IMAGINING AN UP-TO-DATE PLATO’S CAVE.

I made the claim a few week’s ago that Plato’s cave, along with the Tower of Babel, are two ancient stories that help to tell us where we are in the modern world. (I also included Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but it is hardly ancient.)

What is the state of modern knowledge? How advanced is our human consciousness?

Plato considered that knowledge based totally on sense experience-what we might learnedly call empiricism- shows only images and reflections of reality, not the real thing. The real thing is consciousness of ideal forms in the eternal world that lead us to understanding of what, for instance, true beauty and goodness and justice are. Only the clear- minded who have escaped the imitation world of shadows and reflections can attain this knowledge. They draw on the light of the sun, the source of all true seeing and representing the Good. He tells the allegory of the Cave to reveal the process.

That summary is my very simple reading of the philosophy behind the allegory. But the significance of the allegory seems to spread far beyond Plato’s world-picture to challenge ours.

For the cave still exists. Indeed it is ubiquitous; it cannot be escaped. Plato’s prisoners were only to understand reality through media that distorts, from reflections thrown by a fire, of things-artefacts- supposedly making up the real world. In the modern cave there need be no such obvious prisoners. People are free to inhabit the cave and are apparently happy to do so. The media of the fire, with its images, has been replaced by the vastly more efficient and powerful media of modern technology. Imagine not a cave stretching back some little way but a great underground cavern, that stretches interminably on all sides, full of screens. Some of these are great public screens for mass viewing-you might see there important political happenings or speeches or sporting events, as on television screens ; others are huge banks of small screens like you see in the background of a news studio with people able to choose their own chosen programme. But apart from these public areas there are built into the sides of the cavern masses of tiny cells for private viewing. Almost magically everyone has access to this world of screen by their own route-from home, from work. So people might gather in crowds before the big screens; or else they retire to private viewing screens. People inter-relate with the screens. In their hands they hold a mobile which enables them to connect with any of a forest of screens. They connect with others through screens: “Friends” they know only by media. “Enemies” they engage with and condemn through media. A world that is all social media. A place of distractions, a place where you can be assured your illusions are real and you can meet with others to confirm the illusions. A place where there is factual news reporting and a place which claims the factual is fake. A place where you can feed your mind on fantasy sex, on aggression, on revenge, on hate and where you can express your own outraged feelings on a screen held before you.

You will say I am missing the good stuff, the beneficial information, the positive interactions between people far apart, the beauty of places you cannot see nor will ever see in person. There is very much of course that is good, that provides us with information that is useful to us. There are interactions with family and friends who live far away; opportunities for sending and receiving positive messages are available. If it were not so I’d be a hypocrite typing this blog post from my little private cell to you in yours!

But the good stuff is dependent on another world. It is dependent on people knowing the reality of the world beyond, and the beauty of the world beyond and communicating that to others within the cave who recognise the same or want to recognise the same.

But if people fail to draw on sources of life and strength in the world beyond then the world of screens has the power to dominate and diminish their consciousness and limit them to a world of images and reflections that lead them away from reality rather than towards it. You see people “distracted from distraction by distraction, Filled with fancies and empty of meaning” (T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”). You see people with short attention spans, looking for the image that will excite attention and switching rather desperately from picture to picture. You see children particularly adept and smart in their handling of the technology. This is the world they have grown up with. You fear for them, that their very proficiency makes it difficult for them to understand other sources of knowledge. They think they have it all here.

To revert to questions asked earlier you have probably forgotten What is the state of modern knowledge and consciousness? In so far as knowledge is information it is, most of it, there in our metaphorical cavern. But information does not “form” the inner -me. It does not inwardly form my mind and character. It merely gives us facts to possess. Only through being inwardly formed, mind and spirit is our consciousness-our knowledge of the good, the beautiful , the true developed. Only then do we see clearly, not in the cave, but in the sunshine of the upper world. It is there reality is to be known and lived.

“THE EYE IS THE LAMP OF THE BODY”: PLATO AND JESUS ON TRUE SEEING.

Both Plato and Jesus demonstrate the need to see clearly. Following the last post on Plato’s Cave here is a poem based on one of the miracles of Jesus.

        THE SIGHTING
           John 9

Out of the shame of spittle,
by the scratch of dirt,
he made an annointing.

Oh, it was an agony- the gravel 
in the eye, the rude slime, the brittle
clay caked on the lid.

But with the hurt
light came leaping, in the shock and shine, 
abstracts took flesh and flew;

winged words like view and space,
shape and shade and green and sky,
bird and horizon and sun,

turned real in a man's eyes.
Thus was truth given a face 
and dark dispelled and healing done.

(Luci Shaw "The Sighting"The Lion Book of Christian Poetry 1981) 

The miracle is descibed in John’s Gospel thus:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a blind man , which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master,who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work. As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle and he annointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And said unto him, Go,wash in the pool of Siloam (which is by interpretation, Sent). He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. (John 9 1-7 KJV).

The prisoners in Plato’s cave are not blind but they do not see clearly. In the gospel passage Jesus, in declaring himself the “light of the world”, is, as the sun in the Plato story. He is also the redemptive force that heals. In the poem the healed man is able by the light of healing to give meaning to words that had remained meaningless or abstract to him. Things were made real. “This was truth given a face”.

The Plato allegory follows stages of enlightenment. Because of lack of true knowledge the prisoners cannot see properly. In the shadows of the cave they do not see the world as it is and by their “education” they are misled in understanding what reality is. They can readily be indoctrinated with a false view of what things are like. When the prisoners escape, the possibility of true education is opened to them. At first their seeing is confused. The sun dazzles. Curiously, in the Gospels, there is another Jesus healing of a blind man that works like this. In Mark 8:24-25 when Jesus puts spittle on his eyes he reports “I see men like trees walkng” Only when Jesus “put again his hands on his eyes, and made him look up” was he restored and he “he saw every man clearly”. True seeing, distinguishing what is there, clearly take time.

Ultimately, if he goes far enough, the escaped prisoner can see clearly. It is not just a case of identifying things. The sun shines and provides the light by which one sees. The sun is the source of light. First, the escapee sees things like trees and hills but then he realises the source of seeing is the sun. The final stage of his development of proper sight is to see the sun as the source of what he sees and understands. What is around him is good-especially when compared with the shadowy reflections in the cave, so the source that enables him to see is good. To Plato that is the ultimate intuition reflecting the nature of the Source, as the Good.

Jesus also speaks of clear sightedness. In the Sermon on the Mount he declares: “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye be unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light within you is darkness how great is that darkness!”(Gospel of St. Matthew 6. 22-23. New International Version). To Jesus God is the Father, the Shepherd , the Creator. Jesus sent from God reflects His nature and character. He heals the blind and the blind through him see the Father. The seeing is something given, a redemption, salvation.

Plato is concerned with education. The prisoners back in their cave need to be released. Only education can do that. Those who see must go back to educate those left behind. But here is a problem. Once they return to the old world, because their sight is blinded by the dark, they find it difficult to express their seeing. They might tell the prisoners what they see is a false reflection of reality. But, an artefact passing, an alert prisoner can identify the object to his fellows’ satisfaction whereas the returned educator does not offer what seem to be clarity. They may well prefer the world they have. And the returned educator may be mocked as a misty-eyed dreamer, seeing other worlds that do not exist.

We go back to Christ. Is this what he means by the “light in you is darkness”? -like that of the alert prisoner within his cave he is assured and confident in his identification but the identification is misleading because nothing is seen in the clear sight of day, in the sunlight, from the source of good. Jesus, in the St. John Ch 9 healing, refers to the Pharisees. The Pharisees objected to the healing because it was done on the Sabbath. Their knowledge of the Law has become so elaborate and complex, their rule-making so rigorous that they do not see the blindingly obvious truth that something wonderful and good has been done, someone who was blind, now sees. Jesus says in that gnomic, paradoxical, poetic way he often adopts. “For judgement I am come into the world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind“. (Gospel of St. John 9. 39). The rule-makers, the so-called teachers, like Plato’s false rhetorists, the sophists, do not encourage insight, only bewilderment.(see Note) Pharisees who are with Jesus and heard his words ask him “Are we blind also?” Jesus said unto them: “If ye were blind ye should have no sin; but now ye say, We see therefore your sin remaineth”. (ibid41) Sin is the assumption of knowledge when there is failure of true understanding. In the face of revelation of the wonderful they are in denial.

Plato seeks to lead us to true-seeing by educating the understanding to the point where we see or intuit the source of goodness. Jesus, reflecting God’s love, has the power to heal us of our blindness, so revealing to us that love.

NOTE: Plato was suspicious of the emphasis on rhetoric by many teachers of his time as he saw them encouraging sophistry. “Plato generally treats them (ie. Sophists)) as charlatans who talked purely for victory and took money for teaching the technique” ( Simon Blackburn (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy O.U.P 1996).

This is refected by our modern meaning of sophistry: “Specious or over-subtle reasoning, the use of intentionally deceptive arguments; casuistry; the use or practice of specious reasoning as a dialectic exercise”. (S.O.E.D.)

On the developments of Plato’s thought, I have found very helpful Understanding Plato David Melling. OPUS 1987)

“THE TOWER OF BABEL: AN UP-TO-DATE VERSION”

And the most powerful rulers on earth gathered together and said: let us now speak one language. For now that we know the laws of Science and the power of Technology we shall defer to neither God nor Nature. And we shall make the poor peoples of the world give up their traditional agriculture and make them grow what we want them to grow and make what we want them to make. We shall teach all peoples to worship money and we shall be guided by economic experts who inform us how to control economies to our best advantage. And within these guidelines we shall pretend to allow people freedom, equality and democracy. And we shall teach people to mock the past, to despise tradition and to regard as superstition religious beliefs. And we shall educate them to believe only in progress and we shall encourage them always to want more than they can buy and we shall devise great entertainment industries using the resources of technology to keep them permanently amused, or at least distracted, when they are not working. And people the world over will forget religion and glorify Man. So let us build a great Dome where we can celebrate the progress and lordship of Man where the people will rejoice in our great secular and materialistic society.

And the Lord came down to the city and looked at the Dome which the children of men built. And the Lord said: Behold the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.

And the Lord continued: They worship their own productions and defer neither to Nature nor to me. They have despoiled and ravaged Nature and made growing places deserts. They have proclaimed freedom and they have created docility. They have promoted democracy and get themselves elected as shap practitioners who care for the interests of their people when they have neither wisdom derived from the past nor concern for the future. They have appeared to grant equality but only when people have been taught to say “Materialism is all” .

They have advanced education but only an education designed towards the service of Mammon. This is a generation that does not know the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.

And because of this, Nature will rebel because it can no longer sustain Man in his greed and arrogance. And becuse they do not regard the poor of the earth, those from traditional cultures and religions will resist the powerful and there will be war and rumours of war and there will be terror and rumours of terror. And there will be anarchy and to deal with anarchy more dictatorial rule and in reaction to dictatorial rule there will be rebellion and then to repress rebellion there will be more cruel dictatorships and Man and his works will be confounded.

Then came the Son unto the Father as he watched the building of the Dome and said: All that thou sayest is just and yet there is still Our Church and there are still those who sing the old songs and dance the old dances and learn from poetry, who read the Scriptures and glorify Thee and seek to advance Thy Kingdom. Before thou completely condemn Man give those who love and tend and nurture that which is good within their traditions yet another opportunity to recreate the Garden Thou designed for humanity where different traditions and cultures and languages might flourish on the good soil Thou hast laid for them ; then these may yet grow to honour Thee as the creative source of all that is good.

And the Lord said: What thou sayest is still my desire.

NOTE

Picture: Millenium_Dome_zakgollop

GUEST POST: “THE TOWER OF BABEL” (2)

BY RAY INKSTER

Genesis 11 begins with the story of the Tower of Babel-but why on earth was it include in the sacred text?

In the first eleven chapters of Genesis we are in the realm of myth, which is the expression of the truth in story form. the book itself reached its more or less completed form around the sixth century BC, when Jewish people were allowed to return to their own land after seventy years exile in Babylon.

While there, they would have seen one of the wonders of the ancient world-the Ziggurat, or temple of the God Marduk, which was almost 100 metres high, with seven tiers, three great staircases, and an imposing temple at the top-where the earth met the heavens and the God Marduk his subjects. The Babylonians believed that Marduk had defeated the Jewish God, whose Temple in Jerusalem had been reduced to dust and ashes and that, as a result, to quote 11.4, they had made a name for theselves.

The Jews who returned to what now became Judea did not, of course, share that opinion, especially since the Babylonians and their Marduk had in turn been overthrown by the Persians. In part, therefore, this story about the ill-fated Tower of Babel pokes fun at the Babylonians god-like pretensiousness.

In common with other instances in Genesis, the story also offers an “explanation” for a puzzling fact-in this case, that the world was found to have different peoples in it with different languages. In a similar manner, Genesis also provides “explanations” for names. The name “Babel” in Hebrew, sounds like the word for “confused”, and so is said to reflect the fact that God had “confused” the speech of the tower’s builders so that they no longer understood each other and, in their frustration, “left off building” the tower.

Apart from the fun, however, there is a more serious point being made. In a number of the myths of the Ancient Near east at that time, there is the theme of various gods becoming upset that humans were getting above themselves. They make such a raucous din with their unruly behaviour that the gods can hardly get any peace or sleep. Steps had to be taken to put them back in their proper place.

Echoes of this theme appear in Genesis 3 where, after their disobedience in the Garden of Eden, God says to members of the divine council that”man has become like one of us”, and must therefore be driven out of Eden into a world which will now be much less of a “paradise”. Similarly, in Genesis 6, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” and the Flood was necessary to clear that wickedness away and make a new start, this time governe by a covenant between God and man.

Humans are incorrigible, however, and so, in Genesis 11, they decide to “build a tower with its top in the heavens”. They’re going to show God what they can do, pay him a visit on his own territory and try to call the shots. Having promised after the Flood that “never again” shall all flesh be cut off”, God now devises a less drastic but effective stratagem for reminding human beings that he has made them, “a little lower than the angels”, and that they must learn to keep that place.

And this is where the story has something to say to ourselves in our 21st century. Some wit once remarked that having built the tower, if only they hadn’t tried to climb to the top things might not have ended the way they did. There is an aspect of human psychology which suggests itself when people are asked why they climb life-threatening mountains, or want to visit distant planets, the reason being, “because they’re there”. Sometimes that’s fine, but at other times alarm bells should ring.

Why are we mining and burning fossil fuels? Because they’re there, and they’re warming our homes, but also now our planet. Why did we smash the atom? Because we could, and we’re producing energy that lights our cities, but also stockpiling nuclear weapons that can destroy ourselves and our world. Genesis 3 would say to us that “our eyes have been opened, and we’ve become like gods, knowing good and evil”. We need to learn discipline and to rein ourselves in-to leave the fossil fuels where they are, and to destroy the weapons of mass destruction. Our scientists need to understand that they aren’t gods, who can produce a “theory of everything”, which would explain all that is physical yet solve nothing that is moral or ethical. Our religious leaders need to understand that they aren’t gods, who exclusively possess all truth, while any who differ from them are infidels to be treated accordingly. The Tower of Babel story reminds us that we are not gods, but human beings. There is so much that we can, and will, never know. We need to understand and accept our limitations, recognising that though that might often lead to our frustration, in other ways it could well be our salvation.

The Greeks, of course, had their own myth-that of Icarus, whose father made him wings of feathers glued on with wax and taught him how to fly. He warned him not to fly too near the sun, but Icarus “could” fly higher, and so he “did” fly higher. The wax melted, and the boy fell into the ocean from which he did not emerge. The wings of Icarus, the Tower of Babel-we can’t say we have not been warned.

Ray Inkster