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Talks - Unravelling Plato

29 February 2008. Aldeburgh Literary Festival

At this first talk at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, Irene Noel-Baker talks about the difference between poetry and dialogue in Plato. She illustrates her argument using the myth of the cave, from Plato's Politeia (Republic), and extracts from Plato's Phaedrus.

The title of my talk is “Unravelling Plato”. I’ve chosen this title, because Plato is very difficult to read, and sometimes he seems even more difficult than he is. I am going to try and make things easier, by taking a couple of the threads that I have been able to get hold of in his writing, and to pull them through, and see what happens. Maybe then we will be able to see more clearly what his dialogues might be made of. I am talking here about the Republic, his Politeia - the ideal form of civilization - the ideal city which he envisaged - and also about the Phaedrus, which is about love, among other things. You may all know that Plato wrote dialogues like these, in which his own teacher, Socrates, talks to various people about subjects to do with how to live a good life. Plato seems to have written down some of what he remembered of these conversations, and then probably made up quite a lot more. So it’s Plato’s ideas that we are talking about, although he choses to use his old teacher, Socrates, as the main speaker in his dialogues.

I’m going to say something about Plato as a poet, I’m going to illustrate what I mean with some examples, and then I’m going to talk a bit about dialogue itself, and why Plato thought it was important.

First it would be helpful to think of Plato as a poet. You may ask why? It is confusing because we tend to think of Plato as the father of Western Philosophy, as the person who asks us to think rationally, to avoid excess emotion and the demands of the flesh and to stick to thinking clearly. Plato talks a lot about poets himself, and he means not only the people we think of as poets nowadays, but people who we now think of as journalists, historians, self-help gurus, quacks, spin-doctors and religious leaders. They could be people who make up stories without acknowledging that they are stories. People who surround falsehood with an aura of truth, with an aura of piety, with the appearance and semblance of reality. They are bad for you when they can’t see the difference between what is real and what is made up. Poetry comes from the Greek verb Poeio, to make. It’s something that is fabricated and fits together well. It is not the truth, it uses a heightened sensibility, Plato would call it the madness of the muses, to suggest, through the imagination, something that can cast a new light on questions and problems that have become banal and meaningless. You have to be careful of poetry, because it is not open to logical enquiry. It’s a way of structuring knowledge that uses metaphors, myths, stories and ideas which are often highly emotive and sometimes blatantly wrong.

So what does it mean to say that Plato is a poet. I will take as my illustration one of the best stories that Plato has told. It’s a really imaginative idea, and it works very well, but it has also had, I think, pretty devastating consequences. In a sense it demonstrates exactly the dangers that he sought to warn us about, when he told us to be careful about poetry and about the power of the imagination. Even as I was preparing for this talk, I felt that when I started to talk about the myth of the Cave, it might seem as if I were giving you a ten minute sermon, and beginning to pontificate. This reminded me of what often happens to Socrates in the dialogues. He starts to get carried away with an idea, and then suddenly he stops, as if struck dumb, as he puts it, by some demon. He apologizes for being carried away by the gods, for being carried away by poetry and by the muses, he is reputed sometimes to have stood, stock still, in the middle of the street, unable to speak. It’s as if he is reminding us, again, how dangerous words can be. So at the end of this story that I am about to tell, we will stop and think and come back down to earth.

In his dialogue, the Politeia, or Republic, Plato asked us, when we are thinking about our civilization, to imagine that we had been brought up since birth inside a huge Cave. The Cave is open to the light all across its front entrance, a wide mouthed Cave spread out towards the light. We however, have been tied up, bound, since birth facing the back wall of the Cave. We’ve been tied by the neck and by the feet, so we can’t turn round and look behind us at the light, and we cannot turn our necks, even to see one another. Can you imagine that? In the dialogue, Socrates turns to Glaucon, to whom he is describing this cave, and Glaucon says yes, I can imagine it, but it’s a pretty weird idea. And Socrates says, yes it is pretty weird and that’s what it’s like for us now.

So these people since birth have been sitting facing the cave wall, and meanwhile behind them outside the entrance to the cave and above it, up a steepish slope, there is a low wall or partition which is like the thing you have in a puppet theatre behind which someone manipulates the puppets, like in a punch and judy show. People are manipulating the puppets and sometimes the puppets appear above the wall and sometimes they go back down.

Sometimes the people who manipulate the puppets talk to each other, and because there is an echo in the cave it sounds as if these voices are coming from the back of the cave itself, but in fact it is only an echo. Behind the wall is a bright fire, which results in shadows being cast onto the back wall of the cave. The people sitting there can’t look at each other, all they can see of themselves and of one another are the shadows on the back wall of the cave. All they can see of what is going on behind them are shadows, cast by the puppets and by the odd arm or hand belonging to one of the puppeteers, as she moves the puppets up and down. People are moving about carrying bits of scenery, human shapes, animal shapes, made of wood, metal, stone, “plastic”, and putting them in position. But again those who are inside the cave can only see the shadows thrown by these made objects. When they talk to each other about what they see in front of them, they think that they are describing what is in fact passing along behind them, whereas what they see is just a shadow of an object that is out of view.

Now imagine that the people in the cave are untied. they can turn their heads around and look at each other and they can get up and walk up and out into the light. What would it be like? They would be so dazzled by the brightness of the light and their eyes would hurt so that for a while they wouldn’t be able to make out the nature of the actual objects whose shadows they had been looking at earlier. If it was explained to them that what they had been looking at before was all a cheat and a kind of puppet show, and that the objects behind the partition were the things that they had been trying to see, they wouldn’t believe it and would think that what they had been looking at before was real - that the shadows were the real thing. Also the brightness would hurt their eyes so much that they would want to turn back to what was familiar and they would think that those familiar shadows were more real and easier to discern than what was appearing to them now.

Anyway if they could be forced to endure the sunlight and be dragged up that steep incline and out into the daylight, they would eventually be able to see the sun and the relationship of the sun to everything else, to the cave and its shadows, and they would understand the way that the sun lights up the earth, causes day and night, brings life to plants and animals, causes the seasons and so on and so forth. And having seen all that they wouldn’t think much of what everyone was discussing down in the cave, as they peered away at the shadows and tried to work out what is most important and what goes together and what is likely to happen next. Also when they get back down the darkness would be as blinding for them as the brightness was earlier, and they’d be stumbling about and people would laugh at them and tell them they were blind, and they would blame and probably even kill the person who had helped lead them up to the sunlight in the first place, to get their eye-sight ruined.

However, says Socrates, you will get what I am driving at. The sun represents the idea of what is good. Good is the hardest thing to see, just as the sun is the hardest thing to look at. But when you do see it, you understand that it is the cause of everything that is beautiful and right. In the visible world it is the author of light and gives birth to it. In the intellectual world it is the author of the intellect and provides truth and wisdom. Once people have been up in that light they don’t want to go back down again. They are illuminated. They want to strive ever upwards, and struggle to get back there again.

Plato says that the best analogy for education is not that you put knowledge into a soul that doesn’t have it, like putting sight into blind eyes, the best analogy is to think of it as a turning around of the body because although the organs of sight are there and working, they can’t see things as they are without a turning around of the entire body out of the darkness to face what is clearly visible. The art of turning around is what has to be learnt, and the ability to adjust from darkness to light and back again, so that it becomes natural and habitual. You have to become good at being able to contemplate the brightest thing there is, which we call goodness. The ability to see is there, and the sun is there. It’s just a question of whether you can turn round and look at it or not. The ability to contemplate (phronesis) is a very divine quality which never loses its power. Phronesis is linked to the word ‘phren’, which is the part of the body above the diaphragm, somewhere in the chest, where you can sense what feels right. But the ability to think is a very powerful thing when it goes wrong, and when it is concerned with carefully examining the wrong things. And that way it can do a lot of harm.

So we have to force people to come out and look at the sun, and when they’ve had a good look and contemplated everything, and taken it all in calmly, we then have to force them back down again, because it is important to think of the city as a whole, and not just what suits each one of us separately.

And that’s the end of the idea, or story, or vision of Plato’s cave, more or less. And yet ofcourse it isn’t. This idea, of striving to see things as they are, of seeing things always in relation to an idea, an over-riding sense, in this case, of what is good and what is best in the life we live together, is one of the threads that runs through Plato’s writing. It appears again, in a slightly different version, in his dialogue the Phaedrus. When you read the story in the Phaedrus of how the soul finds its wings, and goes up to the outside of the heavens, and sees things as they really are, you will remember the story of the Cave, and you will continue to build up a picture in your mind, to refer to, when you try to think about what Plato could possibly be saying.

What I hope you will enjoy is the way that Plato talks about this journey, not as a stern didactic and dogmatic person, but with what I think is humour and a sense of fun. We can all do it. We can all go right up to the outside, what he calls the back of the heavens, and see what’s up there. Love is the fastest way of getting there, much the fastest - it makes the wings of the soul grow and gets us up there almost immediately. It is a love of beauty and by extension a love of goodness that does the trick. The word in Greek, ‘to kalon’, means both goodness and beauty. When Plato uses religious imagery, images which we will recognize from our hymns and bible stories, he does so with a sense of humour and with the idea of stimulating the imagination and helping us to think for ourselves. To question and to enjoy. I’m hoping gently to emphasize the idea that the myths, the stories in these dialogues, are very rich when they are read as myths, and not as doctrine. So if the story in the Phaedrus, like the one in the Republic, is about us going up and looking at things-as-they-really-are, then the main point is that you have to be human to do this. You have to be human to be able to think logically in a kind of way that gets you nearer to the truth - and this is some measure of your humanity.

But how do we do this? The stories are all very well but they aren’t real. We can’t really fly up to the outside of heavens on a winged chariot, as he says in the Phaedrus, and as for getting out of the Cave, who and what will we find to untie us? What will help us to turn around and make the journey up and out into the light. And how, once we’ve got there, will we force ourselves to come back inside the beastly cave and grapple with the reality of our daily existence?

In Plato’s Politeia, after he has talked about the Cave, Socrates says that the way forward is through dialogue. The word lego means to chose and to examine, to pick out; it also means to say or speak. ‘Dialegein’ is to discuss, to talk through something and examine it thoroughly. You need to be able to give and take in speaking. It is different to science, which studies each thing in itself. It is different to geometry because geometry leaves its assumptions undisturbed and can give no account of them, and so it sees truth as in a dream, unable to see clearly. The method of talking things through and discussing them is the only one that does away with hypotheses, that questions all assumptions in the light of the senses and of experience, that searches for common patterns, and that hangs on to the idea of what is good through reason. Unless a person can do this he won’t know what’s right, he’ll get hold of a shadow and think it is real, he will go through life dreaming and asleep, until he finally drops off altogether in Hades, without having woken up here at all.

Plato’s idea of coming in and out of the cave, of going back and forth between something that is represented in the mind, and something that exists in reality, is his great gift to us. The idea that by talking to each other and by questioning every assumption made, in the bright and inescapable light of what we know to be right and what we know to be good for us, this is the second thread that runs right through all his dialogues, which in themselves exemplify what he is trying to teach. There are no limits to what we can make up if we want to, and there is no limit to the freedom to criticize and question what we have come up with during those moments of enlightenment and inspiration. Both are essential, one, the gathering together of information and experience into a meaningful idea, a plan, a notion, a story, a myth, and the other, the separating out and examining of everything that has been said, to make sure that it’s useful and true.

(passages for reading)

I am going to read a short passage from the Phaedrus now, to give you a sense of what I think Plato’s writing sounds like, and what I mean when I talk about his poetic style.

So this is about us going up and looking at things-as-they-are. I am going to summarize this passage a bit so that it doesn’t take too long to read. Here Plato has just been arguing that eros, or love, is a good thing. He talks about the different kinds of madness - mania, prophetic madness, poetry and love. He is arguing that they are not so much useful, as a great gift to us, and that they shouldn’t be mocked. They go up in ascending order, with love at the top. And it’s love that gets you fastest to seeing things as they are, if you aren’t too blinded by it. He describes some of the obstacles to seeing clearly. There’s an important passage on the soul which I’m going to leave out, because it’s too important to rush over. It’s about the soul being the source of all movement. The thing to remember is that he describes the soul as having wings - in fact it’s a pair of winged horses, together with their driver. This is the story he is telling here, and it’s different to the cave story, but you’ll see that it’s basically communicating the same idea, which you will recognise. The horses, or souls of people, can travel alongside the horses of the gods, which ofcourse find it easier to get along because they move more smoothly. Anyway we can all go right up to the outside of the heavens and see what’s up there. What love does, is it helps the wings to grow on our horses so that we get up faster. And it’s essentially a love of beauty, and by extension a love of goodness, that does the trick.

Read from Phaedrus 246e, page 42, “Zeus, the great leader in the sky” to end 248d.

Then there is a bit about reincarnation, and after a few thousand years of this up and down business a soul can chose if it wants to go into the body of an animal, or back again from an animal into a human..

Read on from 249b “But no soul which has not seen the truth will ever get to be this shape” up to 250e “To be both completely apparent and completely desired”.

After reading these passages we can see the problem that Plato poses for us. He is a poet. He talks like a poet and he makes up stories. At the end of such a passage what are we supposed to think? Have we been persuaded? are we doubtful? Is he talking about a real heaven that he believes in? Does god exist? Rhetoric, says Plato, is about persuasion. I am now taking rhetoric as being in the same category for Plato as poetry. Towards the end of the Phaedrus, when Socrates talks about how to make a good speech, he says that a man who thinks that a great deal of what he is saying is playful - such a person is more likely to get things right. No written discourse should be treated very seriously. The best and most useful kind is the one that reminds people of what they know already. It is not the words in themselves, it’s what they do, the effect they have on you, what they make you think or feel. What they conjure up. He thinks of words as a kind of magic spell. He compares oratory, intended to sway people’s minds without the possibility of argument, without the possibility of answer or instruction, he compares this to the ways of examination and discussion. Always there is this distinction in his writing. The two different coloured threads that run throughout it. Let us say that one is coloured blue, and one red. The blue thread is the thread of opinion, of appearances, of something that looks as if it might be so. The red thread is knowledge. As Plato says, if the beginning is something that cannot be known, and the end of it and everything in between the two is a complicated amalgam of things that can’t be known, does that constitute knowledge? The power of rhetoric and poetry only works if you don’t make distinctions between things, if you don’t question the speaker.

The red thread is harder work. What the red thread does is to work backwards from the study of things around us to something that can be confirmed in the soul. He says that the only thing that is worth learning is what is truly written in the soul ...

I want to say a little bit about the word for truth in Greek. It is ‘aletheia’, which actually means an absence of forgetting. For Plato the search for truth then means remembering what we already know and confirming what we have in our souls. So discussion and dialogue and critical thinking help us to turn around the body and the head, as we said earlier, to see things as a whole, to see what was previously out of our view, but nevertheless there, and visible. We don’t want to be called wise, sophists. We want to be called lovers of wisdom, philosophers. Once we have understood the importance of dialogue and discussion, then we will have arrived. Plato often warns us, often at his most poetic and heightened moments, that it is actually almost impossible for us to see everything as a whole. We might see it fleetingly, or sense it rather. It is impossible to come to the end of this journey of discussion and discovery. We can’t say that we are wise. We can’t actually see the sun itself because really it is too bright for us, but we can see everything that it lights up - we can see the various forms and aspects of goodness around us. When we do manage to find clarity it’s not worth quibbling about whether we only have an image of the truth and not truth itself, it’s not worth making that distinction. The point is that what we have is lit up by the sun, by goodness and by wisdom through discussion and contemplation. There is something there to be seen and we know that we’ve seen it. There is something to uncover. Only dialogue is capable of showing things as they really are, at that moment, in relation to each other, and to what we feel to be right and good. Only discussing and deliberating, and examining the thing, with another person. So, for a poem, or an oration, or speech, or a story, to be good, the mind of the speaker must have understood and examined the matters of which he is to speak. He must have already done the thinking. Then the person who hears it will recognise the truth that is there. He is not being persuaded, so much as being reminded of what he already knows, or has partially glimpsed, sometime before.

Aldeburgh Literary Festival
The Republic, Book Seven, Plato's Cave
Phaedrus, On Love and Knowledge

© Irene Noel-Baker (2024)