In this week’s Philosophy Wranglers sessions, we were looking at Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It’s such a provocative story that it might be a useful foil to anyone who doing their own philosophising over this strange, transitional summer. I like to tell the story slowly, asking questions as I go.
In Plato’s “Republic”, Socrates describes a group of prisoners who have always lived chained inside a cave, facing a blank wall, able to see only the shadows of objects passing behind them. [What would they think about the shadows?] One day, a prisoner is freed from the cave and gets to see the outside world. [What might he think? What would he think about his earlier self? About the other prisoners now] Afterwards, he comes back and tells the other prisoners what he has seen. [How might they react?]
Then you can get into interpretations of how the allegory connects to the real world.
What is the cave?
Who are the prisoners?
What are the shadows?
Who are the deceivers carrying the objects?
What is the outside/real world?
How do people get there?
How do people react to those who bring back news of the “real world”?
There are so many possible interpretations: individual/life stage related (falling in love, having children, aging), religious (conversion, this world and the next), political (escaping consumerism, eschewing false consciousness, metaphysical (from perceptions to underlying truths), intellectual (everyday thinking to the philosophical). These last two were perhaps most important in Plato’s own thinking, as you can see in an excellent Crash Course primer, “Leonardo di Caprio and the Nature of Reality”.
Something you can emphasise is that, just as when an idea has been volunteered in a philosophical discussion, it belongs to everybody, Plato isn’t in charge here: we’re not trying to getting inside his mind, but to see what emerges from our own and others’. Films such as The Matrix, Inception, The Truman Show and stories such as the Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series all have a similar duality/world-within-a-world form. Always there is a shift from some form of surface appearance to an underlying reality which is accessible to some but hidden from the many.
It’s that sense of privileged knowledge that invites a final stage of considering this allegory: what about those people who think the are checking out of the cave, but in reality are heading the other way? I am thinking here of conspiracy theorists and those who think the real news is Fake News. The transition from one world of thinking to another may feel similar in many ways, whether it is journey towards the truth or away from it. How can somebody tell the difference?
My own cave over the last five months has proved to be a very agreeable one. I feel very privileged to have been relatively free of virus-related worries while still enjoying contact with lots of lively young people and adults through their Zoom shadows…
P.S. Philosophy Wranglers and Philosophy Wranglers LATE (Adults) on Weds 12th are on the theme of Sisterhoods – from “The Book of the City of Ladies” in 1405 to “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” in 2016, women (and some men) have written and campaigned against the inequality of the sexes. But feminists’ views of equality aren’t all the same. We’ll explore various feminisms and the reactions against them.