Shadowplay: Plato’s Cave and Political Spin

by Mark Gullick (September 2015)

Much sport has been made recently concerning the career path of the average British politician. Travel smoothly from graduation to internship, from SpAd (or special adviser) to policy adviser, possibly with a brief sojourn in advertising, PR, publishing or journalism, and Westminster is your oyster. The route is bland, anodyne and lacking in anything but mastery of the managerial and technocratic arts, and gives us a political class to match. There is nothing of substance, nothing which could remotely be called life experience. There is one rite of passage for the elites, however, which may hold the key to this world of artifice and salesmanship.

Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) has long been a staple of the upper echelons of politics. David Cameron, Theresa May, the Miliband brothers, William Hague, Danny Alexander, Yvette Cooper and, interestingly, Peter Mandelson are all PPE graduates, along with two other members of the current Conservative Cabinet. A cursory glance at the current state of British politics and economics may cause Oxbridge dons to shake their heads and pass on, but the relationship between philosophy and our political masters and mistresses is an interesting one when one considers one seminal philosophical text in particular.

Plato’s Republic is one of the best known of philosophy’s texts, and contains a famous pronouncement on the relationship between philosophy and political leadership;

Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is until political power and philosophy entirely coincide… cities will have no… rest from evils nor, I think, will the human race. [473c. Note: The Stephanus numbering system for Plato’s works is used throughout.]

The Republic takes as its subject the ideal state, a title which only the doughtiest spin-doctor would claim for the UK. But, in whatever state we find ourselves, philosophy is far from absent in the modern corridors of power. As a review of our current ‘kings and leading men’ shows, we are not as distanced from the Platonic lament as we might think.

It’s not really feasible that an Oxford PPE student could – or would have wanted to – avoid this seminal political and philosophical text. The Republic also shows up on many other degree courses; Oxford’s current syllabus lists the text as part of a ‘compulsory core course’.

The Republic is perhaps the best known of the Platonic dialogues, and is probably based on what Plato knew of Sparta. Many of its ideas are well known: the communal upbringing of children, the expulsion of the poets, metempsychosis (reincarnation), the tripartite roles of guardian, auxiliary and worker, the noble lie or necessary falsehood, and the famous myth of the cave.

At the start of the Republic’s Book VII, Plato’s perennial mouthpiece Socrates invites us to consider the following scenario;

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cave-like dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets. (514a/b)

There is a wonderful animated version of Plato’s cave here. Socrates supposes that there are people on the wall ‘carrying all kinds of objects’, statues of people and other animals which, from the light of the fire, cast shadows on the wall in front of the shackled prisoners, shadows which are all they are able to see.

Unable to see their genuine cause, the prisoners take these shadows as reality, and the familiar Platonic division between the real and the ideal is played out in this subterranean drama. Plato believed that the things of this world are second-order shadows or copies of ideal realities, a metaphysics which would later fund Christianity.

Concerning the myth of the cave, Plato scholars have always taken the master at his word; we are temporal creatures who see only the shadows of the ideal, Plato’s ultimate reality. The meaning of the allegory of the cave, it is generally accepted, has to do with our actual perception of reality, our sensory experience of the world, flawed and illusory as it is compared with the realm of the Platonic ideal. Plato states as much. But Socrates’ student, as we shall see, may have had his reasons for disguising political comment as philosophy.

The Republic has concerned itself, right up to the scenario in the cave, with politics. Why the sudden switch to ontology? Why not, rather, see the story of the cave as an unpacking of another famous Platonic concept, albeit one which occurs only twice in the Republic

Of course, there has been endless wrangling over translation from Plato, but the necessary or noble falsehood is made explicit by Plato;

[I]t looks as though our rulers will have to make considerable use of falsehood and deception for the benefit of those they rule. [459c]

Smuggled into the debate during a discussion of how to tidy up the behaviour of the Homeric gods to make them suitable for young and impressionable minds, the necessary falsehood is now exposed as political spin avant la lettre, and its apparatus, the actual mechanics of subverting reality and replacing it with mere shadowplay, is nowhere better dramatised than in the depths of Plato’s cave.

Perhaps it was an Archimedean moment when one young student reader of this most beguiling of Platonic dialogues realised that the figures carrying the objects whose silhouettes cast flickering shadows on the cave wall were the primitive precursors of the news managers of modern politics. We might imagine the young Peter Mandelson now, sitting in his room among the dreaming spires, reading and re-reading these passages describing the creation of an illusory political reality aimed at the obscuration of fact and ultimate control over those who must view and live it. Born as they were in the gloom of Plato’s cave, it is entirely appropriate that Mandelson’s media methods were christened, by those same media, ‘the dark arts’. Between Plato and Lord Mandelson, the Gospel of St John reminds us that qui male agit odit lucem

But on a related subject, and before we search for Plato’s reasons for disguising his political analysis in an apparently ontological dramatic vignette, it is worth remembering that the story of the cave does not end with the silhouettes on the wall. There is another small chapter to read; one of the prisoners escapes, and is taken up and outside of the cave;

When one of [the prisoners] was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. [515c]

The prisoner is taken out of the cave, sees the light of the sun – dazzling at first and then illuminating – and experiences reality for the first time. So far, so Platonic; metaphors of sun and light accompany the truth throughout the dialogues, indeed throughout philosophy. But if the prisoner sees the real, the true order subverted by the object-carriers below in the cave, those same inventors of experience may have other plans for the enlightened escapee on his return from the overworld with revolutionary news concerning reality;

[A]s for anyone who tried to free [the other prisoners] and lead them upward… wouldn’t they kill him? [517a]

The prisoner who has stared at the sun – an action which became a classical sign of insanity – might be the very person the other prisoners fear, with his subversive tales of reality from above ground.

Perhaps there is no secret order behind the suppressio veri of the Republic, which has travelled from the low wall of the cave to the news managers and wonks of the 21st century. One only has to see the treatment of whistleblowers, counterjihadists, satirists and cartoonists, dissident non-MSM journalists and other pariahs to suspect what happens if one stares too long at the sun. The real name of the escapee of the Republic may, however, be easier to discover.

There is a clue as to the identity of this refugee from the cave in Plato’s Seventh Letter, written to the associates of Dion, the ruler of Syracuse whom Plato would try – and fail – to teach statesmanship after he left Athens in disgust at the effective execution of his teacher Socrates. Plato recalls an episode from his youth, when his city was under the tyrannical rule of the so-called Thirty;

Among their other deeds they named Socrates, an older friend of mine who I would not hesitate to call the wisest and justest man of that time, as one of a group sent to arrest a certain citizen who was to be put to death illegally, planning thereby to make Socrates, whether he wanted it or not, a party to their actions. But he refused, risking the utmost danger rather than be an associate in their impious deeds. [324/5]

The utmost danger was, of course, the death sentence eventually passed on Socrates when, in 399BC, he was charged with and convicted of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Even then, the Athenian court, in passing judgement before a feast day, offered Socrates the chance to escape. Loyal to his principles, the old man stayed and drank his hemlock, as recounted in the most moving of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedo. The hemlock worked on the body of Socrates from the feet upwards, killing the brain last. The great ‘gadfly’, as Socrates described himself at his trial, the irritant of Athens, had both shown his captors the value of truth, and showed them that their regime had a moral fault line running through its centre, as Plato echoes in the Republic;

Don’t you think that cities that are badly governed behave exactly like this when they warn their citizens not to disturb the city’s political establishment on pain of death? [426]

Bertrand Russell’s colleague, Alfred North Whitehead, famously described philosophy as footnotes to Plato but, for Plato himself and his hero Socrates, philosophy itself was always the sum of its etymology, whose provenance is sophos, or wisdom, and the verb philein, meaning to love. Philosophy; the love of wisdom. And wisdom must, perforce, seek the truth, seek to walk in the light.

In the end, it is never philosophy which disappoints but its practitioners. Plato would be as disgusted by the modern political warping and manipulation of the truth as he was by Athens’ treatment of his mentor and his own subsequent adventures in Syracuse, where he tried and failed to teach Dion, that country’s ruler, the finer points of political acumen.

And so, for all the PPE graduates in the Westminster bubble, the key passage of the Republic may not be the one concerning philosopher-kings, or even the Orphic descent underground to the cave, but this admonition late in the text;

In any case, the present error, which… explains why philosophy isn’t valued, is that she is taken up by people who are unworthy of her, for illegitimate students shouldn’t be allowed to take her up, but only legitimate ones. [535c]




Mark Gullick has a PhD in philosophy and lives and works in London, England. Visit his weblog: Postcards from Traumaville. His latest book is Bestest Boys and can be purchased here for e-readers for 99p/$0.99.

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