Plato Revisited – The Allegory of the Cave

A philosophical discourse by Filip Ji

How wonderful to be sitting here, far away from all that narrow-minded and hectic hassle in the city. Fully enjoying the weak but pleasantly fresh sea breeze that every now and then gently stroke this one-hundred-and-fifty-meter-high eagle’s nest. Down in the city, the oppressive humid heat had held me in its grip all day long, and at first I had felt pretty reluctant to start the climb to the Acropolis, confined in this heavy armor of loom. But my love for the sacred peace and serenity, and my passion for a healthy, trained body had pulled their shot off, and now I could finally lay back and pick the sweet fruits of my efforts.

Pretty proud of myself, and wallowing in the mental pleasure of not being surrounded here by noisy hawkers and cackling fishwives. Here my being was stimulated by the mystical atmosphere around, a gathering of distinguished and serene priests, priestesses and philosophers, and, it may also be mentioned in passing, by the presence of a selection of the most beautiful virgins. Or at least by their over-sized effigies.

Behind my back, in the Parthenon, obviously the most beautiful of them all presides. For this sacred place, Phidias had created a statue of  Athena with which the Divine Virgin will most certainly feel honored. The beautiful statue, commissioned by the late statesman Pericles, is moreover the only thing you can find in the temple. It has a height of no less than twelve meters and is entirely made of gold (more then hundred and twenty kilos!), handfuls of precious ivory and wood. The price Pericles payed for it, had amounted to more or less one third of the construction cost of all buildings on the Acropolis combined! And then of course you also have the delightful silhouettes of the caryatids, those six seductive Persian virgins who adorn the southern bay of the Erechteion.

And last but not least, our statue of liberty. The immense bronze statue of the Goddess Athena, this time in full armor, as a powerful guardian of the freedom of the Athenians. Cast and erected in gratitude for the victory over the tyrannical Persian rulers who had razed the entire Acropolis to the ground less than a century ago. The monumental statue has a height of more than nine meters, the solid base not even included, and can be seen from far beyond the city. Especially when as now the sun is shining, and with unstoppable force reflects his glowing rays on the shiny bronze. A shimmering beacon of safety and freedom. Not in the least for our brave seafarers and fishermen.

A blissful calm washed over me and I slightly moaned with pleasure, while sinking down a bit deeper against the thick cool marble wall of the Parthenon. Here in the enjoyable shade of the front porch, somewhat tucked away behind its sturdy milky white pillars, I could concentrate all the better on the bliss of even the weakest breeze, whipping up my imagination by the epic adventures that it carried from over the sea.

While sitting there for barely fifteen minutes, I squinted and noticed a tall stature passing the Propylaia, the monumental gatehouse of the Acropolis, and entering the sacred plateau. He patted the dust of his toga, tapped the sand from his sandals against the base of a high pillar and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Thereupon he stood for a few moments staring at the imposing bronze statue of liberty, out of awe for the unique creative realization or maybe to quickly send the Goddess a prayer, and then came stately slowly, it even felt somewhat solemn, towards the Parthenon.

A bit closer I suddenly recognized him and a wave of joy went through my body as one of the better sea breezes. It actually made me get goose bumps. It turned out to be none other than my dear cousin Aristocles. Since his trip to Italy and Sicily, now more than two years ago, I had noticed him a few times, but he had always been surrounded by quite a crowd, so that I had never seen the chance to get to talk to him, not even for an instant.

After his stay at the court of Dionysius of Syracuse, his visit to the Pythagorean philosophers and afterwards also here, the creation of his school in the garden of Academos, he had become one of the most honored and demanded persons in Athens. Insofar as he wasn’t already before he left. After all, already since his very young years, Aristocles possesses as no one else the here strongly envied talent for speaking, and he is considered far beyond Athens as a philosopher of the kind that shows itself here on earth only extremely rarely. Furthermore, he is a gifted painter, a great mathematician and one of Athens most adored sportsmen. In every game he took part, he won part of the medals. Even now, at forty-two, he still looked impressively young and fresh. And besides, he is also an exceptionally beautiful man, with a flawless and perfectly symmetrical face, as well as a beautifully shaped, sturdy and more than properly trained body.

Most people in the city consequently call him Plato, derived from “platon” or “large”, so referring to his broad shoulders and tough torso. In fact you could say there is something divine about him, and that becomes clear to me even more when I watch him tread closer now. That proud posture, this irresistible charisma, those spirited and delightfully reassuring eyes,… Something about him really seemed to be superhuman. And for once he was not surrounded by a swarm of philosophers hanging on his every word or by some Athenian maiden clamoring for a glance. How did he manage that? I considered it in any case as a divine omen, gratefully winked in the direction of Athena and waved briefly in his direction.

In the meantime Aristocles had approached the front of the Parthenon, and noticed me in my sun-sheltered column-cocoon. His eyes sparkled playfully and he conjured a jovially greeting smile on his lips. When I made a move to get on my feet, he quickly made a sign that I had to remain seated, strode straight towards me and quietly sat down beside me.

“By Zeus, dear cousin, it’s been so long!” he started in the meantime.

“It does indeed appear to be an eternity dear Aristocles! I’m so glad to finally meet you again! Nowadays your popularity makes you almost as difficult to approach as Zeus himself!”. Something he frankly admitted with a disarmingly cheerful expression in his eyes. Therewithal I noticed what an open and loving man he actually was. Not at all like most of the other philosophers and authority figures I sometimes observed down at the Agora, in and around the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios. Incredibly haughty and filled to the brim with self-conceit. Way too big for their sandals. Like Narcissus in love with their own reflection in the water. Aristocles may be considered by many to be a living legend, but with his pure simplicity he constantly and effortlessly punctures the soap bubbles that others continuously blow around him.

“You picked yourself a lovely shady spot there, dear cousin! Especially here at the Parthenon. Did you know that there used to be another, although smaller temple here before? And before that one another one? That this has already been a sanctuary for many centuries? In the past, the priests and priestesses had a much closer connection with the earth and were able to accurately detect powerful energy places. Here, where we are now, is such a remarkable place. That is why I have such an intense need to regularly escape from the turmoil, to clear my head and center myself in the here always reigning sacred tranquility and silence. The high energy here helps me to get a better view on the real world. To get past this illusionary sensory perceived world.”

“Illusionary? What are you telling me now Aristocles? That what’s real is nothing but that what we can perceive sensually, isn’t it?”

He looked at me with a grin, apparently elated by my somewhat brutal refutation of his statement. He slightly raised his hand as a request for attention, thought hard for a moment and replied with a serious look.

“Allow me to clarify my statement, dear cousin. Make an effort for a moment to carefully follow my reasoning, notwithstanding the oppressive heat. Imagine a number of people who are imprisoned in a large room. All of them have been firmly chained since their very youth, whereby they only have eyes on one particular wall right in front of them. About ten meters behind them, there is a wall with a height of more or less two meters, and another ten meters behind that wall there is a log fire. Can you imagine that?”

“I clearly see it for me.”

“So now let’s just imagine for a moment that in between that wall and the fire, puppeteers are playing their game. They stick out their puppets and all kinds of other objects above the wall and perform entire theater performances. The only thing the prisoners see, and moreover have ever seen, is the shadow play on the wall in front of them.”

“It is certainly not an everyday scene, but I can still picture it imaginatively.”

“And suppose those people could talk to each other. And that they also start giving everything they see a name. Do not you think that with this, they will be convinced that they name the real things?”

“Matter of course.”

“Can you imagine what image these people must have of themselves and of reality?“

“They have never seen anything but shadows. Shadows of the pieced-together objects. I suppose they will identify with that then too?”

“Absolutely correct!”

Dear Aristocles, do you allow me in my turn to contribute something to your story?” “Certainly. Go ahead.”, he replied somewhat amused. – “Imagine for a moment that the whole scene is set in a large cave. Then you also get the echo effect. As a result, the prisoners will also hear the reecho of the bustle of the puppeteers, coming from the wall on which the shadow-play is unfolding. This would make the illusion even more realistic for them.”

“By Zeus! This combination of your imagination with the power of your logical thinking proves that you are a born philosopher, my dear cousin! The next time I narrate this allegory at the Academy, I can indeed so much better start to use your image of the cave! I can’t thank you enough!”

“But please continue now Aristocles. I am immensely curious about the rest of your story.”

He stared a few seconds ahead in the thin and then went on with the same passion. “Well, suppose now that one of the prisoners is released from his chains and forced to stand up. And that he is turned around in the direction of the spectacle and the fire. Do you think that after all this time in darkness, he would be able to behold the scene? Don’t you think the fire would rather painfully dazzle him? And that because of this sudden intense blindness he will not even be able to form even the vaguest image of this new reality?“

“Now, that’s for sure the only possible conclusion.“

“And suppose that that he is taken by hands and feet, and that way even dragged outside into the direct sunlight and that he is forced there to open his eyes. That he is furthermore being told that everything he had been observing his whole life, is in fact no more than an illusion, and that this new, painfully blinding and hazy spectacle is the only true reality. Do you think he will just be able to accept that? Don’t you rather think that he will resolutely reject this forced experience and reach back to the world he has always known as the only real one? And, moreover, would he not be seriously annoyed by the treatment that fell to his share?”

“Hm, that seems indeed no more than logical.”

What is really necessary to make him come to the new realization is habituation. Through indirect observations, such as shadows and reflections in water or mirrors, he will slowly but surely come to a correct image of reality itself and be able to correctly reason it.“

“Absolutely.”

“And when he then reaches that new stage and thinks back to his imprisonment in the cave, don’t you think he would consider himself very fortunate and that he would feel a deep pity for his fellow prisoners?”

“Yes, yes, he will for sure feel a strong compassion for them.”

“And now just suppose for a moment that a system of prestige was common in the cave, in which obeisances were granted to the one who could best describe the shadows. Or to the one who saw the most acceptable logic in the succession of the shadows. Do you think he would still attach any importance to those obeisances?”

“In the light of his new world they have absolutely no value anymore.”

“And then also this. Suppose he would descend into the cave once again and that he would take back his old place. Would it not be so, at least in a first phase, that he can no longer perceive any shadows at all because his eyes are now accustomed to the bright light and no longer to the darkness?”

“Unquestionably.”

“So now he doesn’t even see an iota of the world of his fellow prisoners, but nevertheless comes to tell them that this is because his eyes are now accustomed to the light of the true reality. That they are in fact poor devils who are trapped in a gloomy illusion. Do you think they will believe him?”

“Ha, ha! That I can hardly imagine Aristocles.“

“So it is. They will tell him that his departure has cost him his eyes.“

“And if he were to be so overconfident anyway to insist or maybe even force someone, then this would for sure make him put his life on the line.”

“Undoubtedly dear cousin. Undoubtedly. To illustrate all this a bit more clearly at the academy, I often use the image of the fictional character Socrates, as a model of whatever wisdom and goodness might possibly mean. His goodness and wisdom brought him into conflict with some authority figures, which gave him a trial, and eventually even a sentence to death by drinking a cup of poison hemlock. Although he enjoyed life intensely, he did not hesitate for a moment to actually take the poison. On the contrary, he refused every possibility of pardon or escape. So full he was of the knowledge of the world of ideas, after he had punctured the bubble of the sensually perceptible world.”

“An impressive personality.”

“And in the same line, I also created for example Aristophanes, who painted Socrates as a village idiot in a vitriolic comedy. As with the accusers and judges, you will undoubtedly see another allusion here to the totally inflexible fellow prisoners in the cave, who do not recognize the sanctity of their savior, and mercilessly ridicule him.”

“That is clear.”

“And allow me to hereby also come to a conclusion. It is in fact my strict conviction that we can apply all of this also on ourselves. The sun in our allegory represents the eternal and unchangeable Divine, that consists of the ideas of which everything here is a reflection. So you have for example the idea of a horse, to which all horses appertain , however unequal or imperfect they may possibly be. Or ultimately the idea of the good, the essence of the light, of which all the good here is but a strongly watered down version. All phenomena in the sensory perceptible world are merely perishable shadows of these eternal and unchangeable ideas. So our body as well, in contrast to our soul which is also immortal and in which, moreover, the mind is seated. By means of that mind we have access to the world of ideas and we can climb back to it. And that’s just our job as philosophers dear cousin…”

“Impressive vision, Aristocles. Particularly impressive vision.”

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