Sunday, January 13, 2013

Conflicting images of the cave: how to read the Republic, part 2



Let us now look more closely at the contradictory metaphors about the cave. See part 1 here.

The story of the cave is of strange prisoners, as Glaucon exclaims. “Like us” responds Socrates.

Each is chained with his or her face forward. They cannot look in, even to achieve self-knowledge.

Shadows flicker on a wall before their eyes, illuminated from behind.

***

"Here allegory may show us best how education - or the lack of it - affects our nature. Imagine men living in a cave with a long passageway stretching between them and the cave's mouth, where it opens wide to the light. Imagine further that since childhood the cave dwellers have had their legs and necks shackled so as to be confined to the same spot. They are further constrained by blinders that prevent them from turning their heads; they can see only directly in front of them. Next, imagine a light from a fire some distance behind them and burning at a higher elevation. Between the prisoners and the fire is a raised path alone whose edge these is a low wall like the partition at the front of a puppet stage [tois thaumatopoiois). The wall conceals the puppeteers [anthropon/man] while they manipulate their puppets (ta thaumata) above it." (514a-b)

On one level, the image is plainly of human puppeteers, guiding and misleading the imaginations of others.

"So far I can visualize it."

"Imagine, further, men behind the wall carrying all sorts of objects along its length and holding them above it. The objects include human and animal images made of stone and wood and all other material. Presumably, those who carry them sometimes speak and are sometimes silent."

Here, the image seems to shift and is oddly non-manipulative or at least non-purposeful. The men carry many objects, human and animal images of many materials, sometimes speaking, sometimes silent.

***

Glaucon says "You describe a strange [atopon/out of place] prison and strange prisoners."

Socrates says, "like ourselves [omoious]."

***

On one level, about the puppeteers, Socrates' image does not include...Socrates. For Socrates sees through the deception. As Tiresias in Hades, Socrates "alone among the dead," can see (consider the image from Homer at the beginning of book 3 and at the end of the Meno).

On another level, this image has bearers who might as well be nonhuman. If all are trapped initially in the cave, then Socrates is among them: "like ourselves."

***

But humans carry figures across a source of light behind the backs of the prisoners, which yields the flickers on the wall. Are those humans confused about what they are doing? Are they, as Socrates, puts it “like us”?

Or do they, on some level, understand the deception whereas "we" do not?

***

And someone designed the scenario, the prison. This jail keeper/legislator appeals to a god - see the noble lie in book 3 and the Athenian Stranger in the Laws – a corrupt god who mirrors and sanctifies the prison, though perhaps one also familiar from the everydayness of the cave.

***

Further, the designer of the allegory, the one who plants its tensions, is the invisible Plato…

***

On one, obvious level, the humans divide into the small number who carry the images, the puppeteers - including the one who designs them - and the out of place prisoners, “like us,” who cannot see either the cause of the shadows/images or look into themselves (it is perhaps that they don't look into themselves since Socrates, evidently, does).

***

The cave story turns out to be the “ring of Gyges” once again. Those who appear good, the legislators or tyrants or politicians, often do evil. And in the murkiness of the cave, the citizens/subjects let them go on.

Prisoners blinded by the Ring - by the illusions - cannot see how they are being manipulated or those who are manipulating them...

See here my essay on the ring of Gyges and politics, including Xenophon’s Hiero.

***

Are those who carry the images [eikones] reflected different from other humans? They appear to be the entourage of the creator/legislator, knowing something (cynical of the shadows), but are, in other respects, “like us.”

***

But is the legislator who has created the prison different?

Does he, too, not end up a naked corpse?

***

Plato’s cave is a metaphor both for great or initial legislation and for ordinary politics, and I often ask my students to write about the cave.

Occasionally, people from below like Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement or all the anti-war movements get it right against the vicious Emperor’s Clothes of segregation or LBJ’s or W’s aggressions.

They, and sometimes conventional (corporate/oligarchic) politicians, stand for what is right – a rare matter, an imitation of Thoreau’s majority of one, for instance Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. See here and here.

Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, these rare politicians somehow escape the withering power of the ring, achieve something real.

***

But the best politicians, let alone legislators in the deep sense – those who set the rules for the cave, legislators like Solon for Athens…- are often themselves in the cave of their own psyche, ruled by desires for power as much as or more than seeking a common good…

See "Founding Myths: a view from below" here, "Founding Amnesias: Native Americans and Palestinians" here and Sand Creek: Take down he Statue celebrating Chivington at the Colorado State Capitol here.

***

Yet tyrants, Socrates and Plato suggest, do not gain from tyranny. The naked corpse, when alive, once cultivated and suffered from terrifying illusions. He had no friends, as Xenophon’s Hiero says, but only those who give him what he wants because of his power (when compelled, "love" has nothing to do with affection).

There is, for the tyrant, nothing genuine in their enthusiasms...They are eventually deadening.

Thus, even if inventive, the tyrant is not free. Hiero has committed crimes, and cannot give up his power, live quietly in the city of his birth, without the likelihood of being killed.

And Simonides tells him how to flash forth powerfully in the cave, to be beloved by those staring fixedly at the wall...

***

But Plato does not stop with this metaphor for politics. He also equates the fire that provides the illumination with the sun in the visible realm. He wishes to contrast the grandeur and ecstatic high of doing philosophy - reaching toward the light far away at the entrance to the cave - with the uncertainties, even in sunlight, of what is visible.

***

Note that on this metaphor, the puppeteers and the manipulative legislator disappear. With respect to the sun, Socrates is, indeed, "like us," one of the strange prisoners.

***

"Now, my dear Glaucon, we must apply the allegory as a whole to all that has been said so far. The prisoners' cave is the counterpart of our own visible order, and the light of the fire betokens the power of the sun [ton helion dunamei]. If you liken the ascent and explanation of things above to the soul's journey to the intelligible order (ton noeton topon/place], you will have understood my thinking, since the this is what you wanted to hear. The god [theos] only knows whether it is true." (517a-b)

***

The place [topos] of the intelligible contrasts with the prisoners who are atopous - without place. The translation "strange" prisoners for the visible "place" does not get the startling uncertainty of Socrates's and Plato's words about the visible.

Like shadows, the visible is wavering, flickering...

***

Glaucon certainly does not know whether the tale "is true." There are only conflicting, paired stories here, not questioning or argument.

***

For the sun has no designer (unless the idea of the good, somehow, or in Heidegger's The Essence of Truth, potential - dunamis - or perhaps a god…). See here and here.

The two metaphors thus contradict each other. If one is to understand the stories of the cave – there are at least two - one must think about, ask questions about, this contradiction.

***

Glaucon does not notice the contradiction, asks no questions...

***

One cannot ignore the contradiction and progress, even in unpacking the two metaphors, let alone beginning, through questioning and argument the ascent. Swallowing or making clear the surface (the Scott and Sterling view) will not work; it is a way of becoming frozen, never taking the first steps...

***

The translators, like Popper and even Heidegger, do what many interpreters do. They ignore Glaucon's bewilderment, the contradictions signaled in the dialogue, as well as the satire of or irony about some of the arguments and take Socrates to be simply speaking for Plato, articulating the views that Plato and Socrates ostensibly seek us to copy.

But Socrates is ironic. And Plato's views are hidden by the structure of the dialogue. The translators' way of reading, dominant in the scholarship, is in fact a misleading and rather stupid, i.e. unphilosophical, not seeing the tensions in or questions raised by the argument, way to read.

***

Socrates means to clarify the uncertainties of perception in the visible [topos]. Perhaps we see the sun reflected in the water, gleaming or shining - Glaucon's name - as the water moves. Certainty, perception is not.

***

But the idea – the result of questioning and argument in the intelligible "place" – is clearer, Socrates maintains. Consider geometry and the questioning of the slave in the Meno.

***

One might remember the caution of the Apology: one nears ideas within a given argument with given presuppositions. One may or may not question the presuppositions as Socrates does when he tries to ask: what is virtue? and is steadily shifted, by the coquetting Meno, to the question: can virtue be taught?

One asks questions, Socrates says in the Apology, but one does not know. It is this, and this alone, that Socrates is wise about…

***

Socrates is wise in fashioning arguments, in making ascents [anabasis]. But each argument is built on assumptions. It is only as good as the starting point, which will always remain open to question, and as the framing by/with an interlocutor will allow.

***

At the end of book 6, Socrates suggests that we ask questions about the assumptions (and from this, non-Euclidean geometries have been created).

"I understand," says Glaucon, "that you are discussing things that pertain to geometry and its allied arts."

"Then let us go on," Socrates replies, "to understand intelligibility at the highest level. This is the realm that reason masters with the power of dialectic. Assumptions are not treated as first principles but as real hypotheses. That is, they are not employed as beginning but as ladders [epibaseis/stepping upon/footing; compare oster hepanabasmois/like steps of a stair Symposium, 211] and springboards [ormas/settings in motion], used in order to reach that realm that requires no hypotheses and is therefore the true starting point [arche] for the attainment of unobstructed knowledge. When reason attains that level and becomes aware of the whole intelligible order, it descends at will to the level of conclusion but without the aid of visible objects. It reasons only by using forms. It moves from forms through forms to forms. And it completes its journey in forms."[εἴδεσιν αὐτοῖς δι᾽ αὐτῶν εἰς αὐτά, καὶ τελευτᾷ εἰς εἴδη/the phrase emphasizes, rather obscurely, auto or self movement] (511b-c)

"I understand you, but not fully. I see that you are describing an enormous [suchnon/long] undertaking" This is again an admission by Glaucon of how little he gets. He then gives an external redescription of what Socrates has said.

But the metaphor here, the assumptions as "steps" for thoughts which achieve unobstructed knowledge of forms beyond the visible - except perhaps as it refers to geometries but certainly not the idea of the good - is unclear. In any case, the reasoning is hinted at, not enacted or taught...

***

But Socrates describes, as Glaucon intuits, a long journey...

***

In explaining the beginning of the journey that "can truly lead to reality," Socrates says:

"What I mean is that there are two kinds of perception. The one is not conducive to thought because the testimony of the senses themselves appears to be sufficient to our needs. In the case of the other, however, the intellect is roused to reflect whatever sensation fails to yield trustworthy evidence."

"You are obviously," responds Glaucon, "referring to the effect on the senses of distance and shadow painting."

Glaucon grasps at the meaning "obviously" and as usual, it passes him by.

"No, you have missed my meaning." The signaling that Glaucon doesn't get what Socrates is doing, cannot follow, could not be much clearer.

It is wrong to guess what must be meant. One must, instead, question...

***

"What do you mean then?"

"I mean that experiences only provoke thought when they are perceived as being contradictory, as manifesting two opposite characteristics with equal clarity, quite independent of their distance from the viewer. I shall try to make my meaning clearer with an illustration. Consider these three fingers: the smallest, the middle, and the index."

"All right."

"Assume that you are seeing them close up. Now consider the point."

"What is it?"

"Each appears to be equally a finger, no matter whether it is the middle one or the one on one side or the other. Nor does it matter whether it is black or white, or thick or thin. Nor do any other features of this kind make any difference. Hence most people do not feel the need to ask the intellect what a finger is, for their perception has never indicated that a finger is at the same time not a finger."

"That's right."

"So it is obvious that a perception of this sort will never provoke thought." (523a-d)

***

But the waveringness of perception then comes into view:

"But now consider size. Can sight satisfactorily measure how small or big objects are? Does it make no difference that one finger is in the middle and another on the side? How about the sense of touch? Does it accurately perceive thickness and thinness, softness and hardness? Are not the other senses defective in what they report? Does not each one of them function approximately as follows. The same sense that discerns hardness necessarily discerns softness as well. Hence it must report to the soul that it perceives the same thing as being both hard and soft."

"That's right."

"Must the soul not be at a loss concerning the nature of the hard if the sense that reports it at the same time reports it as being soft? The same with light and heavy if the heavy is perceived to be light and the light heavy?"

"Yes, these kinds of messages to the soul can be very misleading. They clearly require further analysis."

"So these are the occasions when the soul summons up reason and calculation to help it ascertain whether each of the things reported to it is one or two." (523e-524b) Here is the beginning (arche) of questioning and reasoning.

***

Note the emphasis on the uncertainty or contradictions in perception as the origin of questions. Socrates designates reasoning as dialectical [dialegesthai/conversational/ascending through questioning about contradictions], which provides the term used, in distant relation to this, in Hegel and Marx.

***

Socrates emphasizes opposites - and the role of reasoning in achieving oneness:

"Well, what has just been said may help you to find an answer. For if the eye or some other sense could apprehend unity as complete and indivisible, it would have no motive to discover unity's essence, just as in the case of the finger. But if unity is always something paired with its opposite so that it appears to be one thing and equally something else, there would be an immediate need to judge between them. It would be perplexed; it would be compelled to summon up thought and inquire into the nature of unity. Hence, the study of unity will be among those studies that guide and turn the soul to the contemplation of reality."

"Well, unity certainly provides a good illustration of how sight can generate contradictory impressions. For we see unity both as one and as infinite multiplicity."

"If this holds for unity, then it must also hold for all number?"

"Yes."

"And arithmetic and calculation are entirely occupied with number?"

"Yes."

"Then it looks like they lead us nearer to reality."(524d-525c)

***

One can see contradictions in numbers.

But the relation of the light as the sun on the earth below to the fire as the source of the shadows of images carried by some unseen humans on the further cave wall below is also contradictory. It, too, should provoke thought.

And so should the distant noetic light beyond the cave entrance.

***

That hint at distant light - the noetic realm - is the gleaming original of which the world is a copy and the arts purportedly (actually only sometimes) an illusory copy of a copy at the beginning of book 10.

***

The reasoning about contradictions in perception and questioning/thinking underlines the questions generated by the clashing metaphors. Socrates (Plato) invites his students to think more deeply about the contradictions in the dialogue than Glaucon, hastening to assent to Socrates, wanting to be approved of by Socrates, does.

***

Socrates emphasizes how fixed the prisoners are in the cave. They are already compelled as Glaucon is, in his fixation on the ring of Gyges.

Socates also speaks of the compulsion of turning, wrenched, toward the light as Glaucon is, often bewilderedly, by Socrates's images and questioning.

***

“One prisoner is freed from his shackles. He is suddenly compelled [ἀναγκάζοιτοto] to stand up, turn around, walk and look toward the light. He suffers pain and distress from the glare of the light.“515c

"Again, let him be compelled [ἀναγκάζοι] to look dimly at the light. Would his eyes not feel pain? Would he not flee, turning back to those things he was able to discern before, convinced that they are in every truth clear and more exact than anything he has seen since."

"He would."

"The, let him be dragged away by force [βίᾳ]up the rough and steep incline of the cave's passageway, held fast until he is hauled out into the light of the sun. Would not such a rough passage be painful? Would he not resent the experience" (515e)

***

But the language changes. He who has journeyed to the light of philosophy despises the image-bearers who dominate the cave. But who then turned the prisoner around?

On the first metaphor of polities and legislation, it is the image-bearers. On the second metaphor of the sun, extended again to the noetic sun or idea of the good, it is becoming a philosopher.

***

On the second metaphor, it is Socrates who turns the prisoners like Polemarchus around and in the political cave of the first metaphor, is murdered for it:

"Further if anyone tried to release the prisoners and lead them up and they could get their hands on him and kill him, would they not kill him?"

"Of course."(517a)

The indirect references to the fate of Socrates here are many.

***

On the first metaphor, someone is freeing the prisoner from the shackles, dragging him up by force (bia). On the second metaphor, he "is necessitated" to go up, but that could be a voluntary, if steep process.

***

"Suppose there had been heroes and citations those below bestowed upon one another. Suppose prizes were offered for the one quickest to identify the shadows as they go by and best able to remember the sequence and configurations in which they appear. All these skills, in turn, would enhance the ability to guess what would come next. Do you think he would covet such rewards? More, would he envy and want to emulate those who hold power over the prisoners and are in turn reverenced by them? (516c-d)

***

He then turns to the words of Achilles in Homer about the kingdom of the dead. A philosopher would initially [Socrates eventually goes down] shun going down:

"Or would he not rather hold fast to Homer's words that it is 'better to be a poor servant of a poor master,' [“ἐπάρουρον - attached to the soil - ἐόντα θητευέμεν ἄλλῳ ἀνδρὶ παρ᾽ ἀκλήρῳ”/Odyssey, 11: 489] better to endure anything, than to believe those things and live that way?"(516d)

***

Note the aptness, once again, of the allusion in Homer. This point stood out at the beginning of book 3 in the passages that Socrates ostensibly proposes to censor. But he (Plato) employs this one rather than censoring it. The attentive reader will take this in as yet another mocking of the city in speech...

***

Socrates turns people around through questioning. That is the point of becoming a philosopher (the philosopher's defense of questioning in a democracy - a version of the cave - and of initiating others on the journey of philosophy)

***

Socrates speaks of being forced toward the light and yet scorns enforcers. The latter enforce darkness and their eyes are weak (quick in the cave but dim in the light).

He speaks of ascending [anabasis] and, eyes accustomed only to darkness, not yet being able to see (Glaucon, Polemarchus).

***

Few will be so forced. Few will turn.

Not even, despite Socrates's efforts, Glaucon, for example.

***

That is why the conversation with Polemarchus in book 1 - where Polemarchus turns or is wrenched, confusedly, from bullying and certainty about Simonides's opinion to questioning - is so important. It is the action in the dialogue invoked in the metaphor of turning or being wrenched in the cave. See "Polemachos as Symbol of the Republic's Theme" here.

***

Socrates himself has an inner daimon. He turns willingly and continues, up the steps.

And others, like Polemarchus, may, abandoning the certainties of the daily and visible place. But there is no coercion in Socrates's own process. He is merely following, step by step, glimmerings of the truth.

***

In fact, the image of the guardians all bred to have the same feelings, the same habits is the opposite of initiation in doing philosophy.

Socrates does not become a philosopher by being wrenched around by...the puppeteers. So the description of the coerced ascent gestures partly at the journey's difficulties but is absurd.

***

The city of the guardians conjured in the Republic has no room for Socrates. It is the city of Glaucon's psyche; for Socrates, it is a satire. See "If the city in speech is Glaucon's, what city is Socrates's? here.

There is no course of development for philosophy in the mainstream of that city either. The closest point is that the study of geometry, is, as in the Meno, for guardians, a beginning. But as we will see, this beginning forks in a non- philosophical, for instance, military direction as well as a philosophical one.

***

Now the image of coercion has given rise to speculation about "educational dictatorship," as Herbert Marcuse used to describe it.

Somehow the minions of the legislator force a prisoner to turn around. But are these puppeteers/minions wise? Do they understand the light? Does the legislator who designed the fire and the illusions of the bound prisoners see into the light?

***

Perhaps Heidegger and Leo Strauss think so, but this, too, will not withstand questioning. To set aside a common anachronism, Socrates is anti-"totalitarian," or, more aptly, anti-authoritarian. But the image of forcing people to turn is the opposite (and not true of any of the Socratic dialogues).

***

And the light of the fire - the sun in the visible place - is not...the light far away at the entrance.

***

"Wrenching" is a different metaphor. The difficulty of seeing when one passes from the cave into the light is real.

But this is, though necessary, not compelled by others. The movement simply follows from the division of the sun - the fire in the cave - and the brilliance of the "noetic place," the invisible universe.

***

Even Glaucon suffers only the "coercion" of questioning - if one does the reasoning, one will see that she already agrees with the position she foolishly rejects without reasoning, i.e. reasoning is the paradigm of voluntariness - and his own foolishness, his desires for power, pleasure and to impress Socrates though now with a glimmering of truth.

***

On the first metaphor, the puppeteers or jailers compel. And wrenching and being blinded by brightness are both annexed to compulsion rather than being, as in the case of the sun or philosophy, inevitable and innocent features of the experience.

***

Thus, the contradictory images divide even the words chosen to describe the turning.

***

What Socrates got to, Plato thinks - questioning and some of the ascent - will be influential. But much of it is ambiguous or hidden even in this long dialogue, whose ten books are each the length of many other dialogues.

But if even the Republic doesn't simply deliver a message, the journey of questioning must be long...






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