“No one knows what it’s like
To be the bad man
To be the sad man
Behind blue eyes
And no one knows what it’s like
To be hated
To be faded to telling only lies
But my dreams they aren’t as empty
As my conscience seems to be…”
— Pete Townshend, Behind Blue Eyes
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and his Theory of Forms overlap, and are among the first extant musings on the idea that there is a distinction between the thing itself, and the representation or illusionary representation of the thing.
In the Allegory of the Cave, we have Plato, in Books VII-VIII of the Republic, again arguing for an enlightened ruling class of philosophers.
Contextualized by his familial connection to Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, the Plato who calls for the banishing, or exiling, of poets, and the housing of soldiers in communal homes devoid of what we would now call, property rights, is revealed as a man working out the beta test for what would later become standard issue fascism on both the left and the right, as well as the inherent corruption of oligarchy.
The allegory has over the centuries been used primarily as a political football.
It is also used as a political football within the limited fields of university philosophy departments.
But primarily, from Hannah Arendt, to her sometime friend, Martin Heidegger, to dozens, if not hundreds of other thinkers, the Allegory has been contextualized by 20th century wars – fascism vs communism, and communism vs capitalism, with corollaries in liberalism and conservatism.
While these areas have both political chicanery and legitimate ideological concerns, what has gone missing is any consideration of the psychology (and thus biology) of why Plato conceived of the structure of the allegory.
The premise is of what we would now call a thought experiment.
In this experiment we are asked to imagine a cave, with an opening that draws in large amounts of light. There is a bright fire, and people, chained to a blank cave wall.
On the wall shadows, cast by the fire move, change shape and are interpreted by the people trapped in the cave.
All of their understanding of reality, of what is true, is based on an illusion.
One of them manages to gain freedom only to discover the sun; the blinding light that is the source of life.
Eventually adjusting to this new reality they come to understand the distinction between the appearance or illusion or shadow of reality and reality (the truth) of things.
They return to the cave to explain this to those still chained but, because they are chained and can only see the shadows on the cave wall, they dismiss the enlightened individual and ultimately, after ridicule, they kill him.
Needless to say this is in addition to other things, a hint of the fisher king myth, the passion of Christian dogma, as well as being a template for Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov, where we are told, by the Grand Inquisitor, should Christ actually return, he’d be killed all over again to maintain the status quo. The basic idea also makes an appearance in one of Kafka’s notebooks where he describes people running around delivering messages without meaning because they would rather be slaves or messengers for kings and queens than be free.
In other words, it’s a story with legs.
But stepping away from the shadows on the cave wall, we might ask, why that metaphor and why then?
As we’ve discussed in previous posts (see notes below) we take as our starting point the idea that Julian Jaynes was essentially correct.
Human consciousness shifted from a bicameral state to a post bicameral state and extant documents, like the Iliad and the Odyssey and portions of the Old Testament, strongly suggest a centuries’ long transition.
Per Jaynes, we take as read the idea that bicameral consciousness was strange; more automaton than self-aware.
When bicameral humans thought, it was, for them, an external voice of command, rather than the self, aware of itself.
From Gilgamesh suddenly, and with no apparent reason, “choosing” to kill, to Ulysses, acting like one of the flat, one dimensional figures on an ancient vase, to Abraham hearing god’s command, the world as Jaynes describes it, was one behind vacant eyes.
Building on this, we have speculated that the trigger (or at least one of the primary triggers) was the consumption of some form of ergot.
We know from archeological records that barley and wheat cults were extensive.
We know that ergot, qua ergot, was not discovered until the early 19th century.
We know that increasingly large temple-cities, with barley cults, flourished and did so not in spite of increases in disease, and pests and overcrowding but because of those things – with each as a vector within the grid of bicameralism, barley-wheat-ergot, and the emergence of language, consciousness, and ritual.
We have touched on the idea that “Socrates” (perhaps an invention of Plato, perhaps not) was put on trial in part for “worshiping the wrong gods.”
This blasphemy we posit, represented a crisis in the long period of transition.
City states, and temple-cities, came and went, subject to weather, earthquakes, disease, and wars.
The transition from bicameral vacant eyed automaton, to self-aware thinker, was more three steps forward, two steps back than a straight trajectory.
As food came and went, so too did evolutionary progress.
“Socrates” we are told, would suddenly be in thrall to voices – his daemon – which he had to obey.
The Trial of “Socrates” is then in a sense an allegory that fulfils the design or template of the Allegory of the Cave.
He has freed himself, returned with the previously good word, and as a result, is executed.
Consider than that the emergence of the metaphor of shadows, of a split between the thing itself and the representation of the thing in its pure form, is a reflection of a slowly emerging self-awareness – not just of nascent political issues but of the mind that contemplates itself.
Plato’s anxiety was indeed focused on politics. But it was, we speculate, also focused on something it could not comprehend – the connection between food and evolution.
The relative stability of Athens, its relative wealth, bureaucracy, and the consumption of food in consistent, evolutionary significance, was not visible on the wall of the cave.
What was visible was a gnawing sense of change.
Consider this from Book VII of the Republic (emphasis added):
“But what you have begotten for yourselves and for the rest of the city-like leaders and kings in hives; you have been more and perfectly educated and are able to participate in both lives. So you must go down, each in his turn, into the common dwelling of the others, and get habituated to it, and in getting habituated to it, you will see then thousand times better than the men there, and you’ll know what each of the phantoms is, and of what is a phantom…And thus the city will be governed by us. And by you in a state of waking, not in a dream, as many cities nowadays are governed by men who fight over shadows…”
Plato, regardless of his tyrannical impulses, was becoming aware that there were voices, shadows, that held sway and exercised their power over others who, per Jaynes, still acted with vacant eyes.
Plato, as totem for the transition perceived an emerging distinction between those who were aware that the shadows were inside the mind, and those who still, (from a biological necessity he did not comprehend), believed the shadows, were external voices of command.
Plato however does not banish bicameral mind. He reimagines it as possessing self-awareness. Thus the cave, is a metaphor, representing a dimly perceived, bicameral consciousness.
In, the Theory of Forms, he posits the ability to conceive of an ideal form – for example, “table” and the multitude of tables.
“Table” is an ideal form that exists outside of time. It is pure.
All tables, tall, short, square or round, are imperfect representations of the ideal.
The enlightened philosopher, having left the cave, understands this.
Excavations of this concept have for centuries focused on the meaning rather than the form (sic!).
The issue here is not whether or not Plato is correct but is focused on why he went to such elaborate lengths to codify the distinction.
We posit that he was experiencing bicameral transition anxiety.
The ideal form was the increasingly distant external voice of command.
The representation of the ideal was the increasingly mundane reality of objects; of blunt utilitarian facts.
The obsession to codify the distinction may have been produced by the slow emergence of a post “Socratic” consciousness that did not hear voices.
It may have heard echoes and it may from time to time, due to lapses in food (again, ergot-heavy barley and wheat or other triggers) had episodes of bicameral or “Socratic” consciousness.
But as the trial suggest, this subversion of the increasingly dominant bureaucracy of ritual (in which “god” transitions from a sudden voice of command in a burning bush, or a whirlwind, or in Sirens, becomes instead a voice that is mediated, ritualized, and experienced at regular times and in appointed places) could no longer be tolerated.
It is possible then to excavate his cave, and the structure of the allegory, separately from a purely political consideration.
The allegory then is not only about freedom with a codified politics, (right, left, center, etc) but it is an allegory as meta-narrative; it is a shadow of a shadow reflecting something dimly understood.
Plato shimmers on the wall of a cave.
Moving through the flickering light, Julian Jaynes, paints figures for us, and we might, just maybe, see them and understand.
This is as the title states, a brief look at a vast subject.
For a deeper and wider excavation see the articles below:
And for an interesting look at methodology within this field, see: