Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College



Plato's Cave:
degrees 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.