- Jesus, dis-je, il y a icy un nouveau monde?
- Certes, dist-il, il n'est mie nouveau, mais
l'on dist bien que hors d'icy y a une terre
neufve ou ilz ont et soleil et lune et tout plein
de belles besoignes; mais cestuy cy est plus ancien.
Gargantua and Pantagruel, ch. 32
What the Prisoner Experienced in the Cave
[From a previously unknown dialogue of Plato. Part I is here.]
Socrates : Our prisoner awakens to find himself chained to a bench. His head has been constrained to face forward; in this way he can only see a kind of screen upon which are projected shadows. It happens that there is a fire behind our prisoners which casts these shadows onto the screen which is visible to them. The shadows are cast by large cut outs on long poles carried by actors who parade back and forth behind the prisoners. The shadows from these shapes are all that the prisoners can see. The shapes being carried are of every imaginable kind. There are cut-outs to signify the stars, the sun, the moon and the other heavenly bodies. Great houses and temples are represented as are humble abodes of common laborers. All the animals and plants are represented as well as all the other phenomena of the earth; mountains, hills, rivers, and roads. Some of the shapes are of human beings and their voices are simulated by those who carry the respective cut-outs.
Our prisoner rejoices to see this because they are of a much simpler version of that complex ‘reality’ which he, formerly a prisoner in the field, had previously been familiar. He finds everything much more comprehensible.
Glaucon : He prefers it to the open field?
|Recess in S wall of Roman Agora. Athens, Attica, Greece. 1CBC.|
Courtesy of SquinchPix
S. : And why not? Indeed his being imprisoned in the open field has prepared him to take maximum advantage from the cave. Because of his previous imprisonment he can far more easily detail the minutest shades of meaning in the ‘plays’ of the sign holders. Nothing for him is baffling; indeed the discourses of the priests and the prominent men (for they, too, are represented) are greatly simplified from the reality of such dignitaries in the upper world from which he has fled to this refuge. Would he not prefer these clearer meanings, Glaucon?
G. : Indeed, I don’t think so, Socrates!
S. : But consider, best of students, the upper world in which he was previously a prisoner was complex, incommensurable; sometimes cruel and baffling. The world of the cave, in which he is now so happy, is clear, plain, understandable. And, in addition, the vagaries of nature have no place in this better lower world.
G. : But how could a person choose a poor simulacrum over the richness of his former reality?
S. : Most of the prisoners (I mean, from the upper world of the Field) would choose it because they are safe in the Cave. The world is more comprehensible there. And you fail to consider the advantages of such a life over the disordered and chaotic mental life that he led previously. In the new life of the Cave ideal concepts are presented in their clearest and simplest form. They are easy to absorb. Instead of attempting to dredge meaning from complex phenomena (which, I assure you, are all too easy to misunderstand) the meaning of life and one’s place in it will be much simpler to absorb from the signs carried by the actors. Such a fortunate prisoner would never be confused about the founding ideas of life. Does one understand Virtue better from a controlled environment marked out by clear and intelligible signs or is it better to throw a child into a complex and confusing environment such as our own and trust to happenstance that the child will absorb the right lessons about life?
G. : The former, surely.
S. : Most certainly Glaucon, attentive one! For consider the study of Truth. The material world outside the cave has no certain or natural way of communicating knowledge of, or love of, the Truth to the poor prisoners sitting under the canopy in the field. And how can all the prisoners in the upper world all reach the same conclusions? Indeed, what certain and unerring idea can be communicated by means of the multifarious and ever-changing phenomena of the upper world? Because, Glaucon, what is Truth?
G. : Truth is the Unchanging.
S. : Precisely so! But how can the Unchanging emerge from the Changing?
G. : It cannot.
S. : Just so. But the opposite obtains in the Cave. For in the Cave the work of the great Truth-tellers can be clearly and unambiguously communicated by using symbols and words that have fixed and unchanging meanings. Now, suppose that our prisoner is again accidentally freed. What shall he do?
G. : Entirely free? Able to choose whether to stay in the cave or to go back out into the world of the field?
S. : Yes.
G. :Well, according to what you say, I suppose that he would ignore his new freedom – even conceal the fact that his bonds had slipped – and remain in the cave watching the projected shadows.
S. : But let us continue this in our next meeting.
G.: Very well, Socrates.