Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is Plato’s cave still (virtually) with us?

Every philosophical initiate knows Plato’s allegory of the cave. As some commentators have remarked, it is probably the first imagining of what we know as the film theatre. In Book 7 of The Republic, Socrates tells the parable of a community of people who live in a cave, with their necks shackled in such a manner that they can only look at the cave wall. Behind them there is a road on which different beings move along; behind the road and its users there is a big fire, and further back, behind the fire, is the cave opening, with the sun shining outside.

The light from the fire casts the shadows of the creatures moving along the road on the cave wall in front of the cave-prisoners, who regard these shadows as real things – similar to the ontological value that many people today attribute to movie- and television-images, as well as to those internet-images that populate computer screens – and converse about them as if this is all there is about “reality”.

The chained cave-denizens represent human beings, of course, and the allegory is Plato’s way of saying that human beings are like the cave-dwellers in attributing “reality” to the things of sense perception, which are like shadows compared to the objects of thought, which are truly real, according to Plato. (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” – Kaja Silverman [in World Spectators], and Luce Irigaray [in Speculum of the Other Woman] have done this in different ways.)

When one day, one of these prisoners painstakingly manages to remove the shackles from her neck, and manages to turn around and make 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 world in all its splendour, she is understandably astonished, and can’t wait to share her discovery with those in the cave.

Here Plato shows great insight into the relationship between the true philosopher (or artist, for that matter), and society, because he intimates that the person who returns to the cave community to share their discovery of the real world with them, runs the risk of not being understood – after all, she or he would have to devise a new language to share their 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 their lives in their attempts to “get through” to their erstwhile community, who, in all likelihood, will regard them as being insane.

Does this sound familiar? Think of the historical Socrates, who was executed for sharing his novel ideas with the people of Athens, and of Copernicus, whose heliocentric hypothesis was initially ridiculed, as was Galileo’s notion of an “earth in motion”, and Giordano Bruno’s “unconscionable idea” of an infinite number of worlds where there are creatures like ourselves (for which he was burnt at the stake), or of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was (and still is today in many “creationist” circles) lampooned as ludicrously reducing humans to monkeys – many cartoons appeared in magazines like Punch at the time, depicting people in different postures as primates, for example. Freud, too, was treated – and is still being treated by some today – as if he was the devil, for daring to suggest that “originary repression” of infantile erotic desire (for the mother), through which the unconscious is constituted, somehow taints the human race intolerably.

One could add many others, like Vincent van Gogh, who outraged the Victorian society of his time with what was a spectrum of (to that grey world) unbearably vivid, vibrant colours comprising his paintings, or D.H Lawrence, who broke a lance for the right of literary artists to explore all aspects of human existence, including that of sexuality. What all these instances of philosophers, scientists and artists have in common, is that these people were in the position of the “rebel” who made her way out of Plato’s cave of conventional assumptions, and tried to share their discoveries with those still shackled by the neck.

At any given time there are many similar conventions, or “shadows” that have a stranglehold on people’s ability to see beyond what the conventions allow one to see. It would be interesting to enumerate those contemporary shadows that govern the “visible world” of today. And, to avoid falling into the same trap that Plato did by using the domain of the visible, which he devalued in the end, to represent that of thought, which he valourised, I should hasten to add that the human life-world of the visible – that is, the “original” world of the senses that we first discover as infants – functions as a touchstone of sorts in being able to discern the truly obfuscating “shadows”, metaphorically speaking, which cover up what is valuable in a human life worth living.

One of the things that I have in mind is a new kind of cave – a “virtual cave” – the one comprising all the virtual spaces of the internet, from massively multi-player online games to the qualitatively homogeneous (that is, boring) spaces of social networking sites, where millions of today’s cave-dwellers chain themselves by the neck, voluntarily, eschewing the opportunity to discover (what still remains of) the wonderful, concrete world of the senses, which Plato devalued so unjustifiably.

As Kaja Silverman has argued (in World Spectators), it is through senses like vision that humans endow the world with value. It may well be argued that vision operates in relation to what is seen on the web as well, which I would readily grant, but unless this is treated as something that ADDS to the concrete world in which humans are at home, in which vision and the other senses “embed” us, and not as a substitute for this originary human world, it may well become a prison of sorts. Anyone who has seen the documentary called Second Skin – on the hypnotic hold that an online game such as World of Warcraft has on millions of people worldwide, often with devastating social and psychological consequences – will know what I mean.

Having just spent a week in Durban with colleagues at UKZN, during part of the day, and the rest of the day exploring the beautiful Palmiet Nature Reserve in Westville with my partner, I can vouch for the wonderfully therapeutic value of re-discovering the world of the senses, in every quarter where it is accessible, whenever you can. On the lawn of the B & B where we stayed, right next to the Palmiet River, there are Egyptian geese, the odd mongoose and duiker, giant kingfisher, guinea fowl, as well as dozens of different species of birds frequenting the trees around the house. Surrounded by this wealth of natural beauty, we never even felt the need to watch television.

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