Plato believed that humans are dual creatures; with a body, which contains the senses, and an immortal soul. He believed that the soul existed before it inhabited the body but, once it wakes up in a body, it forgets the perfect world that it had inhabited.
The soul gets reminded though, of its previous existence by events, objects and beings in this earthly world, especially by love and beauty. These faint memories are what drives the soul to seek a return to its origins; they are responsible for those feelings we experience of not being fully at home here where we dwell.
Plato also believed that all natural phenomena are merely shadows of the eternal forms and ideas. Anna investigates this theory in ‘Mister God this is anna’, where she creates shadows on pieces of paper, cuts out the pieces of paper and holds them sideways to the light, then the shadows of all the shapes are reduced to lines. Repeating the process can reduce all shadows to dots. Anna’s point is that we have no idea of the potential behind a dot, followed back through the shadow process it could turn out to be an elephant, a spaceship or a piece of string, or it might just be a dot. This is Plato’s point too; who can know what the reality is behind what we see.
I was helping one of my daughter’s to study physics recently; first we were studying light and i commented on how it was just as well the light from the sun didn’t need a medium to get to the earth or there would be no life on earth. My daughter hadn’t realised that space is pretty much a vacuum. We moved on to sound and learned that if you ring a bell in a vacuum you cannot hear it, sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum. The sound is made, but we can’t hear it. What else exists that we cannot perceive? A final twist to our study of physics was that a question in the exam my daughter was studying for was about the famous line in the film ‘Aliens‘, which is “In space, no one can hear you scream“. Aliens is actually one of my favorite films – i bought the box set but can’t get the family to watch them all with me.
The exam question asked if it was true that no one can hear you scream in space and, if so, why. My daughter, of course, knew the answer.
Plato observes that most people are content with a life among shadows, we don’t try and find out what is behind the light, what is causing the shadows. We pay no heed to the immortality of our souls, or to our real purpose in life.
The story of The Cave, is one of the most famous that Plato recounts.
In ‘The Republic Book VII’, Plato records a conversation between Socrates and another man, Glaucon. Here is an abbreviated version:
In the story, Socrates says, “Behold, human beings housed in an underground cave, which has a long entrance open towards the light and as wide as the interior of the cave; here they have been from childhood, and their legs and necks chained, so that they cannot move and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. And men pass along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall. While carrying their burdens, some of them, as you would expect, are talking, others silent. These chained people below have seen nothing of themselves or each other except the shadows which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave and they have seen only the shadows of the objects which were carried along the wall and heard only echoes of the conversations and noises in the cave. To these people, would they not suppose that the things they saw and heard were the real things? To them the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows and the echoes.”
As it is with the prisoners in the cave, so it is with us and, indeed, with our egos, shadows on the walls of our caves.
The Truth is not necessarily the first thing we notice, or even the second.
In Jostein Gaarder words, the philosopher tells Sophie the rest of the story, “Imagine now one the cave dwellers manages to free himself from his bonds. The first thing he asks himself is where all these shadows on wall come from. What do you think happens when he turns around and sees the figures being held up above the wall? He is also dazzled by the clarity of the figures because until now he has only seen their shadow. If he manages to climb over the wall and get past the fire into the world outside, he will be even more dazzled. But after rubbing his eyes he will be struck by the beauty of everything. For the first time he will see colours and clear shapes. He will see real animals and flowers. But even now he will ask himself where all the animals and flowers come from. Then he will see the sun in the sky, and realize that this is what gives life to the flowers and the animals, just as fire made the shadows visible”,
This is the process of awakening, feel the joy in the journey and take the first few steps, awaken.
Sophie’s education continues, “The joyful cave dweller could now have gone skipping away into the countryside, delighting in his new-found freedom. But instead he thinks of all the others who are still down in the cave.”
“He goes back”
Our fictitious friend is also a teacher, another Jonathan Livingston Seagull. perhaps another Jesus.
“Once there, he tries to convince the cave dwellers that the shadows on the cave wall are but flickering reflections of ‘real things’. But they don’t believe him. They point to the cave wall and say that what they see is all there is”
“Finally they kill him”
Shades of Socrates, prophecies of Jesus.
Look beyond the shadows my friends.