Plato’s Allegory of The Cave

I think that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a very relevant work to examine for two reasons.  Firstly, Baudrillard used the Allegory as a basis for his own theories on Simulacra and Simulation (1981) which have a direct relationship to a virtually created world such as Second Life. Secondly, Plato’s work The Republic (of which the Allegory of the Cave is a part) is concerned with the way in which people acquire knowledge of ‘Forms’ the highest and most fundamental kinds of reality, and his vision is of a particular organisation of studies which can be compared with that provided by Second Life; our past and current Education systems and the OCA.

I’m not intending to go into great detail or claim to have studied this in depth but wanted to put down the way I understand it as I’ve kept puzzling what Baudrillard means by ‘real’ within his own concepts.

The Allegory of the Cave

This allegory is part of Plato’s work The Republic which is the centrepiece of his philosophy and concerned with the way in which people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice and good. Plato uses the device of presenting his own philosophy through a fictitious conversation between his late mentor Socrates and Plato’s older brother Glaucon as to how this vision of the Republic can be achieved. Basically, he puts his own words into Socrates’s mouth which, presumably, he believed would give his own concepts a firm foundation.

The allegory is in three parts which represent the stages through which the common man attempts to face and deal with opinions and ideas that are different from those cultural and intellectual norms which make him a prisoner of convention. There are many videos on You Tube using a variety of strategies to explain the allegory.  Below is the one that struck me at this particular moment:-

 

 

The cave represents that which is known to us only through the material/physical world and through sensation. The ascent out of the cave is made by those free thinkers and intellectually liberated individuals who question the validity of their cave-bound life; see the physical world for the illusion that it is and seek enlightenment through following the highest of all studies so that by thought and rational thinking they can deduce ‘The Forms’. Plato believed that there was only one ‘real’ and good version of anything – the perfect version of that such as beauty and justice. However, those who have attained this highest level must not remain there but must return to the cave and dwell with the ‘prisoners’, sharing in their labours and honours.

Jean Baudrillard uses Plato’s Allegory as a springboard for his own concepts of Simulacra and Simulation (1994). So far as Baudrillard is concerned ‘the real’ has disappeared. Andrew Wernick (in R.G. Smith (Ed) 2010:181) suggests that, with this notion, Baudrillard is building upon Nietzsche’s fable How the ‘Real World” at last Became a Myth (1987) which traces the demise of Plato’s ‘real world’ “ – a higher reality which is the repository of truth and of which the world of appearance is only a degraded copy.  All of this is quite convoluted, as philosophical concepts often are but what I am taking from it at present is that my version of what is ‘real’ concerns that which I experience as known through the material/physical world and through sensation and not those higher ‘forms’.  This is one of the problems when the same words are used for different and sometimes contradictory concepts. I also recalled, during my current reading, that I had actually learned about Plato’s Philosophy during my studies with The Open University and been interested in this idea of external perfect truths as opposed to Aristotle’s later view that they should be searched for within the essence of things. It is because of his theory of forms that Plato believed that philosophers should rule the World – being the only ones who sseek out true knowledge and not just imitations of it (R. Ferguson, 2006).

But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he  who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed (Plato The Allegory of the Cave (2017:11)

Here I return to Plato and his views on the education of those who will attain this higher knowledge and become effective Ministers of State.

The role of education for higher knowledge

This is clarified through Plato’s dialectic approach as the discourse between Socrates and Glaucon continues following Socrates’s description of the Cave.  This education begins in childhood with children, taken from their parents at around the age of ten (by those  who have already gone through the process) so that these children ‘will be unaffected by the habits of their parents” (ibid p.34).  After some years of simple gymnastics  and sciences learned without any order there will be further selection at age 20 with more specific instruction in mathematical sciences. At age 30 there will be selection for dialectic, with philosophy to take the place of gymnastics. After five years these men (?) will be sent down again into ‘the den’ and compelled to hold military or other office to gain experience of life for about 15 years. At age 50 “they must raise the eyes of the soul to the universal light; behold the absolute good as pattern to order the State and lives of individuals – making philosophy their chief pursuit but toiling also at politics and ruling for the public good – simply as a matter of duty (not as though performing an heroic action). Then depart to the Islands of the Blest and dwell there”.

Music must be educational and stories must be carefully crafted; there is little role for the Arts. Earlier in The Republic (book IV) Plato warns against the corrupting dangers of innovative poetry to the established order because of its power to quickly transform the values of entire societies.

This concept of education comes through to me as being rigid, austere, disciplinary and creating a society where individuals are selected early on to ‘know their place’ and stay within it. It reminded me of my own education in some respects.  Yes – as a result of the creation of the Welfare State I was able, as a working-class child, to have the possibility of education in a Grammar School through the 11 plus examination.  Much has been written about Grammar and Secondary Schools and how the 11 plus examination categorised children at such a young age; to the detriment of many who still feel resentful about this as adults.  What is rarely mentioned is that there were other categories of schools such as Intermediate Schools and Technical Schools, not forgetting ‘Open Air’ schools for children with disabilities.

I should mention that I did not enjoy being at an all-Girls Grammar School with all women teachers who seemed bent on raising ‘young ladies’ so I left before taking any ‘O’ levels. I went to secretarial college given that being a teacher or being a secretary were, in any case, the only apparent future options suggested at that school anyway. It was only years later that I returned to education as a mature student.  Even now, the education system is being constantly tinkered with by Governments on the basis of prevailing beliefs about the way in which future citizens should be educated.

This compares with the approach to education offered by organisations such as OCA and the Open University which have open access and, in the case of OCA,  are geared to learning which expands creativity.  What interested me about Second Life was a similar emphasis upon opportunities for personal development, albeit through a virtual learning environment, with avatars as tutors.

Returning to Jean Baudrillard, apart from my quest to work out his notion of ‘Real’ I do think there is one important aspect missing from his concepts of Simulacra and Simulation. He doesn’t seem to allow any place for, or recognise, the use of imagination and creativity. in representations of reality.  I doubt that he would have approved of virtual worlds such as Second Life.

 

References

Baudrillard, J (1994  ) Simulacra and Simulation (English Translation) US: The University of Michigan Press
Ferguson, R (2006) Socrates and Plato: From Dialogue to Dialectic [accessed at http://www.international-relations.com/History/SocratesPlato.htm ]

https://www.buzzle.com/articles/the-allegory-of-the-cave.html
Plato The Allegory of the Cave translated by B. Jowett, 1888. Los Angeles. Enhanced Media Publishing (2017)
Smith, R.G. (Ed) The Baudrillard Dictionary: Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

 

 

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10 comments

  1. At last, you got to writing it all up! What a tour de force! Thanks for sharing it. I was re-reading Sontag’s ‘In Plato’s cave’ in her ‘On Photography’ recently and I now realise what journey I have been through with the OCA. I first read the book in 2006 when it was given to me & I could not appreciate then what she was on about. Combining all that I have learned so far with the ideas of Plato’s cave that you have outlined, gives it all much more substance. I can’t say the same about Baudrillard’s simulacra except that he probably thinks that there is no original anything – everything is a copy, so he, in all likelihood, does not value creativity, except his own, perhaps?

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    1. I had to get it done and it didn’t take too long because it’s been going round in my head for such a long time. At least I’ve now got a better sense of it all and can move on.
      Of course there are criticism of Baudrillard’s views along the Ines of creations such as Disneyworld – people know its not real, it has boundaries and fences that denote it as being artifice etc. I guess the interest is that Baudrillard’s writings can be analysed/perceived in so many different ways so there can continue to be a discussion around them. They are ideas after all – not ‘facts’.

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  2. I wonder if you have watched Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror? The second episode of the first series, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is set in a not-too-distant future world where people’s avatars become their first, rather than their second life. They live in identical rooms, all the walls of which are video screens playing continuously, wearing identical, grey clothes. Their working day is spent pedalling a fixed bicycle in front of yet another screen. Huge arrays of these bicycles generate the world’s energy. Their earnings are in the form of the ‘merits’ of the title, but with no personal possessions they can only spend them on their avatars. Spending these merits is also the only way to turn off the screens in their rooms. The only means of escape is via a kind of ‘X-Factor’ show which allows them to live a real(?) life at the cost of becoming part of this all-encompassing entertainment machine by providing content for it. Worth a watch, but only on Netflix now (internet TV – is there an irony there?)

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    1. I haven’t seen that David so must have a look for it. I’m trying to imagine spending all my time pedalling a bicycle to provide the energy to run the video screens that I don’t really want to watch anyway. So many parallels with modern life (and past lives as well having just watched Joann Fletcher talking about the pyramids in Egypt and how they were built).

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  3. Gosh what an interesting post ! I found Baudrillard really hard going when I was researching . Like you I went to an all girls Grammar but we were told ‘Grammar school ladies don’t need to type’ — we were all expected to go to University. I left at 16 not returning to education until much later , thank goodness for institutions such as the OCA!

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    1. Thanks Judy. I found him hard going as well which is why I wanted to trace his idea back to one of its sources (something I did before with Derrida and Freud).
      I’m sure a book could be written about girls’ grammar schools in the earlier days. One of the main difficulties I had was that asking questions wasn’t viewed kindly at all so I could never get to discuss anything with the teachers!

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  4. This is good Catherine..a clear, enjoyable and fascinating read ..Your comments about your grammar school experience resonated with me. I wanted to learn to type in my fourth year and you can imagine the response I received to that request from the very academic ladies in charge of my education!!

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    1. Thanks Sue. I’m imagining your teachers’ responses right now! I do think it’s odd though that I actually ended up being a teacher/mentor but of adults not children.

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