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Cinematic Spelunking

Inside Plato’s Cave

by Maureen Eckert

he Allegory of the Cave and voices that create the “reality” of the
follows Socrates’ presen- prisoners. As Socrates notes, “the prison-
tations of the Analogy of ers would in every way believe that the
the Sun and Divided Line truth is nothing other than the shadows of
in The Republic Book VI. those artifacts.”2 Who are these puppet-
These two earlier images illustrate the masters in the Allegory of the Cave in
metaphysical status of the Good and the The Republic? Plato gives no clue to their

42 Ideas (aka “Forms”) in relation to the fa-

miliar material world. These images pres-
identity—at least not directly—in the pre-
sentation of the cave interior’s structure.
ent an inverted reality—that which we are

most familiar with is the least real and can- Immediately after describing the features
not actually be known through sense ex- of the inside of the cave and the shadow-
perience. The Allegory of the Cave takes reality of the prisoners, Socrates discusses
a further step, illuminating the manner in what would happen if one of the prison-
which we are condemned to live because ers were to be released. He describes
we do not know what reality is. We are in- the prisoners escaping the chains, first
formed that the prisoners inside the cave, becoming dazzled by the light of the
chained and unable to move or turn their fire, then confused as to the difference
heads, are “like us.”1 According to the between the artifacts and their shadows.
allegory, we are all born into bondage, The prisoner would have to overcome the
forced to stare at the back wall of the cave temptation of turning back to the more
where we perceive the shadow-play cast familiar, darker shadows. “And if someone
upon it. We prisoners take these shadows dragged him away from there by force, up
and sounds to be reality, ignorant of the the rough steep path, and didn’t let him
wall positioned behind us and a huge go until he had dragged him into the sun-
fire further behind it. Puppeteers (thau- light,“ Socrates continues, “wouldn’t he be
matopoio) concealed on a path behind pained and irritated at being treated that
the wall are holding artifacts of all kinds way?”3 Progress out of the cave is pain-
and moving them, casting the shadows ful in two stages. Freed from her chains,
issue 9
“Shadow puppets,” 2008. Image courtesy of flickr member, das_kaninchen.
the prisoner initially contends with the pain and his time to construct his allegory.6, 7 Would
confusion caused by the firelight and artifacts. Plato object to a little cinematic spelunk-
Next, the prisoner contends with the experience ing in his cave? It is hard to say, but I’d
of being forced out of the cave into real sunlight. guess he’d approve of thinking through it
The passage does not provide an analogy for the as carefully as possible.
puppeteers—they move around freely inside the
cave and are not, it seems, exactly “like us.” So, Let’s start with an analogy. 1) Cave: Cinema
who are they like? 4
Theater, 2) Shadow-play: Film, 3) Prison-
ers: Audience, and 4) Puppeteers: Direc-

ver the years, students in my courses tors. The puppeteers in Plato’s Cave have
have noted that the Allegory of the a constructive role instead of a passive
Cave describes the experience of one. Like film directors, they re-present
seeing movies. The cave and the prisoners inside material artifacts and voices—sights and
it remind them of a darkened movie theater. The sounds—in a coherent presentation for
shadow-play fully engrossing the prisoners’ at- the audience/prisoners. Individual things
tention seems like a film. In fact, Plato describes represented within films, like actors and
the wall behind which the puppeteers work as be- locations, are part of the shadow-play and
ing “like the screen in front of puppeteers above parallel the artifacts held up by the pup-
which they show their puppets.” Plato very much
peteers. Directors, like the puppeteers,
seems to employ the entertainment technology of work behind the scenes.
Not only
must the
be coherent,
Following this anal- it must also be what could be the script they
ogy, it is easier follow?
to notice that the
prisoners, like any ... It is a very At this point, the analogy be-
audience, need to tween film and shadow-play
accept the shadows
long show, may prove a bit inadequate.
as real. This may re- to say the Not only must the shadow-
mind us of the func- play be coherent, it must
tion of the Matrix in least. also be comprehensive—like

44 the film, The Matrix.

The puppeteers,
the Matrix within the film.
The prisoners spend their
whoever they are, entire lives inside the cave

are unknown to the prisoners. Like good (unless set free). It is a very long show, to say the
film directors (or the Architect of The Ma- least. The film reels cannot be changed, nor can
trix trilogy), their film must not disrupt the there be an intermission or a time to go back
audience’s suspension of disbelief. While home to real life. Moreover, if different directors/
the film runs, it must fully engross the puppeteers presented radically different shows,
viewers’ attention—they must believe the based upon incompatible premises, the seamless
reality presented. The fact that it is artifice feel of reality would be jeopardized. Pigs cannot
needs to remain concealed. Achieving suddenly fly unless they do so all the time. To
these ends requires something more than paraphrase Aristotle in the Poetics, coherence at
a random series of images and sounds. the reality-building level of this narrative would
Socrates notes that if the prisoners could require “consistent inconsistencies.”9
speak to one another, “they’d suppose

that the names they used applied to the o far, based on our set of analogies be-
things they see passing before them.”8 tween Cinema and the Cave, we have
This would require that the shadows and discerned that the shadow-play that en-
sounds are not presented as a confusing grosses the prisoners inside the cave has some
flux, but have an order and consistency. important scripted features: (1) Coherence; an
The shadow-play is thus directed coher- order that enables prisoners to follow and po-
ently. The puppeteers are doing so. But tentially name artifacts in a believable reality, (2)
issue 9

“Moviegoers,” Long Island City, Astoria, NY, 2011. Image courtesy of flickr member, edenpictures.

Consistency; any features that could jeopardize large of Athens in 5th century BCE and the
suspension of disbelief must be regular enough Sophist intellectual movement.10
so as not to do so and (3) Comprehensiveness;
there is no outside of the shadow-play that is ap- In my view it seems most likely that the
parent to the prisoners.These three features of puppeteers represent the poets and the
the shadow-play, if we are right, set up a chal- script followed is the poly and theocen-
lenge to some interpretations of the Allegory of tric worldview they sustain in their poetry.
the Cave. If the shadow-play and the puppeteers There is textual support for this notion.
are interpreted too narrowly, as only representing Hesiod, Homer, and the traditional poets’
politicians or only the Sophists, we lose facets of views of the gods are first attacked in
comprehensiveness, consistency and coherence. Book II of The Republic. There, when con-
It would be better that the shadow-play and pup- structing the first law of the ideal republic,
peteers represent a much more inclusive group, the poets’ notions that the gods shape-
ideally one that could incorporate the politics at shift, deceive and can behave unjustly are
Image courtesy of Stephen Boisvert.

purged from the ideal society.11 Later on, famously, rather a metaphysical view of the nature
in Book X, the poets are altogether purged from and structure of reality. Hesiod’s Theogony
the ideal state. Their skill in representation—the is a creation account that lays out natural
crafting of images of the material world that and divine order.14 Hesiod’s further writing,
is itself an image of the world of ideas—is too Works and Days, and Homer’s Iliad and
grave, seductive and dangerous a power. 12,13
To Odyssey present varied accounts of the
the extent that the poets’ works represent a com- relationships between gods and humans,
prehensive and relatively coherent view, it seems and the setting for ethical values.15,16,17 The
that they would be good candidates for the script shadow-play watched by the prisoners, if it
of the puppeteers. The puppeteers within this follows this type of script, has the strength
analogy are the poets. The theocentric worldview of being meaning-bestowing. That is to
presented in the great works of ancient Greek say, it is a type of narrative that gener-
poetry would be the script they follow. ates an account of reality to be believed.
Moreover, each individual artifact forming
The crucial thing to bear in mind is that the script of a piece of the show has a meaningful place
the poets is not a narrative in the typical sense, but within this type of narrative.
[the poets’]
skill in
representation too grave,

n this interpreta- against impiety went
tion, the Allegory seductive and un-challenged, just as
of the Cave still dangerous a the Laws argue in the
preserves the “three degrees Crito that Socrates,
from reality” problem that is power himself, never chal-
described in The Republic, lenged it.20 Despite

issue 9
Book X, while maintaining its democratic consti-
connection with the Divided tution, Athens did not

Line in The Republic, Book separate church and
VI.18 The shadow-play in the state. The Sophists,
cave is this “third degree” representation, the a group of intellectuals the public viewed
artifacts, second degree, and the world outside
the cave is the world of ideas.
as threatening to traditional moral values,
were never tried for impiety as Socrates
was.21, 22 Their training of the wealthy po-
The next thing to keep in mind is the image of the litical elite to “make the weaker argument
Divided Line preceding the Allegory of the Cave the stronger” and to succeed in civic life
divides phenomenal experience into two distinct went politically unopposed in any real
segments.19 The lowest segment is that of images terms and Sophists like Protagoras and
and reflections, which are grasped by the mind Gorgias died wealthy men. The Sophists’
in imagination. The level above is that of artifacts entrenchment in political life at Athens
and material entities which are grasped by belief and other Greek city-states did nothing
(pistis—’belief’ with a sense of trust). The shad- to overturn the social glue of the religious
ow-play inside the cave represents phenomenal worldview expressed by the poets.
experience. The poets’ accounts bestow meaning
on the shadows that are reflections of the artifacts One might object that there was great
they manipulate. The consistency, coherence and variation in ancient Greek myth, and the
comprehensiveness of their shadow-play causes works of the tragic playwrights present
the prisoners to remain enthralled in the shadow- moral complexities and challenging ethi-
play at the level of imagination, demonstrating cal dramas. How could poets like these
three degrees from reality. be counted as puppet-masters? In short,
I would claim that the poetic script in play
The script of the poets is quite compatible with tolerated a great amount of variation. This
the political life of Athens. The Athenian law elasticity is permitted by commitment to a
polytheistic pantheon. Gods and god- cient Greek poets, the very fact that we need to
desses within a polytheistic pantheon flesh out his allegory in order to figure out who
necessarily have differences, and in the or what in a culture might be “running the show”
traditional, poetic accounts, are not suggests something fascinating. If we are in the
constrained by having to be good. Lo- position of the prisoners inside the cave, the pup-
cal traditions in different city-states en- peteers are invisible to us. They are present yet
able variations on traditional themes, absent, just as a director and the whole machin-
and the conflicts between deities and ery of filmmaking arts can successfully achieve
humans caught up in these divine dra- an illusory absence for the audience. According
mas provide topical themes for poets. to Plato’s model, someone or some system is,
The interesting question is at what in fact, in the director’s position with respect to
point the elasticity of the poetic tradi- what we take for granted as “real.” The power of
tion gives out. I believe this is precisely his allegory might very well be that it requires us
what is so important in Plato’s presen- to consider who or what, at any given period of
tation of Socrates. history, directs our shadow-play. w

n The Republic, Socrates is forth- ENDNOTES
right in rejecting the traditional
1. Plato. 360 BCE. The Republic. Benjamin Jowett,
accounts of the poets. Making trans. Book VII, (515a). Accessed May 27, 2012,

48 things more difficult, however, is the

way that Socrates also calls upon the 2.
Plato, Republic, Book VII, (515b).
gods in the Apology, claiming that he 3. Plato, Republic, Book VII, (515e).

is, indeed, a pious man. Careful read- 4. Interestingly, we have not been told precisely how
a prisoner is set free, nor who it is that drags a
ing of the dialogues may suggest that prisoner further up the steep path into the blind-
Socrates’ belief in the gods is sincere ing sunlight. This topic goes beyond the scope of
this essay, but hopefully it is easier to figure out!
while representing a reformation of tra-
5. Plato, Republic, Book VII, (514b)
ditional beliefs.23 Socrates’ is the case
6. See Asli Gocer. 1999-2000. “The Puppet Theater
that tests the elasticity of traditional in Plato’s Parable of the Cave,” The Classical
religious beliefs. Should Athenians Journal, 95, no.2: 119-129.

have tolerated his seemingly reformed The practice of puppetry in Ancient Athens has
features worth noting. According to Asli Gocer’s
theology, rejecting the poets’ accounts
research, ancient Greek puppet-theater was
of the gods? Readers of Plato are chal- a bawdy, burlesque, comedic style of theater
presented to popular audiences. Thaumatopoio
lenged with this question. was the term meaning “puppeteer,” but also
designated other popular performers like
conjurers, jugglers, acrobats and mimes. Puppetry
Plato leaves the identity of the puppet- thus bore association with all “low-brow” forms
masters in his Allegory of the Cave of entertainment. Ancient Greek puppetry is
thought to be the ancestor of Turkish Karagoz
open to interpretation. This seems Theater. Karagoz Theater is improvised and often
intentional on his part and a signifi- satirical, contemptuous of customs and aimed
at entertainment of “the masses.” Gocer claims
cant feature of the allegory. Although that the puppetry depicted in the Allegory of the
Cave as of a piece with Plato’s critique—not just
I have made a case for identifying the
of drama—but specifically of comedy and popular
puppet-masters as the traditional an- art forms.
7. See Graham Ley. 1991. A Short Introduction to 19. Plato, Republic, Book VI, (509d-511e),
the Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 10-13. html
20. Plato. 360 BCE. Crito. Benjamin Jowett,
Graham Ley notes that puppets in Ancient
trans. (51e-52a). Accessed May 27, 2012,
Greece may have been more akin to marionettes
controlled by strings (neurospatos; drawn/
operated by cord) and self-moving, mechanical 21. Aristophanes. 419 BCE. The Clouds.
automata. Ley also remarks that, given Plato’s Accessed May 27, 2012, http://classics.
comments in the Laws, puppet shows might have
been comedic, and aimed at an audience of Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates in his
children. comedy The Clouds is an interesting case
in which Socrates is depicted as a practic-
8. Plato, Republic, Book VII, (515b)
ing sophist—setting up a school (The
9. Aristotle. 350 BCE. Poetics. S. H. Butcher, trans. Thinkery) and offering to teach young
Section 2: XV. Accessed May 27, 2012, http://clas- men to win lawsuits at any cost. Material- istic views of the world including rejection
of the gods are also attributed him in the
10. For an explanation of the Sophist movement, see play, although such views reflect those of the natural philosophers (Milesians,
11. Plato, Republic, Book II, such as Thales and Anaximander, and
Plato/republic.3.ii.html Pluralists, such as Anaxagoras).

issue 9
12. Plato, Republic, Book X, 22. Plato. 1966. “Apology,” Plato in Twelve
Plato/republic.11.x.html Volumes, Vol. 1, Harold North Fowler,
trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University
13. Plato. 1966. “Euthypro,” Plato in Twelve Volumes, Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd),

Vol. 1, Harold North Fowler, trans., (Cambridge: 18b. Accessed May 27, 2012, http://www.
Harvard University Press; London: William
Heinemann Ltd), sec. 6a, accessed May 27, 2012, eus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext% 3DApol.%3Asection%3D18b .
hyph.%3Asection%3D6a In Plato’s Apology, especially at 18b, 49
Socrates makes the effort to disambigu-
In Plato’s Euthyphro we also find a clear comment ate his practice of philosophy from both
from Socrates about his negative view of the po- of these intellectual groups.
ets. Euthyphro has just expressed his commitment
to the traditional myths about the gods, describ- 23. See Gregory Vlastos. 1991. “Socratic
ing Zeus’ castration of Chronos. To this, Socrates Piety” in Socrates: Ironist and Moral
responds: “Indeed, Euthyphro, can this be the Philosopher, (Cambridge: Cambridge
reason I’m under indictment, because whenever University Press), 157-178.
such things are said about the gods I find them so
difficult to accept? It seems that because of this I I find Vlastos convincing on the point that
will be told that I do wrong.” Plato’s Socrates is very much “a man of
his time,” maintaining some religious be-
14. Hesiod. 1914. “Theogeny,” The Homeric Hymns liefs while, at the same time, advocating
and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh for rational, philosophical investigation.
G. Evelyn-White. (Cambridge: Harvard University Relegating each instance of his mention
Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd.), accessed of religion to irony seems to do damage
May 27, 2012, to Plato’s careful presentations of actual
per/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0130 irony in the dialogues.
15. Hesiod, “Works and Days” in Homeric Hymns,
accessed May 27, 2012, http://www.perseus.tufts.
16. Homer. 800 BCE. Iliad. Samuel Butler, trans.
Accessed May 27, 2012,
17. Homer. 800 BCE. Odyssey. Samuel Butler, trans.
Accessed May 27, 2012,
18. Plato, Republic, Book VI,