of separation from The Real
The Greeks had two different words
for two fundamentally different kinds of communication. One word,
logos, referred to the kind of linear and logical communication
of the sort that you hear in lectures and in most ordinary conversations,
and that you read in most non-fiction books, magazines and newspapers.
Their other word, mythos, refers to the kind of communication
that you hear in poetry, in drama, in song, and in many stories
and myths. Logos strings things out in linear discourse, while
mythos tries to show things whole, by painting a word picture,
or by sculpting, painting, singing, telling a story, or otherwise
trying to show things whole. Mythos, in other words, is different
than ordinary daily discourse.
The Greeks felt that mythos, as
a way of communicating, was able to somehow convey bigger truths
and deeper values than could ordinary, logical discourse. Most
wisdom traditions around the world have felt the same way and
have therefore often communicated their deepest truths in the
form of stories, parables, and powerfully moving mythologies.
(The word "myth," as
the Greeks used it and as we are using it here, clearly does
not mean what today's popular culture means when it uses the
word "myth;" people today usually use the word to mean
only some untrue account of things, as in the phrase "That's
just a myth.") We will use the word in the sense that the
Greeks used it, namely to refer to a powerful story or image
that attempts to communicate deeper truths that are often difficult
to communicate adequately in normal linear, logical discourse.
In that sense, Plato's cave is
a kind of mythic communication. It is trying to convey kinds
of truth that are not so easily conveyed in normal discourse.
The question we're considering
is: what might some of those truths be? We have discussed this
already and you've seen that the story probably has meanings
at many different levels.
What I would like to explore for
a minute here is Plato's concept of degrees of separation from
the real. When Plato tells the cave story he is also trying to
say something about one of his favorite themes, namely, the ways
in which we human beings are typically living at multiple "removes"
from the real.
Let's recall the image: people
are in a cave, chained to a wall and watching shadows cast on
the back wall of the cave, and this is their whole life. Behind
them is a raised walkway on which people walk carrying statues
of dogs and tables and mountains, and books and trees and everything
else in the world. Behind those people with their statues is
a fire whose light casts shadows of the statues onto the wall.
So what the people are actually
seeing are shadows of statues of things. That is, what they are
seeing is something several removes from the real, namely an
image of an image of a real thing.
Then suppose one of the people
says something to another person about the shadows they are all
watching. That person will utter some words that represent the
shadows of the statues of things. So the words are yet one more
remove from the real. Then when the second person hears what
the first person has uttered, the second person is hearing a
copy of the word that the first person uttered, and that is yet
one more remove from the real. If that second person then writes
down the words that s/he has heard the first person utter, then
those written words are a copied visual replica of the heard
words, which are a copy of the spoken words, which are a representation
of the shadow of the statue of a thing.
And, Plato believes, this is how
we all live: at many removes from the real, at many degrees of
separation from what is ultimately real.
But this isn't quite the end of
the story for Plato. The "real" dog (or tree or deer
or whatever) that the statue is representing is not itself ultimately
real either. This individual dog is not really and ultimately
real, for Plato, but is instead just one instance, one instantiation
(to use a philosophical term) of the essence of dogness. The
individual dog is just one example of the essence of dognes.
The essence of dogness,
according to Plato, is at a whole level of being more real than
an individual dog. In the film, the director tries to convey
this by all those psychedelic lights and images seen by "the
philosopher" at the top of the mountain (not a terribly
effective technique, in my humble estimation).
In any case, the seeker after wisdom,
that unique person in the cave who is dragged out of the cave,
in the journey toward understanding, moves from what is less
real toward what is more real. That journey begins by turning
away from the wall of shadows that everyone is engrossed in,
i.e., by turning 180 degrees away from where they've all been
spending their attention and energy all their lives, and going
off in an opposite direction. The philosopher then passes from
living in a world of shadows, to now seeing the statues that
caused those shadows, then out of the cave to seeing the individual
deer and trees and dogs, etc, and finally up the mountain to
encounter the pure essences. This world of essences is, for Plato,
the most real world of all.
Plato thinks of our physical world
as a kind of shadow world, one that is a little bit real, but
not ultimately real. The true philosopher is one who seeks to
understand the deeper nature of things and to not be satisfied
with only a surface, superficial, understanding of the nature
of what is ultimately real.
One last definition: the word philosopher
derives from the Greek word for wisdom (sophia) and one of the
Greek words for love (philia). The philosopher is a lover of
wisdom. When someone asks Socrates at one point if he is a wise
person, Socrates is quick to say that no he definitely is not
wise. But he certainly loves wisdom, he says, is in fact passionately
in love with wisdom, hungers after her (sophia is a feminine
noun in Greek), seeks after her all day long and with all his
energies. He is not a wise man, he says, as so many others have
claimed to be, but he definitely is a seeker after wisdom, a
lover of wisdom, a philosopher.
And so is anyone else who struggles along
the path toward the more real.