I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
Jimi Hendrix manages to say more in these four lines, I reckon, than Plato manages in four hundred. Where Jimi talks of expanding consciousness from the delusion of self-absorption to a direct and sensual delight in the real world, Plato suggests the tangible world around us is an illusion we can only escape by retreating into abstraction. At least, that’s how I read his cumbersome and deeply depressing analogy of human existence as a kind of underground imprisonment jumping at shadows.
Click on https://aquileana.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/%e2%96%baphilosophy-platos-cave-and-fifteen-million-merits-black-mirror/ for an excellent comparison of Plato’s ideas with the TV film ‘Fifteen Million Merits (Black Mirror)’. And the internet abounds with short films on Plato’s Cave, such as https://youtu.be/1RWOpQXTltA and https://youtu.be/LTWwY8Ok5I0
On the face of it, Buddhism agrees in principle with Plato’s assessment of reality. The Buddhists believe that life is ‘dukkha’ or ‘suffering’. This suffering – according to the Buddha – comes about through human desire to hold on to the physical realm, an attachment to things. Buddhists might agree with Plato that physical reality is in a constant state of change. But I doubt whether they’d exchange the beauty of the world for his spooky and rather bloodless realm of pure Ideas and Forms.
The Buddhist higher worlds are much more down-to-earth: they comprise learning, compassion and realisation – this last I take to mean a more intense engagement with the world amounting to an ability to live fully in the moment. Enlightenment, or Nirvana, may perhaps be regarded as the moment of psychological escape from the cycle of birth and death. Life and death are one.
Plato’s cave denigrates the material world. According to Mel Thompson, Plato “fails to illustrate that attractiveness of the physical world; the scene inside the gloomy cave hardly represents the delights of the senses”. Plato’s analogy of the cave is nothing like the world we live in, so we can’t relate to it or understand it the way Plato wanted us to. He doesn’t help us understand the world we live in. He implies the senses are useless, but we have survived for millions of years because of them. All artistic endeavour, he says, is pointless because we are merely making copies of things that are already copies.
Plato’s misanthropy doesn’t stop there. All finer feelings – such as unconditional love, perfect friendship and selfless altruism – are imperfect copies of purely notional concepts. This is clearly nonsense. And if we are to believe there is a perfect Form of everything then there must be perfect Forms of nasty stuff too. Yet the realm of the Forms is meant to be perfect, unchanging, and eternal. This world, as Stephen Law says, “requires the existence of deeply unpleasant things such as mud, faeces, and mucus. The ‘Platonic heaven of the Forms’ does not sound so heavenly … “
Problems with Plato’s Cave multiply because he fails to make a distinction between the visible world and the World of Forms, as the analogy contains physical objects. The Sun is a physical object and the fire in the cave merely a smaller version of the Sun. This does not provide a convincing explanation of the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical.
Plato divides our one world into two but he offers no proof of two worlds. It is a leap of faith. Aristotle argued that a Form does not have separate existence over and above a particular instance of it. It is impossible to prove Plato’s theory.
Plato would no doubt turn this round, as he turns everything else round, by saying that authentic knowing is not possible while we’re constrained by these bodies. And yet he says that he knows these things. With Plato we are entering the realm of magical thinking and starting to leave the ground. But we have to question whether a priori knowledge really is superior to empirical knowledge.
Moral relativists deny that moral fact exists. Nietzsche suggests we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Hume and Ayer regard moral statements as demonstrations of emotion. Sartre says that we are what we do, which locates our identity in the social environment. According to these thinkers, nothing descends from on high. It’s down to us.
Plato holds the deeply patronising view that only an elite can work out reality but we know how easily elites can lose touch with everyday life. Knowledge of practical goodness is widespread – those ignorant of goodness can be educated or uneducated. Plato disparages democracy and draws an over-simplified contrast between the ordinary person and the philosopher.
In a way I can understand some degree of special pleading because his mentor Socrates died for expressing his views. Also, while Plato’s analogy is at best dodgy and at worst damaging, it does shed unintentional light on political questions like social conditioning. This shouldn’t be overstressed as Plato’s reference to it is only a metaphor within a metaphor – hating art, he can’t be expected to be much good at it, can he? – but for what it’s worth, here it is:
Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
Is it the nature of life that plays tricks on us or is it the nature of human societies? Plato predictably doesn’t make this clear. Susan Sontag found interesting connections between Plato’s dancing shadows and the arbitrary contextless way the media portrays reality, but perhaps that’s an idea for another post …
Images: pinterest.com & http://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/02/04/man-knowledge-the-greek-philosophers/