Re: Abood and z10 discuss Plato's allegory of the cave.
Reply #1 - September 16, 2011, 01:38 PM
I apologise for the long length of my response. I tried to be as brief as possible but there was a lot to cover.
From the above, it seems that you have four main objections to the philosophical project of Plato and especially the allegory that Plato provides as a key to his philosophy: the simile of the cave. These are:
1. The simile of the cave is a search for objective Truth. However, objective Truth does not exist according to you, because all language that attempts to reach such truth is inevitably socially constructed and culturally constrained.
2. Along those lines, because the search is always for an objective Truth, this introduces a fundamental divide between the subject and the object that can be questioned in light of quantum mechanics.
3. Furthermore, because Truth is seen as separate from the experiencing subject, the Truth becomes an external imposition upon the subject, a sort of tyranny to which the subject must conform.
4. Finally, the external nature of the Truth also means that one must forsake one’s place in life as an experiencing subject and instead attempt to find some sort of return to the sacred source of Truth, and as this is seen as a rejection of life it becomes contemptible.
I will attempt to tackle these objections together. They are related so it is hoped that a coherent story emerges by the end.
While I think that there is good reason to think that the simile of the cave is as you say it is, a closer reading of it, along with Plato’s general philosophical project and the prior and subsequent discussion between Pythagoreans, neo-Platonists and Peripatetics of which Plato is just one cog among many, shows that Plato’s real aim in the simile of the cave, when attempting to show the Absolute in its Absoluteness is, not an attempt at an enlightenment-era ideal but rather, a mystical experience in all its grandeur and profundity.
Plato as a mystic
I can understand if it is a contentious claim to assert that Plato is a mystic. Briefly,
1. The Platonic dialogues are not the complete articulation of Plato’s philosophy. Not only do they point beyond themselves to whatever young logician at the Academy decided to challenge Plato’s wisdom, but we also have the epistles of Plato (his personal letters) and the copious coverage given by Aristotle on the unwritten doctrines of Plato. I believe a thorough reading of the epistles and the interpretation of the unwritten doctrines by Plotinus and Proclus will lead one to the conclusion that the most mature understanding of Platonism is as a profound mysticism. His unwritten doctrine was precisely the truest teaching of Plato at the academy and gives us the greatest insight into his philosophy.
2. Plato also, is not alone in his assertions and regularly, throughout the dialogues, has Socrates declare that he himself does not have the knowledge, but that some sage in the past surely did. I believe this shows that Plato saw himself standing in a lineage of thought that is quite demonstrably Pythagorean. Plato used the word philosopher in the same sense as the mystic Pythagoras and while Pythagoras declared numbers divine, it is Plato that developed a complete philosophy that has as its foundation the principles of mathematics as they lead the eternal forms through their endless dance.
3. Plato’s philosophical goal throughout the dialogues is based upon the Socratic dictum ‘Know yourself’. He is primarily concerned with discovering the truth about the soul, the central ontological principle, of man. The simile of the cave, I believe, is the culmination of this search for the secret of the soul and I believe, in answer, he does not provide a proto-modernist objective Truth but a mystical answer. An answer that shows the truth is a pantheistic and transcendent One that can only be approached experientially for it is beyond the Nous (intellect).
The allegory of the cave must be placed within the larger philosophical system of Plato and so it becomes important to chart a coherent story using the dialogues so that the full impact of the allegory can be felt.
The earlier dialogues of Plato all have roughly the same format. Socrates questions his interlocutors to define the terms they use, in an effort to get to the bottom of some evaluative term such as courage or virtue or justice. In every case, the person with Socrates thinks they can easily define whatever term it is that Socrates is confused about, but soon the skeptical questioning of Socrates starts to break down their supposed knowledge and everyone is in a state of aporia. The Meno provides a great example. The discussion is on the definition of virtue. After many failed attempts at reaching knowledge, Socrates draws an analogy with a stingray in an effort to describe the numbing effect of the aporia that settles when Socrates undertakes his philosophical midwifery. I would contend, in line with the unwritten doctrines of Plato that this would be an instance of pedagogical mysticism, where Socrates is the shaman taking an apprentice up the world tree of their soul and into the land of the demons where the answer will have to be found and brought back safely. The answer that is brought back is always in relation to the Good. So for instance, in the Laches and Meno, virtue is defined as the knowledge of the Good. It is an important point here that Plato did not proceed to a definition of the Good, for he saw it as ineffable.
After this, arrives the Republic. The entire purpose of the Republic was to define Justice for the Soul. This task was eventually completed after four books, when our cast reached a definition they all agreed with. However, once again, this definition relied upon knowledge of the Good. So, at book VI a point is reached when Socrates is asked, with nowhere else to go, to define the Good. Socrates indicates it is unsayable by him and instead offers to present allegories as the “offspring” of the Good.
The allegory of the cave is wonderful. Man starts with the opinion and flux of reality around him. He does not have any sure knowledge, nor is his being of any permanence. From this, he is taken to the fire that produced the shadows of his opinion. The fire is his soul. It is the creative principle that every being has, the Good and the Real that is the true being within. However, this time, our apprentice travels beyond his own soul and out of the cave. He is taken into the realm of the Ideal Forms, the heavenly bodies, the principles that give rise to the vibrancy of reality. His intellectual experience of them is at first shadowy, mere reflections in the water, but then grows and he can gaze upon the magnificence of the Ideal Forms themselves. If we were to take a neoplatonic sufi reading of this part, like Suhrawardi or Ibn Arabi, we would call these Ideal Forms the Angelic powers.
At the end of his journey, he gazes upon the Sun itself. He sees the beauty of the Good and the One directly and, Socrates says, “later on he would come to the conclusion that it is the Sun that produces all things.” Bearing in mind the entire argument up to this point, I think we make a fair assumption to suggest that the gazing upon the Sun was not the end of the journey but merely the last place that the intellect can reach. The Intellect, the inner Gabriel, as Socrates said, is the offspring of the Good. It is not the Good itself, so it cannot grasp the Good. This is the point of the mystical experience. It is here, with Wittgenstein, that we leave behind our conceptual ladder. Words have failed us, as you say, we can gaze from within our words, but what happens beyond those words is the understanding that the Good is us. Plato doesn’t offer us Truth as merely an object but rather as the primal Ground of all Being, a profound system of mysticism. With the sufis we have lost the outer baggage of opinion and reached the pinnacle, become enlightened. We have become the Sun. Maximus of Tyre has the following fantastic quote about the journey that a Platonist undertakes:
"But to what shall I compare the spectacles of a philosopher? To a clear dream by Zeus, circularly borne along in all directions; in which, indeed, the body does not move, but the soul travels round the whole earth, from earth ascends to heaven, passes over every sea, flies through every region of the air, runs in conjunction with the sun, revolves with the moon, is carried round with the choir of the other stars, and nearly governs and arranges the universe, in conjunction with Zeus! O blessed journey, beautiful visions, and true dreams!"
The tragedy and the comedy of the end merely reconfirms this position. The Enlightened Man returns to the cave but he has not the words with which to impress upon his fellow man the import of his beautiful visions and true dreams. The Truth, the Good, the One that he glimpsed is beyond words. All he can offer is to show them and this is the most crucial point of the whole of Plato’s philosophy and life: the Good is all but everyone must see this for themselves. I have read it described as one of the most exciting passages in the whole history of philosophy, and for me it would be the whole history of man. Everything in Plato’s dialogues is a journey to this point. Everything he talks about, he talks of in its relation to the Good and the Good is beyond words. Not only is it beyond words, but it must be creatively found by every being for itself, for everything can and will realize itself as the Sun. His mystical doctrine, I believe, amply shows that his journey to the Good was not in search of Truth as object or objective, but rather Truth as Himself and all the Cosmos around him.
Plato’s Ideal Forms
I believe it is a misunderstanding of Plato to think that he is a dualist, somebody that, quite seriously, believes that there are infinite many replicas in this world of an Ideal form that resides in an ontologically separate world so that there is now an absurd separation between object and idea. While this can be a whole discussion in itself, I think this misunderstanding is unfortunately spread by Aristotle in his metaphysics 1 and 6.
The truth is that for Plato, the Ideas are the only real existent (as derived from the One). This world, insofar as it is, is only, to use the modern term, supervenient upon that Real. The drama of individual experiences is “parasitic” upon the real movement of the cosmos, the dance of the Ideal forms in their eternal state. The flux and opinion of life is only an outward manifestation of the Divine Intellectual and Mathematical formations of reality. This idea of Plato is taken from the denial of empirical knowledge by Parmenides. It is the idea that it is Idea itself that can give rise to knowledge and understanding in a world of flux and opinion, it is our imaginative ability to create meaning through exploring our own ideas, taking us all the way to the ontological source of all reality. “instances are really instantiations, things undergone by the Eide, mere modalities of them,” in the words of the recent scholar of Plato, Findlay. This means that instances, individual leaves, are not rejected but understood as having transitory being. The search is for the centre and the Truth of Being, the actual ontology of reality, through mystical means. It is by finding the Truth within everything that the philosopher succeeds in fully appreciating the individuality of every leaf. Far from forsaking life, it is learning to truly live.
Also, the above means that Plato is no simple dualist to draw a line between mind and matter, subject and object, opinion and Idea. Plato is a radical monist. To him, only the One exists, Absolute Being in itself. This One is beyond the object-subject distinction; it transcends all such intellectual frameworks. In the theology of Plato, the Divine Intellect (Nous) is merely a shadowy reflection of the One in its Magnificent Transcendence, the Forms (Psyche) a shadowy reflection of the Intellect and Man a shadowy reflection of the Ideal Forms.
It is fair to say that presented this way, the Ideal Forms seem quite fantastic and my brief summary does their brilliance or profundity no justice. However, one cannot accuse Plato of that which he is not, and he definitely does not endorse an ontology that separates subject from object, or object from concept: he holds firmly to only the One existent.
Plato and Science
In line with the above then, I think it is fair to say that Plato is not a proto-modernist, a champion for the ideals of the scientific worldview. Much of the reason why Plato is not a scientist but a philosopher has been said above but I would like to briefly add here one more note. In the simile of the line, the simile that precedes the story of the cave in the Republic, Plato ranks empirical Truths within the general area of opinion below the line of knowledge. I was surprised that you asserted Plato as support for enlightenment ideals for, historically, it has always been Aristotle that has been the ally of the modernists and positivists and scientists but that is a discussion for another time.
Along with this, I am also surprised that you have presented Nietzsche against Plato as it is a common view that Nietzsche’s philosophy includes many Platonic ideas. What is the superman, after all, if not the philosopher-king in modern guise? What difference does it make if Platonic creativity is couched in terms of Ideals and Nietzschean creativity is in terms of the will? I think there is a very substantial case to be made for the similarities between Nietzsche and Plato.
As an addendum, I am unclear about your assertions on quantum physics. Why are you disparaging about the sciences, in general, but yet choose to use the quantum sciences to further your own point? Let us agree that objective truth, as empirically sought, is an unattainable goal. Then what use is quantum physics in a metaphysical discussion? I can certainly agree that QM provides wonderful theories of matter that do stretch our imagination but one cannot be selective about which sciences to assume and which not. All science, of course, is an assumption.
I think, in conclusion, it is important that the key principles of Platonism are understood as standing in very close resemblance to nearly every mystical doctrine in history. It is true that these principles may sound implausible but then, that is the nature of the mystical beast. It would be unfair, however, to mistake the mystical for a, decidedly boring, modernism. Of course, it is the fact that Platonism has such deep connections with all other mystical traditions that brought me to understanding Plato as a mystic, for, with Plotinus, while we love Plato, we love the Truth more.
(if you wish I can provide sources for everything above)
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings. - Stevens