Plot Holes in Plato’s Cave or Welcome to The Cavern Club
by Héctor Martínez
The passage 514a-516d of Plato’s Republic is very well known. It is so well known that some people quote it and talk about it without having read it, because they already know what it is about from hearing it and seeing it quoted. It is the fragment of the Cave, an iconic episode that has served as a metaphor for knowledge, education, cinema, photography, politics, from its most simplistic interpretation: those who dwell inside are ignorant and remain in the dark, and those who have come out are enlightened sages. Knowledge is illumination and ignorance darkness, in a metaphor that constantly privileges the sense of sight. However, Plato refers that there is speech there and that the echo that is produced also reaches the prisoners as another perception of the senses. This is often forgotten when appealing to the Platonic metaphor. And it is not the only thing that is deliberately forgotten.
According to the story, we have some prisoners at the bottom of a cavern who have been born bound in such a way that they are forced to look forward. Behind them, far away, there is a fire in a higher position. And between the prisoners and the fire there is a path, and in the middle of this path there are some men behind a screen, carrying objects manufactured of stone and wood. Some of these men are in conversation and others are not. The fact is that the prisoners can only see the vague shadows generated by the fire and the movement of the figures of stone and wood associated with the echo of the voices of the bearers. And that, which is the only thing they have seen and heard since they were children, will be what they take for real. Next, it is proposed to free one of the prisoners and force him to stand up, to turn around and look at what is behind him. This freed person would suffer the pain in his eyes before the light of the fire and would be astonished to see that the shadows were produced by another reality, that of the objects. After that, the freed person must be dragged against his will along the steep path to the outer light, and once before it, he would be blinded, so much so that he would need to lower his eyes and begin again to see shadows and reflections in the water and to raise his eyes to the skies, first at night and then during the day, until he could look at the sun. The prisoner would feel happy and blissful for having escaped from the life of opinion and having attained a life of knowledge, in which he can predict natural events. Now, he also pities his former fellow prisoners, so he goes back. Obviously, having passed from light to darkness, he is again blinded, and when talking to those who are still prisoners, they consider that the freed man has returned with “spoiled eyes” because of his “ascension” and would even kill him and whoever would try to untie and free them.
We all understand perfectly the allegory that has been proposed to us. A metaphor of the hard and painful path that frees one from ignorance and turns one into a sage misunderstood by the ignorant society, which is capable of executing him as a transgressor of order. A metaphor, if you will, of education as the liberation of children through the path of knowledge, that is, the liberation from the bonds imposed by comfortable ignorance, to suffer the uncomfortable life of knowledge.
It was Stuart Mill, in his Utilitarism, who raised a crucial point about the conclusion of the story: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides”. It is legitimate to wonder if it is really better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. Especially, since it is not a matter of choice, as happens in the Cave Myth. As we will see, the prisoner who was liberated never had the choice and always had been forced.
In fact, there is a first problem with this story and it is the following: it is a story that begins in media res, that is to say, the initial situation seems to be the result of some previous event that we will never know. For Plato we are not born prisoners, because it is not our nature, as Socrates tells us at the beginning of the allegory.
“Now consider,” I said, “what their release and healing from bonds and folly would be like if something of this sort were by nature to happen to them. (Republic, Book X, 515c 4–6)
Our nature, he seems to mean, is to be free and living in the direction of the intelligible. That is why it is by nature that it happens to them to be freed from their chains. Maybe, it explains why in the cave, the prisoner is freed and forced to turn around and ascend to the entrance by someone who, in no case, is identified. It is his nature, that is the way it is and nothing else. But this sounds like “he was programmed” to do it. He is a first-rate escapist, a philosophical Houdini whose nature allows him to free himself from his prison, to free himself from his chains and from being forced since childhood to look in a certain direction. But then, how were they made prisoners? Who imprisoned them? And if the story does not begin in media res, that is, if the state of being imprisoned is natural, how were the prisoner released? Who released the prisoner? It would simply be a “deus ex machina” at work. The prisoner, who was liberated, never had the choice. The text clearly states that he is forcibly imprisoned, but also that he is forcibly released. Everything that happens is against his will. Here are some points that deserve some clarification. Here we have a small plot hole in the story.
If the answer is that it has been the force of education (since we are before an allegory about education) that has liberated him, we will ask ourselves about the identity of the “educator” and how he has reached that condition, and so on, until we find an educator who has not been educated by anyone (something that would be a contradiction, because every educator must have been previously liberated through the action of another educator). We will even affirm that it is natural to be born imprisoned, because we need education to liberate every human being who is born imprisoned, which would prevent educators from existing initially, but only prisoners.
If the answer is that the prisoner has been freed by his own nature, obviously the prisoners would not need educators to free them from their chains through education. They would free themselves. It would even be difficult to explain how they were made prisoners and by whom.
Another problem with the story, which is usually ignored, has to do with the men walking the manufactured objects. They are also men, but they are not prisoners; they are men and they are not forced to look ahead as children. These men can see perfectly well the fire and the physical objects they carry, and they are fully aware that the shadows are not reality, without anyone forcing them. Again, we completely ignore how they have arrived at this situation. In fact, they are fully aware that their role is to intentionally deceive the prisoners, and they also know that the objects are not real animals or human beings, but manufactured. Perhaps they are the poets and artists that Plato expelled from his Republic; but, even making this assumption, it should be made clear why they intentionally deceive without being forced to do so and why, if they know that they deceive the prisoners, it is not assumed that they are also wise: to know that you deceive you must know what you conceal. Who really are these men halfway to knowledge who engages in wilfully deceiving the prisoners? Something like mass media distributing fake news, for example? If I were the liberated prisoner and I came across the men who were deceiving me with the shadows of the manufactured figures that were walking here and there throughout my life, I would at least ask them for explanations, I would ask: who are you? In fact, the encounter between the released prisoner and these strange men would be a very surreal scene, if you think about it: these men would not stop before the released prisoner, because there are other prisoners who are still imprisoned and for whom these men must continue to carry the statues of men, animals and objects and cast shadows. The show must go on, isn’t it?
Perhaps they are not men, although Plato says “men”, because the prisoners were often considered to represent “humanity”, and these other “men” were left out. Are they Socratic daemons, Cartesian evil geniuses and deceiving gods? Are those Freston’s little team playing with Don Quixote’s mind…?
They are also very strange in the attitude of these men. They try to deceive by carrying wooden or stone figures of animals and other objects, but they also carry “statues of men”. Was it really necessary to make a statue of a man to reflect his shadow on a wall? They themselves are men: they could perfectly well have reflected the shadow of their own human figure. They don’t need manufacture statues of men. This point leads me to believe that these are the artists and poets whom Plato later expelled from the Polis or censured for their mimetic pretensions: they are artist who makes statues of men and animals and objects. However, if it was this case, how can they be halfway to the truth if for Plato mimetic art is a double remoteness from the Truth by being a copy of a sensitive perception? How can they be halfway to the truth, closer to the light and the Good than the mere ignorant prisoners? Let us read it in Book X:
Is it imitation of looks or of truth? (…) Therefore, imitation is surely far from the truth; and, as it seems, it is due to this that it produces everything — because it lays hold of a certain small part of each thing, and that part is itself only a phantom (Republic, X, 598 bc).
The prisoner who is released should not meet on his way these men of mimetic art, because he should be closer to the entrance of the cave than the representatives of mimesis. The shadows could not be shadows of the objects of art that try to imitate sensible realities, because sensible realities participate more in the intelligible than the product of mimetic art. That blows my guess and leaves us in the dark of mystery about who these porters are.
However, the major problem that lies at the very heart of the Cave Myth is that it refutes itself. I always thought, every time I read it, why the prisoners should believe and follow the one among them who was freed when he returned to convince them that he had seen the light. And what happens if he was a madman, the leader of a sect, a false messiah, an ignorant man who thinks he is wise without being so? Why should I, a prisoner who ignores my condition as a prisoner, believe a man who appears before me, I hear and see, and who tells me not to trust my senses and to follow him to the real world whose path he knows perfectly? What is the basis for the ignorant society to follow this individual who claims to know the way?
Plato resorts to an allegory within a fictionalized dialogue. I emphasize that as a writer Plato is imitating a real dialogue with Socrates, while censoring all mimetic art, although I will not deepen this aspect. I will only say that Plato himself censured “writing” what one really thinks seriously; and as I pointed out elsewhere, Western philosophy took Greek thought more seriously than the Greeks themselves. But let us continue. As the author of the dialogue, Plato works his magic to make us identify with the liberated prisoner, the protagonist, and reject the attitude of the ignorant, the antagonists. He allows us, readers, to see the whole picture so that we become aware that the freed prisoner has travelled the path of wisdom and thus take his side. And he subtly implies that Socrates is telling his own story. Stuart Mill said lines before: “they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides”. Evidently, the prisoners are the satisfied pigs for Plato, too. It is not an innocent allegory: this is a literary exercise in Platonic propaganda, and whoever uses it should be aware the implications (for example, I’m thinking about today’s educational uses).
However, if we do not allow ourselves to be manipulated by the writer’s hand and if we put ourselves in the place of those other prisoners antagonistic to the supposed wise man, we understand perfectly well their behaviour. We would even say that it is not a behaviour lacking in common sense: as prisoners, we do not know anything about our condition as prisoners; and we do not know where our released companion has been. He could have gone mad during that time of absence. He could also be a victim of hallucinations, as he says about us calling shadows, mirages, to what we consider as truth. In rejecting him, we are not using our senses: our attitude is not the result of a sensitive perception, but of a rational act of scepticism before the one who demands blind faith in him and asserts we are prisoners and fools or pigs.
On the other hand, isn’t what the prisoners see also real? Many interpret the shadows of the Platonic cavern as “lies” and “falsehoods”, when Plato at no time said such: they are simply reflections whose reality is participated, dependent, but they are there. To participate in reality is to participate in the true to some degree. If they have no reality it would mean that they would not be. Platonic ontology is categorical in this. Shadows, therefore, can never be wholly lies in Platonic thought. In fact, from the shadows one can follow this dialectical path by resemblance with the sensible object, and from this one can continue towards the truths, again by resemblance as previously established by the allegory of the divided line (see Republic, VI 509d–511e ). Moreover, we must remember that for Plato there is no new knowledge, but that all knowledge is memory: anamnesis, remembering what has been forgotten but of which we have reminiscences. In other words, the ignorant is not entirely ignorant. Where did they learn what they have forgotten and need only remember? Answering this question with the doctrine of immortality and transmigration of the soul does not help to solve the plot holes. It increases them: basically because it turns the sage who descends into the cave pitying his former companions into a resurrected one, into a living dead or a ghost, because one only reaches the intelligible world at death, in the separation of soul and body. So much so that philosophy was defined by Plato as “preparation for death”. I bring here the Phaedo:
all this must cause good lovers of wisdom to think and say one to the other something like this: ‘There seems to be a short cut which leads us and our argument to the conclusion in our search that so long as we have the body, and the soul is contaminated by such an evil, we shall never attain completely what we desire, that is, the truth. (…) if we are ever to know anything absolutely, we must be free from the body and must behold the actual realities with the eye of the soul alone. And then, as our argument shows, when we are dead we are likely to possess the wisdom which we desire and claim to be enamoured of, but not while we live. For, if pure knowledge is impossible while the body is with us, one of two things must follow, either it cannot be acquired at all or only when we are dead; for then the soul will be by itself apart from the body, but not before. And while we live, we shall, I think, be nearest to knowledge when we avoid, so far as possible, intercourse and communion with the body, except what is absolutely necessary, and are not filled with its nature, but keep ourselves pure from it until God himself sets us free. And in this way, freeing ourselves from the foolishness of the body and being pure, we shall, I think, be with the pure and shall know of ourselves all that is pure, — and that is, perhaps, the truth. For it cannot be that the impure attain the pure.’ Such words as these, I think, Simmias, all who are rightly lovers of knowledge must say to each other and such must be their thoughts. (…) the true philosophers practice dying, and death is less terrible to them than to any other men. (Phaedo, 66b-67e).
In other words, we must understand that the chaining of prisoners is the very fact of being alive, having a body, having been born. Although this is a rather dark twist, it would at least justify the fact that they must be forced to free themselves and that they revolt against the living dead who comes down to free them: now we know that to free themselves is to assume that they must die and that the way is to prepare for this event, even to desire it. Does it not sound like a millenarian sect in which a returned messiah prophesies the end of the world and the preparation for collective suicide? Or those others in which an enlightened prophet claims to be in contact with the gods or the Martians, and that these have assured the rapture to take us to their world or Eden in a spaceship or in a cosmic ray? We already see that managing to justify a part of the allegory is generating more questions than answers. But, above all, it is settling my first claim: that we put ourselves in the shoes of the prisoners at the bottom of the cave whom we have always taken for fools. Perhaps they are not so dumb, after all. Perhaps they are anti-platonics. Perhaps they know that there is only one world: The Cavern Club.