Plato’s cave and enlightenment
“In the current issue of the TLS, Anthony Kenny makes the point that modern, secular commentators routinely downplay the theological content of many moral philosophers, not least the ancient Greeks. Parts of Aristotle can simply be cut, as is done with the Eudemian Ethics, or they ignore the last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics were Aristotle urges people not to think like mortals but like the immortals. He is reviewing God and Morality by John E. Hare, son of R.M. Hare.
The same thing happens with Plato. I was recently writing about the myth of the Cave in the Republic and it provides a good case in point.
Plato famously describes how human beings are like prisoners tied up in a cave, with their heads facing the back wall. They cannot turn around and are condemned to stare at the rock. If they could catch a sideways glance, what they would see behind them would be a surprise: they would see puppets, and behind the puppets ??” towards the mouth of the cave ??” a fire. What they perceive on the back wall, then, is the shadows of puppets dancing on the grey confines of the cave. Mistakenly, they take this world of shadows to be reality. Enlightenment begins when a prisoner is released from the grip of this misconception. First they see the puppets as puppets, which is frightening because a profoundly different world is opening up before them. Courage renewed, they then shuffle around the fire and towards the mouth of the cave. Again something astonishing confronts them: daylight. It too is bewildering. Though, once accustomed to its spectacle they turn their heads heavenwards and finally glimpse the fundamental source of all light, the sun. With that, they gain a proper perspective, if not quite understanding, of the world in which they live. It is one that could never have been intuited from the shadows at the back.
So what is this enlightenment? Philosophers have tended to interpret the myth in one of three ways. A first argues that seeing the sun is like the illumination which comes with scientific investigation. Its insights are abstract. They could never be grasped if all the individual relied on was the shadowy input of the human senses. Theorising is necessary too. So, under this interpretation, the path that Plato describes in the myth of the Cave is one that ascribes a very high value to mathematics. Axiomatics is enlightening.
Plato would have concurred. ‘Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter’, was, according to tradition, inscribed above the doors of his philosophical school, the Academy. But I think he would not have stopped there. For there are good grounds for believing that Plato thought that mathematics was only a first step towards unpeeling appearances. For one thing, aligning the sight of the sun with the confirmation of scientific theory rests on a modern understanding of science and mathematics that Plato did not have. He was influenced by the Pythagoreans, the originators of the notion of the music of the spheres. For them, mathematics was a mystical as well as a material enterprise. In its symmetries and patterns, calculus conveyed deep religious truths about reality. Numbers are transcendent. Hence, it was said that when Pythagoras discovered his famous theorem, it only seemed obvious to find an altar and sacrifice an ox. A window onto the world of the gods had been granted to him, not only a more profound perception of mundane reality. Similarly, in the Republic, Plato describes mathematics as purifying and rekindling an organ in the soul that is worth a thousand ‘normal eyes’ because it is a deeper way of seeing the truth. In short, mathematics clarifies things, and that is valuable for its own sake. But its fundamental beauty, in Plato’s mind, lies in providing a foretaste of spiritual insights. The ancient mathematician was like a master carpenter. He certainly used a setsquare and angle guide to make furniture. But the genius of his craftsmanship lay in surpassing what would be possible for someone who was limited to the use of mathematical tools alone. His is an art aimed at transcendent beauty.
In a second interpretation of the myth of the Cave, the journey into the sunlight is seen as an aesthetic experience. The shadowy life is one of grime and greys. The enlightened life is one of rich colour. Like the myth of awakening love in the Phaedrus, it is a desire for beauty that enables the former prisoner to overcome the fear, first of the puppets and then of the outside world, since the progressively mind-expanding sights that open up before the creatively adventurous are so awesome. They compel as much as they cause them to cower, and thus, with effort someone can reach the light.
This interpretation of the cave hovers between the this-worldly and the other-worldly; it makes no commitment ahead of time as to what is being unveiled. What is the case is that as the individual leaves the confines of the cave they come to experience the world as increasingly beyond themselves. Outside, they discover things exists that have little or nothing to do with them at all: the sun had been shining long before they set eyes on it and will continue to do so for long after they have gone. Alternatively, this reality is conceptually wider than that which they can grasp, even with the aid of mathematics. Perceiving it is an exercise of the imagination rather than an empirical science. It requires metaphor and allusion, not only logic. But the tremendous thing about being human is that it can be appreciated at all, in its beauty and goodness, if only obliquely.
Details that Plato supplies bolster this interpretation. For example, he says that the individual, once enlightened, will return to the cave to share the insights gained with others. The question is why they might want to do that: would they not want to stay in the sun? Or would they want to risk the ridicule of their former fellow prisoners, since upon returning, and being plunged back into the shadow, they would not be able to see anything. The committed troglodytes, who believe that they have a proper grasp of reality in the dark, would laugh at the enlightened returnee, saying their taste for transcendence had given them not new sight but ruined their old sight. They might go further and argue that they had become delusional. That would count as an argument against making the journey out of the cave; the journey is deceiving, they might conclude, not illuminating. It is not a heightening of consciousness, but a corruption of it.
However I think that the enlightened one would be prepared to take these risks, and suffer the darkness again, for the very reason that the experience of leaving the cave is one that nurtures selflessness. Returning is a response to seeing the sun. As Plato puts it, they will feel concern for their former inmates. Moreover, returning to the world of shadows that they now understand infinitely better would not be nearly so arduous as struggling away from the shadows towards the light that they used to fear. As with a religious experience, the vision may last only a moment but it changes the way someone looks at the world for a lifetime. This implies that enlightenment pierces the gloom at the back of the cave not by suddenly flooding it with illumination but by showing the individual how to look at the world of shadows in a different light. Again, the new perception that Plato describes is not an escape from this world but is a reflection upon winning a sense of transcendent possibility.
If the aesthetic interpretation of the myth is agnostic about what is revealed, the third religious interpretation is not. Under this reading it is as an unequivocal account of transcendent revelation. What happens to the person who leaves the cave is other-worldly, in the sense of being beyond direct human experience. This does seem to be an interpretation that makes good sense of the myth when set against what Plato says elsewhere. There is the story of the soul.” ~Mark Vernon
There is a lot to be said about Plato’s “The Allegory and the Cave.” it is open to wide interpretation. While not concrete in process, philosophy has been shown to help individuals engage in a thought process that allows them to really search for ‘truth’. In my estimation, the journey and experience of healing from NPD Abuse is not in vain. I liken the journey to a “Dark Night of the Soul.” While that concept is generally related to a spiritual journey, I believe the process entails more than just dealing with the concrete. If one is open it can be an experience of great transformation.
I believe that in healing, some form of spirituality is also present in the process. There is a distinction between spirituality and organized religion.
I encourage everyone in this journey to strive to find their purpose and their truth rather than dwelling and ruminating in the past. While a new victim will require time to learn about NPD abuse, absorb it, understand it and own the truth as well as deal with the trauma, I believe healing is possible. If you have been ‘stuck on stuck’ too long – it is time to begin to divert your attention and re-focus. Part of that process or part of the journey is beginning to examine the meaning of it all.
Finally, if you are interested in purchasing “God and Morality” by John E. Hare you may purchase it by clicking on the link below:
God and Morality by John E. Hare
You can find Plato’s Allegory of the Cave here