One of the best known passages of in Plato's writings is that of `Plato's Cave' at the beginning of the seventh book of the Republic [VII, 514a ff.]: but perhaps its profundities are worth exploring again because, I believe, it provides a key to the philosophic life, which is also the happy and creative life.
We must begin by reclaiming the word `philosophy' since it has been belittled by misuse in the west over many centuries, so that for most seekers of living spiritual truths and beauties the word means nothing more than a series of arid arguments on semantic issues. But when Pythagoras first introduced philosophy to the Greek language it denoted a nobility and a greatness of aspiration to which many great men and women have gladly given their lives. The word, of course, means `love of wisdom' and because wisdom is a Goddess, it denotes the love of the mortal for the immortal. It led Maximus Tyrius to write [dis. vi; TTS vol. VI, p. 71.] these delightful words in praise of true philosophy and its destiny: "But to what shall I compare the spectacles of a philosopher? to a clear dream by Zeus, circularly borne along in all directions; in which, indeed, the body does not move, but the soul travels round the whole earth, from earth ascends to heaven, passes over every sea, flies through every region of the air, runs in conjunction with the sun, revolves with the moon, is carried round with the choir of the other stars, and nearly governs and arranges the universe, in conjunction with Zeus! O blessed journey, beautiful visions, and true dreams!" We will consider a little later why the philosopher who has made progress in his love of wisdom does indeed "nearly govern and arrange the universe."
To return, however, to the Cave of the Republic in which Socrates describes prisoners chained to a bench in such a way as to limit their sight to the wall furthest from the cave's entrance. On this wall appear a procession of shadows caused by a series of objects being carried along a walled path behind the prisoners and which lies between them and a fire. The objects - artificial representations - are numerous and of many different species of things. Since the prisoners have known nothing but the procession of flickering shadows they know no greater reality and cleverest amongst them are able to make the most erudite analysis of these shadows: many win prizes for the remarkable ability to predict which shadow will follow which.
From this strange prison one man escapes, and turning to explore what has lain behind him during his imprisonment, sees first the procession of actual objects, then the fire: this is enough to cause him considerable confusion and some hurt to his eyes, and perhaps he would have sat down again had it not been that someone took hold of him and forced him beyond the fire into the light of day, beyond the cave. Here he saw living objects - the originals of which the procession in the cave had been copies. Due to the enfeebled nature of his eyes, unable to endure bright lights after a lifetime in the darkness of a cave, he must first accustom his sight by a gradual series of increasingly bright objects: at first he can only look at shadows, then at images of things reflected in water, and finally the real things. Once he has a clear vision of the upper world his last task is to look to the heavens themselves, to see celestial lights, more beautiful than the things of the earth. Once again this is to be accomplished by degrees: at first he can behold only the heavens at night when the light of the stars dance their perfect rhythms, but finally, as his eyes adapt, he is able to look upon the sun and is able to recognise the truth that it is this single dazzling object which is the source and governor of all things.
The former prisoner returns to the cave to tell his wonderful news to his erstwhile companions, but such is the condition of his eyes, now used to the full light of the sun, that the darkness of the cave makes him stumble and appear the most benighted of fools: the chained prisoners at best laugh at him and at worst become enraged at his ravings, promising that if they are able to loosen their chains a little they will kill the madman.
Now to many this allegory delivers a simple message: that our present condition is one of shadowy unreality, and that the enlightened life awaits us if we are able to free ourselves from our chains and find our way to the upper world. This is certainly an important part of Plato's message to his readers, but a part only. If we only read Plato himself it is easy to miss the rest of the message; it is the great philosopher-mystics of late antiquity who give us the key to the allegory's subtlety.
Proclus, perhaps the last great flowering of western antiquity's wisdom, gives us in relatively clear language the metaphysical pattern which is implicit within the writings of Plato and his immediate followers. It is this metaphysical scheme which we must have if we are to follow every step of Socrates' escaping prisoner. Briefly, the scheme of the universe can be analyzed, according to Proclus, into six conditions or orders of being [note 1]:
Firstly unconditioned being, or "authentic reality" an eternal and therefore immutable world of pure causes. This world is derived from and ruled by the intelligible Gods.
Secondly being conditioned or clothed in life, again eternal but especially characterised by a dynamic quality which `pushes,' as it were, stable being into a procession of archetypal ideas. Derived from and ruled by the intelligible-intellectual Gods.
Thirdly being and life conditioned or clothed in intellect; this, too, is eternal and carries the causal and dynamic qualities of the first two worlds further outwards: its own particular characteristic is creativity and ordered thought. Derived from and ruled by the Intellectual Gods.
Because of this characteristic creativity three further worlds, or conditions of being are projected by the powers of the intellectual world: the fourth world is that of being-life-intellect conditioned or clothed in the individuating actions of soul. The world of soul, while at its highest touching tri-une world of being-life-intellect, is the first projected order, and its quality of activity necessarily involves some contact with the processions of time. (Plotinus defines time, by the way, as the `measure of the soul's activity.) Derived from and ruled by the Supermundane Gods.
The fifth condition is that of being-life-intellect acted upon by soul and given the conditioning and clothing of the appetencies, laws and forms of nature; this world is central to the projected or manifested cosmos, and, therefore, its leading characteristic is that of generative dynamism. Derived from and ruled by the Liberated Gods.
The sixth and final condition of being is the world of matter: or more properly matter upon which the five previous worlds' causes are impressed, so that being-life-intellect-soul-nature are clothed in matter. Derived from and ruled by the Mundane Gods.
You will see that at each succeeding lower level the simplicity of the higher become more and more complex, until in the material or mundane order everything is a complex entity wrapped in many layers and is, therefore, difficult to understand.
But Proclus also says [note 2] that one thing, and one thing only, is higher than Being Itself - and that is Unity. So above these six orders is a super-order of Unity and Unities, which we may call the order of God, and the Gods. Each order descending from the super order of unity down to the mundane order of material existences is diminished in power and beauty: thus the highest order is that in which the greatest power, the deepest beauties, the fullest truths reside. It is worth noting that although each of the six orders is derived from the various choirs of Gods, the Gods themselves are not a part of these orders, because they are above being: although we come to know them through their characteristic qualities of being, life, intellect, soul, nature and body, the Gods are part of the super-order of unity and are not themselves bounded by these qualities.
Now let us return to the Cave, and see if the different conditions of being are implied in the ever higher perceptions of the freed prisoner:
Starting at the lowest level, the shadows on the cave wall have the least reality - they are as close to nothingnesses as it is possible for discernable things to be: we will see as we rise with our prisoner how these shadows are the final result of a series of different levels of reality. While the prisoners look at the wall with its dancing shadows they are almost entirely ignorant, and are not able to see themselves, so that the terrible ignorance which is self-ignorance is their lot: this is the state of each of us when our perception is only of materiality.
Now when the prisoner first turns around he sees the statues, furniture and other objects which are being carried along the walled path: these are the representations of higher things. The forms in nature, which continually give rise to actual physical lives and things, are distant echoes of the archetypal ideas of the second order (that of Life). They are in continual movement and still have a high degree of illusiveness about them - Plato says this walled path is like the "hedges in the stage of mountebanks on which they exhibit their wonderful tricks."
Beyond the procession of objects is the fire which allows the cave to be a habitable place - a place with a degree of reality and light: the cave without fire would be in utter darkness, and any procession would go undetected. The fire represents the order of soul - each soul being a microcosm of the great sun which the prisoner has not yet glimpsed. The Timæus explicitly says that the purpose of souls is to vivify and order the manifested cosmos, which was so often symbolised by the ancients as a cave.
Now when our former prisoner has be led to the upper world Socrates says "And, first of all, he would most easily perceive shadows, afterwards the images of men and of other things in water, and after that the things themselves." The prisoner, then, is at first obliged to look at shadows again - but this time they are shadows of real things, rather than artificial copies. The third (intellectual) order is a perfect reproduction of the two higher orders and the three great intellective gods of the Greek Pantheon - Cronos, Rhea and Zeus - are, respectively Intellective Being, Intellective Life, and Intellect itself.
The next step is to look at the images of real things reflected in water: the archetypal ideas of the second order of being are the images of the unconditioned beings of the first order. Socrates uses the theme of water here, I think, to indicate the living quality of this vision, for water is the great life-giving element.
Finally the prisoner is able to see the "things themselves" - in other words the authentic and unconditioned eternal beings of the first order.
This might be the end of the increasing brilliant vision of the former prisoner, but Socrates adds to his joys the contemplation of the heavens: first the lesser lights of the night, and finally the vision of the day-star from which the prisoner, now enlightened in every sense, understands all other things have arisen.
The last phase of the Cave story is that in which the prisoner voluntarily descends again for the sake of the remaining enchained men in the cave: and this reconciles two apparently conflicting theories identified in Plato's writings: that the destiny of the soul is to flee the material and rise to a perpetual contemplation of the beauties of the celestial realms (cf. the Phædrus 250a); and that the destiny of the soul is to vivify and order the Cosmos (cf. the Timæus 41c). The voluntary prisoner, whose eyes are now filled with the dazzling vision of the Sun, of the heavenly bodies and of `real being' descends again taking with him this vision: for to contemplate real being and that which generates real being is to become active in a new sense. Actions are either accomplished when the attention is turned outwards and downwards or when turned inwards and upwards: in the first case the resulting activity is one of process, but in the second case the activity verges into the essential creativity of the Gods who, in the words of Proclus [note 3], "led and perfect all things in a silent path by their very being." The best analogy we have to this essential creativity is to consider the way in which the sun as the centre of the solar system controls the orbits of the various planets by remaining still within the centre: the very mass of the sun allows it to govern its satellites without the expenditure of energy. It is this form of activity which enabled Maximus Tyrius to claim that we will "nearly govern and arrange the universe in conjunction with Zeus." This we may say then: the contemplative life is the most truly active life, for our actions become creative only insofar as they arise from real contemplation. Our task then - to spiritualise the mundane realm under the guidance of the Divine powers - is not incompatible with the flight from material concerns to the orb of light, the homeland of our exiled souls.
What turns our attention inward? Plotinus wrote a passage in his Enneads (VI, v, 7) which refers to the verses of Homer in the first book of the Iliad (Il. I, 199) in which Athene takes hold of Achilles' hair and jerks his head around so that he sees her "with eyes blazing" in order to prevent the hero from killing Agamemnon; Plotinus' words are: "Were one able to be spun around, either by his own effort or through the good fortune of being yanked by Athena herself, he will find himself face to face with the god, with himself, and with the universe. He will not at first perceive what he sees as the universe, but when he finds that he is unable to locate and define himself and his limits, then, abandoning the definition of himself as something separate from the entire One, he will enter the total universe without making a single move, but by remaining there, where the universe has its foundations."
Let me repeat that last phrase: without making a single move. It is the cultivation of stillness which is the exercise of the cathartic virtues, and the reaping of the rewards of stillness in the exercise of the theoretic virtues which Plato hints at in the Phædo where Socrates says: "Those who are conversant with philosophy in a proper manner, seem to have concealed from others that the whole of their study is nothing else than how to die and be dead." As Olympiodorus says in his commentary [III, i] on this passage "to die differs from to be dead. For the cathartic philosopher dies in consequence of meditating death; but the theoretic philosopher is dead, in consequence of being separated from the passions." The passions - those things external to the essential unity of the soul and which cause the soul to be moved - always arise when she identifies with the worlds which are lower than her own proper order; it is the movement of the soul involved with the world which prevent her from reaching the stillness of contemplation. Passions are the result of appetites, which we have already defined as being an intrinsic part of the order of nature, or that order which is immediately below that of the soul.
The path of philosophy is the stripping away of the clothes of real being: anything can be the starting point of our journey inwards - Blake's grain of sand or flower, for example - and then the process of simplification must take over: this is not the material which surrounds it; this is not the natural laws which give it definition; this is not the soul which gave it movement; this is not the intellect which ordered it; this is not the life which impelled it outwards; this is that which IS. When we have arrived at the purest being we may then, if the Gods are willing, press beyond the final veil and find the unity which is the root of being: the Nirvana state, if you like, in which even being itself is revealed as a dream. Each level of being experienced is a new level of perception, for although Proclus says [in Parmen.] that things are known not according to their own quality but according to the quality of the knower, the power of the soul is to be self-creative: therefore as each level is reached so in some fashion the nature of the soul is changed. From this point of view we are what we think. This is the reason why Aristotle says that man is created by God and man - in other words man is started by God but finished by his own powers.
When this simplification is finished we are not longer beholding separate beauties, but Beauty herself. And the divine priestess, Diotima, when directing Socrates to this final vision says [note 4]: " . . what effect, think you, would the sight of beauty itself have upon a man, were he to see it pure and genuine, not corrupted and stained all over with the mixture of flesh, and colours, and much more of like perishing and fading trash; but were able to view that divine essence, the beautiful itself, in its own simplicity of form? Think you that the life of such a man would be contemptible or mean; of the man who always directed his eye toward the right object, who looked always at real beauty, and was conversant with it continually? Perceive you not, said she, that in beholding the beautiful with that eye, with which alone it is possible to behold it, thus, and thus only, could a man ever attain to generate, not the images or semblances of virtue, as not having his intimate commerce with an image or a semblance; but virtue true, real, and substantial, from the converse and embraces of that which is real and true. Thus begetting true virtue, and bringing her up till she is grown mature, he would become a favourite of the Gods; and at length would be, if any man ever be, himself one of the immortals."
This vision of the Beautiful, the ultimate object of all love, is the continual test of the philosopher who pursues truth: all truth is beautiful, and no one who ever gazed upon a great truth has come away from it without feeling quickened by it. Speaking personally I use this as the most certain check whenever I think I have discovered a new truth: the question is always "is this idea beautiful?"
The removal of the accretions with which the universe surrounds pure being is not a process of deadening negation but rather, if we follow Diotima's path of Eros, an affirmation and love of the real. Proclus, in his commentary on the Parmenides [note 5], says of this approach: "But our intention in pursuing these mysteries is no other than by the logical energies of our reason to arrive at the simple intellection of beings, and by these to excite the divine one resident in the depths of our essence, or rather which presides over our essence, that we may perceive the simple and incomprehensible one. For after, through discursive energies and intellections, we have properly denied of the first principle all conditions peculiar to beings, there will be some danger, lest, deceived by imagination after numerous negations, we should think that we have arrived either at nothing, or at something slender and vain, indeterminate, formless, and confused; unless we are careful in proportion as we advance in negations to excite by a certain amatorial affection the divine vigour of our unity; trusting that by this means we may enjoy divine unity, when we have dismissed the motion of reason and the multiplicity of intelligence, and tend through unity alone to The One Itself, and through love to the supreme and ineffable good."
Our highest destiny is, then, to come into the presence of the One and the Good. But a word of caution here, for in a culture which is still largely conditioned by the monotheism which grew in the place of the ancient world's theology of `the One and the Gods' it is easy to dismiss the cultivation of the Gods as being unnecessary. The Chaldean oracles [note 6] tell us that a disordered approach to divinity is worthless, perhaps dangerous: the path to the ineffable One is through his first progeny, the Gods, the divine unities who unfold into light that which is forever hidden in the One alone. The worship of the Gods is the most certain source of inspiration, as the art, architecture, literature, and philosophy of Ancient Greece testify. The former prisoner, nearing the perfect vision of the Sun, has as a final step, the survey of the night sky - and only those who have been trapped all their lives in light polluting modern cities will be ignorant of the joy which such a vision affords the soul.
Let me end with another quote from Proclus [note 7]; one that I feel ranks among the finest in all the world's scriptures. In it Proclus calls us to the highest state of contemplation, that of The One, which he says is `hidden in the intelligible Gods' or those Gods who govern the highest realm of pure being:
"Let us now therefore, if ever, abandon multiform knowledge, exterminate from ourselves all the variety of life, and in perfect quiet approach near to the cause of all things. For this purpose, let not only opinion and phantasy be at rest, nor the passions alone which impede our anagogic impulse to the first, be at peace; but let the air be still, and the universe itself be still. And let all things extend us with a tranquil power to communion with the ineffable. Let us also, standing there, having transcended the intelligible (if we contain any thing of this kind,) and with nearly closed eyes adoring as it were the rising sun, since it is not lawful for any being whatever intently to behold him - let us survey the sun whence the light of the intelligible Gods proceeds, emerging, as the poets say, from the bosom of the ocean; and again from this divine tranquillity descending into intellect, and from intellect, employing the reasonings of the soul, let us relate to ourselves what the natures are from which, in this progression, we shall consider the first God as exempt. And let us as it were celebrate him, not as establishing the earth and the heavens, nor as giving subsistence to souls, and the generations of all animals; for he produced these indeed, but among the last of things; but, prior to these, let us celebrate him as unfolding into light the whole intelligible and intellectual genus of Gods, together with all the supermundane and mundane divinities - as the God of all Gods, the unity of all unities, and beyond the first adyta, - as more ineffable than all silence, and more unknown than all essence, - as holy among the holies, and concealed in the intelligible Gods."
1 For a fuller explanation of these six orders see p. 247 of Thomas Taylor Series Works of Platovol. III (TTS XI), note 101; and for a more modern exposition see chapter 3 of L Siovanes' Proclus, Neoplatonic Philosophy and Science.
2 See propositions 1- 6 of Proclus Elements of Theology (TTS vol. I).
3 Proclus' Theology of Plato I, 14, TTS vol. VIII,
4 The Banquet212a
5 See p. 34 of the Thomas Taylor Series Works of Platovol. IV (TTS XII).
6 "Divinity is never so much turned away from man, and never so much sends him novel paths, as when we make our ascent to the most divine of speculations, or works, in a confused and disordered manner, and as it adds, with unhallowed lips, or unbathed feet. For of those, who are thus negligent, the progressions are imperfect, the impulses are vain, and the paths are blind." TTS vol. VII, p. 49.
7 Proclus' Theology of Plato II, 11, TTS vol. VIII, p.166
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