in is size of economy; China is still, much to its chagrin, in second place on that front. However, I will always stand up for the viewpoint that economy does not equal greatness, so I reckon his point still stands.

Next, we move on to insulting 20 year old college students, not too far off my own personal social demographic; as such, this is a generation I feel I can speak on with some confidence. This is, probably the biggest problem I have with anything said during this little clip; no justification is offered as to why this group is the “WORST PERIOD GENERATION PERIOD EVER PERIOD”. Plenty of reasons for this opinion have been suggested in the past by other commentators, and these may or may not be true; but making assumptions and insults about a person based solely on their date of manufacture is hardly the most noble of activities. In any case, in the age of the internet and mass media, a lot of the world’s problems, with the younger generation in particular, get somewhat exaggerated… but no Views here, bad Ix.

And here we come to the meat of the video, the long, passionate soliloquy containing all the message and poignancy of the video with suitably beautiful backing music. But, what he comes out with could still be argued back against by an equally vitriolic critic; no time frame of when America genuinely was ‘the greatest country in the world’ is ever given. Earlier, he attempted to justify non-greatness by way of statistics, but his choice of language in his ‘we sure as hell used to be great’ passage appears to hark back to the days of Revolutionary-era and Lincoln-era America, when America was lead by the ‘great men’ he refers to. But if we look at these periods of time, the statistics don’t add up anywhere near as well; America didn’t become the world-dominating superpower with the stated ‘world’s greatest economy’ it is today until after making a bucket load of money from the two World Wars (America only became, in the words of then President Calvin Coolidge, ‘the richest country in the history of the world’, during the 1920s). Back in the periods where American heroes were born, America was a relatively poor country, consisting of vast expanses of wilderness, hardline Christian motivation, an unflinching belief in democracy, and an obsession the American spirit of ‘rugged individualism’ that never really manifested itself into any super-economy until it became able to loan everyone vast sums of money to pay off war debts. And that’s not all; he makes mention of ‘making war for moral reasons’, but of the dozens of wars America has fought only two are popularly thought of as being morally motivated. These were the American War of Independence, which was declared less for moral reasons and more because the Americans didn’t like being taxed, and the American Civil War, which ended with the southern states being legally allowed to pass the ‘Jim Crow laws’ that limited black rights until the 1960s; here they hardly ‘passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons’. Basically, there is no period of history in which his justifications for why America was once’the greatest country in the world’ actually stand up at once.

But this, to me, is the point of what he’s getting at; during his soliloquy, a historical period of greatness is never defined so much as a model and hope for greatness is presented.. Despite all his earlier quoting of statistics and ‘evidence’, they are not what makes a country great. Money, and the power that comes with it, are not defining features of greatness, but just stuff that makes doing great things possible. The soliloquy, intentionally or not, aligns itself with the Socratic idea of justice; that a just society is one in which every person concerns himself with doing their own, ideally suited, work, and does not concern himself with trying to be a busybody and doing someone else’s job for them. Exactly how he arrives at this conclusion is somewhat complex; Plato’s Republic gives the full discourse. This idea is applied to political parties during the soliloquy; defining ourselves by our political stance is a self-destructive idea, meaning all our political system ever does is bicker at itself rather than just concentrating on making the country a better place. Also mentioned is the idea of ‘beating our chest’, the kind of arrogant self-importance that further prevents us from seeking to do good in this world, and the equally destructive concept of belittling intelligence that prevents us from making the world a better, more righteous place, full of the artistic and technological breakthroughs that make our world so awesome to bring in. For, as he says so eloquently, what really makes a country great is to be right. To be just, to be fair, to mean and above all to stand for something. To not be obsessed about ourselves, or other people’s business; to have rightness and morality as the priority for the country as a whole. To lay down sacrifices and be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, to back our promises and ideals and to care, above all else, simply for what is right.

You know what, he put it better than I ever could analyse. I’m just going to straight up quote him:

“We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men- we aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy.”

Maybe his words don’t quite match the history; it honestly doesn’t matter. The message of that passage embodies everything that defines greatness, ideas of morality and justice and doing good by the world. That statement is not harking back to some mythical past, but a statement of hope and ambition for the future. That is beauty embodied. That is greatness.