Break free, banish the shadow land
Imagine a group of people sitting in a cave. They are chained to their seats in such a way that all they see is one wall of the cave in front of them. They have been there all their lives.
Behind them, out of sight is a parapet along which people can walk and behind that, a blazing bright fire.
Imagine now that people walk onto the parapet holding up shapes and figurines that, because of the fire behind them, cast shadows onto the wall in front of the chained people.
It is a primitive form of movie, a shadow lantern show. The shadows are the only reality the chained people know and they chat to each other and comment about the shadows.
It’s an ancient story from Book VII of Plato’s Republic written around 380 BCE and sets about trying to answer the question, “Why should people act for the good?”
Back to the cave. Plato describes how some of the chained ones break free of their bondage.
Turning towards the firelight that was behind them, they are blinded and experience pain. But as they focus their gaze, they notice that even brighter than the fire, is the light outside the cave.
Emerging from the smoky cavern of shadows, they climb ever upwards until they see the radiant beauty of the sun.
According to Plato, these ones who through painful perseverance and discipline climb to the mountain summit using tools of intellect, logic and reason, come to see the true light. They are called the philosophers ( philos = love of sophos = wisdom) a term coined by Pythagoras (570-495 BCE).
The message of Plato’s Republic is that if people who do bad things get power in a society, then that society will become an unhappy one.
Plato believed that philosophers are best qualified to do good things and should be given power in a society.
He thought that nonphilosophers ought to allow themselves to be ruled by philosophers and happiness would follow, because the rule of people (democracy) often failed because of unreasonable and illogical leadership.
However, in order not to be tempted to do bad things, the philosopher rulers must not have possessions or be able to feel love.
The pursuit of detachment (apatheia) from material or emotional involvement is the platonic ideal which is why Plato is regarded as the father of idealism. We still speak of platonic relationships.
As the state capture hearings and Steinhoff investigations continue to peel back layers of corruption at the highest levels of our public and business leadership, it seems we are far from Plato’s vision of dispassionate detachment.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t escape the cave of shadows though.
When the flickers on Facebook and fake news seem all the reality there is, simple human intelligence and skilful behaviour may lead us to a light we have forgotten.
We’re smarter than our cyber-chains suggest. All it takes is the dispassionate exercise of our intelligent minds.
● Peter Woods is a pastoral counsellor.
If people who do bad things get power in a society, that society will become unhappy