Monday, October 24, 2005

Opening Eyes: The Allegory of the Cave in Book Seven

The allegory of the ‘cave’ in Plato’s Republic is best represented in contemporary cultural contexts by an oppressive government’s policies in maintaining its power by leaving its peoples out of the reality of the decision making and political processes that keep them bound to their blindness. The ability to see, by light or otherwise, is a common theme in this book which is used to express the enlightenment of an individual or population in regard to these processes.
Socrates makes this abstract concept of sight a theme used to infer one’s enlightenment. “Sure…the sight, with respect to the one, possess this characteristic (of seeing what is) to a very high degree. For we see the same thing at the same time as both one and as an unlimited multitude (525a).” Sight is, therefore, something that every individual among the masses possesses. It is the sole means of their very own direction and enlightenment in life; their only chance to observe their surroundings; the politics and processes that occur around them, and thereby take action based on their findings.
However, in order to break away from this cave, “our guardian (must be) both warrior and philosopher (525b)”. S/he must employ sight to enlighten them self as a philosopher and simultaneously use the “arts of calculation and number (525b)” to prove them self a warrior. In this same sense, they must take their knowledge that they gain from their observations and use it to change their surroundings. This application of knowledge and skill is embodied in the Platonic representation of astronomy. “There…by the use of problems, as in geometry, we shall also pursue astronomy; and we shall let the things in the heaven go, if by really taking part in astronomy we are going to convert the prudence by nature in the soul from uselessness to usefulness (530b).”
We are, on many different levels and in many varying respects, trapped deep inside this cave every single day of our lives. The increasingly secretive and unknown workings of our government and national security system immediately jump to mind, but it is important to avoid losing sight of the macrocosmic qualities of this Republic. Inside our own minds and our lives as individuals, we most often happily sit or perhaps occasionally thrash violently about in our personal darkness. The movement toward purchasing local food is the product of many individuals returning from the ‘light’ which allows them the realization of its benefits and future ramifications. A young man or woman feeling that they are destined to be a guardian in their own right despite their desperate financial situation and leaving the constraints of society behind them. Even, perhaps, one finally giving up on their long-time job because they finally open their eyes to how unhappy it makes them.
Those that resist the darkness and try to reach the light must not only bring their enlightenment back to the masses, however, they must convince them of its validity and apply it toward a positive change in society. “Take a man,” says Socrates, “who is released and suddenly compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light; and who, moreover, in doing all this is in pain and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before…don’t you suppose he’d be at a loss and believe that was seen before is truer than what is now shown (515c)?” Such problems face the man who questions his religious faith in a spirit that cannot be seen or heard, his government that sends him to a war for oil, or his country that holds him desperately in his socioeconomic place with no hope for improvement.
Activists of our modern times that brought the fire back to those still facing straight ahead in the cave could be men like Ché Guevara, George Washington, or a woman like Cindy Sheehan. These individuals not only were able to run ahead to the light, they brought it back and were able to spark up followers that refused to stare at a wall any longer. While ignorance may seem like bliss for these blind men and women, it truly cannot compare to the enlightenment experienced by those that lived happily in the aftermath of a revolution like the one that created the United States. Some keep fighting, like our peace protest movement that refuses to abandon its perpetual cause of stopping armed conflict and war. All are examples, however, of an individual opening their eyes for the masses; in interest of creating their own Republic.

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