Episode 34: The Cave as Hero’s Quest

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Socrates, as portrayed by Plato, had a rather ambivalent view of mythology, unless we can ascribe his attitudes to Socratic irony.  While he was clearly familiar with his Hesiod and Homer and gods and heroes, he makes a point in The Republic of saying that the ideal state would bar the telling of most myths on the grounds that the stories of bad behavior among the gods would be a corrupting influence on the children.  (Rather like parents feel about comic books.)  He specifically mentions the story about the uncertain parentage of Theseus to which I alluded in the last episode:

And let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated, the tale of Theseus son of Poseidon, or of Peirithous son of Zeus, going forth as they did to perpetrate a horrid rape; or of any other hero or son of a god daring to do such impious and dreadful things as they falsely ascribe to them in our day: and let us further compel the poets to declare either that these acts were not done by them, or that they were not the sons of gods; –both in the same breath they shall not be permitted to affirm. We will not have them trying to persuade our youth that the gods are the authors of evil, and that heroes are no better than men–sentiments which, as we were saying, are neither pious nor true, for we have already proved that evil cannot come from the gods.¹

Socrates himself is evidence of the fact that hearing these stories need not inflict damage on young souls, and he also clearly recognizes the power and value of stories in communicating philosophical points.  In this and the next episode I’d like to look at a couple of instances in the Republic where he uses the form of the “test and quest” myth to make some key points.  To remember Joseph Campbell’s description of the “monomyth:”

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous  forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The first of these is the allegory of the Cave in Book 7, which I’ve previously discussed in Episode 6, but it is so simple and so rich at the same time, that I think it’s worth another visit.  As you may recall, Plato creates an image of prisoners in a cave since birth who can look only at shadows which are projected by a fire onto a wall in front of them².  (Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.  Socrates: Like ourselves, I replied….)  Since they have no other frame of reference, they take these shadows to be reality: “To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of these images.”  It is necessary to remember that in this analogy, the shadows are the things we see and the thoughts we think.

Now although none of the prisoners “hears the call” or is inspired to break free of his chains by himself, Plato does speculate on what would happen if they “are released and disabused of their error.”  In the first scenario, a prisoner is forced to turn around and look into the light of the fire and ultimately “forced into the presence of the sun himself.” Since he has not been prepared for this ascent from the cave, “his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.”  This is a good description of what can happen when people try to expand consciousness through the continued use of drugs.

In the other scenario however, the prisoner is led through the ascent presumably by guides who have made the journey themselves.  He first sees the fire and the objects passing in front of it, and realizes that what he thought to be real was just an illusion.  Then he is shown “the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves,” gradually increasing his ability to see until he is shown the sun itself, the child of the Good, “in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.”  Then from seeing, he will be led to reason that the sun is “the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all the things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold.”

This, for Plato, is the “land of supernatural wonder,” and learning to reason, to exist in the intelligible realm, is the “decisive victory.”  Since the former prisoner now sees the reality of what he formerly believed to be true, he can have compassion for the prisoners still in the cave: “Would he not say with Homer, ‘better to be the poor servant of a poor master,’ and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”

But while Plato does believe in the necessity of the hero’s return, he is only too aware of the risks that are posed by bestowing boons on those still staring at shadows: he in fact had the example of Socrates.  “Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”  So the newly enlightened one, who has seen “the universal author of all things beautiful and right,” runs the risk, like Socrates, like Jesus, of being killed by those whom they tried to free.

Plato also realizes that “those who attain this beatific vision are unwilling to descend into human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell….”  But he believes it is the duty of the enlightened ones to make the return to the cave and become the philosopher-kings, since only they can administer the state with justice, and their very reluctance to govern is their main qualification for it.

Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.

Quite true, he replied

And will our pupils, when the hear this, refuse to take their turn at the toils of the State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light?

So because they have “seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth,” they can return to their state of enlightenment even while serving as kings.

Now without wishing to belabor the obvious, I would like to make the point that this quest is also the one that we must make as individuals to realize the Good within ourselves.  All along, of course, Plato has been using the larger State as an analogy for the individual one³.  Most discussions of the Republic focus on the larger State since looking at ourselves is the kind of uncomfortable examination we try to avoid at all costs.  But I think Plato is really talking about our own inner government: how we free the soul from the illusions of the ego and return the philosopher to his rightful kingship.

The ego is our “common day,” our usual state in which we take the things we see and the thoughts we think to be true, even though they are obviously transient, always becoming, never being.  But when something awakens the soul, our connection to the eternal–and unfortunately this often comes in the form of a tragedy or other hardship–it can see the futility of living a life amidst ephemera, and start to make this upward journey in search of the Ideal.  At each step of the way we will meet with resistance from the ego, which is quite happy in its world of illusion.  But when we do realize our own inner philosopher-king–we trade facts for Truth, thinking for Consciousness, pleasure for Bliss–our “decisive victory” is won.  We have penetrated to the heart of the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur.  While there is always the chance of being killed by the ego on our return, we now have the possibility of governing it, transforming it into a persona, a “mask” through which we can see the world and the infinite variety and drama of the Ideal, while still spending “the greater part of (our) time with one another in the heavenly light.”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Translation of Plato by Benjamin Jowett.  Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Plato, The Republic, Book 3

²As is frequently pointed out, a more current, not necessarily better, analogy is that of a movie theater, or any of the proliferating number of screens at which we spend our day staring, especially when they are showing oxymoronic “reality television.”

³Plato, The Republic, Book 2.  I will tell you, I replied; justice, which is the subject of our enquiry, is, as you know, sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual,     and sometimes as a virtue of the State.  True, he replied.
And is not a State larger than an individual?
It is.
Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.
That, he said, is an excellent proposal.