Plato (around 428 BC – around 348 BC) was student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle and founder of the Academy in Athens.
I wanted to understand more about the motivation and rationale behind Plato’s Politeia (The Republic). What was the background for him and what the idea that made him to write the Allegory of the Cave? As Deleuze went back to understand Plato before he could establish his own conception of the simulacrum as an intermediate step towards his own philosophical approach. I feel that a better understanding of Plato’s assumptions and beliefs would enable me to argue how relevant the Allegory is today or not.
(from the Introduction by Melissa Lane in: Plato, 2007, pp. xi – xlviii)
Plato was embedded in the Greek antiques in the comparison of Athens and Sparta. The failures of both political systems were unsatisfying for philosophers. The system in Athens was based on the equal right for all to debate publicly as ‘rivals’ claiming a position. Anybody could claim anything.
The agreed aim of life was living well collectively and individually, to reach ‘happiness‘ (eudaimonia). In order to achieve this one had to cultivate four key virtues (arete): justice, wisdom, courage, and self-discipline. Justice balances the others, in general the virtue for what is right. Arete in the sense of excellence like a knife that is excellent sharp, kind of quality of its being (ibid, p. xix).
Thus, Plato considered justice as the highest virtue. Against the balance of the virtues stood the unbalancing attitudes of indignation, anger, and appetite. Those do restrain one from a life in ‘happiness’. The political background and past tyranny in Athens, made Plato aware of the challenge that injustice, when its consequences can be avoided, could be also a way of living to satisfy individual’s wish for power and satisfaction of desire (ibid, p. xxiii). To overcome this Plato transferred the concept of a balancing justice to the soul, psyche. Doing calculated ‘just actions’ e.g stealing, cheating for the wrong reasons would not result in a ‘psychic harmony’ as self-sustaining attitude (ibid, p. xxv). Plato’s notion of division became here obvious.
Therefore, Plato looked at the simile between the city (Republic) and the soul as being constituted of balancing virtues.
Therefore, Plato created a new way of a constitution, Kallipolis, the ‘beautiful, excellent’ city with the best constitution eliminating restrictions of the other structures: timocracy (ruled by honor), oligarachy (ruled by few), democracy (ruled by equality), and tyranny (ruled by one). His thoughts are written down in the form of a dialogue in Politea (The Republic), a combination of political and psychological constitution.
What becomes obvious from Plato’s Politea is the discrimination between group of people, thus with the capacity of ‘psychic harmony’ and refraining from abusing power, and those ‘ordinary people’ who don’t, for whatever reasons. That made Plato to distance himself from the idea of democracy ruled by equality and to create the concept of ‘reluctant rulers’, but still a selected and elitarian group only. A notion quite contemporary as in today’s Western democracy the question whether the public should have the right of direct vote, plebiscite. The results are at times seen as ‘unjust’, as ‘unwise’, as populistic. Or as Plato would say ‘that the ordinary person’s reason is too ignorant and weak to establish harmonious order governing their indignation and their appetites.’ (ibid, p.xxvi) And the justice in political reason is back transferred for the good of individual’s ‘psychic justice’.
Plato considered the person and the body, the flesh as weak and compared with a strong asketique life build on justice shaped through education and selflessness of a ‘reluctant’ ruler.
A) Plato’s division and simulacrum
As said above, one key idea for Plato was selection, to divide the rivals with their claims, to sort out true claimants from false claimants. In his dualistic approach of division, Plato eventually came up with the conception of the pure idea, the model characterized by sameness as first order possession. True claimants, the copies of the model, are related to the ideas by its essence and laying a right claim to the quality. Plato’s approach was that of judgement in claiming to the quality and to participate in the pure idea. In Plato’s Sophist the false claimant became the embodiment of the simulacrum and irony, not based on representation but on pretension. (Smith, 2012, p.12)
This conception is build on a triadic representational structure of idea/foundation, copy/claimant, and the quality claims are laid on. The division is between true and false copies/claimants:
Deleuze challenged this notion of the triadic representation based on the essence of a model and the transcendental idea of pure quality. Something that can not be experienced, as no one ever have seen the pure quality as such. With reference to Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (397 BC) Deleuze explored the concepts of semblance and simulacrum, that is beyond a moral distinction between good and evil. Simulacrum is ‘indiscernible and internalizes the difference between them’ (Smith, 2012, p.13)
Copy and Simulacrum
- A copy, a true claimant conforms to the object insofar as it is modelled (internally) on the idea. It merits quality only insofar as it is founded on essence, e.g. justness as quality of justice.
- A false copy, false claimant, a simulacrum is a claim to an object from below without adhering to the idea. It is not based on resemblance, but on semblance and producing the effect of resemblance. It is a provocative trick. (Deleuze, 1983, p.48)
The main differences between Plato and Deleuze is the conception of representation versus difference. In Deleuze inverted Platonism the essence is not the quality of a transcendental idea or model, but difference as an immanent and internal model. Was Plato looking at identity of a selfsame model, then Deleuze looked at disparity of a model of difference. Deleuze rejected Plato’s conception of the idea as constitutive claims to objects as ‘we fall into an illusion of reason’ as Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) expressed it once (Smith, 2012, p.18)
B) Knowledge and the dichotomy of the Visible and the Intelligible
The other key idea of Plato was the concept of reluctant rulers. To have philosophers as rulers as a better fit for constitution as they would not be interested in material wealth but merely in knowledge, they would not abuse power. Knowledge is differentiated from opinions and beliefs that are changeable aspects. Knowledge deals with non-changeable objects, called forms (eidos). The highest form of knowledge is the ‘Form of the Good’ (nous) (Plato, 2007, p. xxxiv) And for Plato this Form of the Good is the highest form of knowledge. And he explained the difference in knowledge and comparing groups of people (Plato, 2007, p.229):
“Most ordinary people think that pleasure is the good, while the more sophisticated think it is knowledge.” – Plato
Key elements are justice and appearance: to judge between good and bad. And the way we prefer appearance relating to justice and value, but to fully satisfy our desire we want to reach for the real good. As described above Plato do not trust the ordinary people who ‘should be in the dark’ and who cannot discern the goodness of the good.
Thus the most critical part is how to define knowledge and the ‘Form of the Good’? As an abstract idea it is empirically not accessible. Plato cannot define the ‘Form of the Good’, the goodness directly, and uses instead the Simile of the Sun as allegory for explanation, as the ‘child of the good’.
The point Plato makes is that to see something with our senses we depend on another entity, light coming from the sun. In the dark we cannot see and discern anything, all will remain invisible. What makes sight different from sound as we can hear directly. Plato relates to the sun as a divine source that gives us sight in a visible world. From here he compares it with the ineffable ‘Form of the Good’. The sun makes things visible we can see, the ‘Form of the Good’ makes things intelligible we can know of. The eye is the analogy of the mind. A bit of stretch seems when Plato compares the power of sun as the obvious source for growth and nourishment with the power of ‘Good’ that causes reality and truth (ibid, p.232-235).
To understand knowledge one need to understand sight but the same time trying to ascend from the illusionary world of sight through reasoning and to reach a first principle that is independent of beliefs and assumptions. Plato uses here the concept of The Divided Line, that line that divides the world of sight from the world of knowledge. It consists of a scale of four: 1 Intelligence, 2. Reason, 3. Belief, 4. Illusion. What one can observe with the senses and reason about are constituting the psyche, the mind or soul in the broadest sense (see above)
Plato uses the example of geometry to illustrate his point: the shapes e.g. square drawn in geometry do not represent anything else but itself, those are mere images, the real objects are invisible for the eye but not for reason (ibid, p.239)
“The actual figures they draw cast their shadows and reflections in water” – Plato
The idea of square equals the area for ‘Forms’, the shape equals the area of ‘Physical things’, and the drawn figure on paper equals the area of ‘Shadows’, and the first principle reasoned from that is the area of ‘Intelligence’. Quite a mathematical and logical approach.
The other example provides is that of natural sciences, that has to do with ‘Physical things’ and where assumptions and conclusions are taken from (area of ‘Reason’). But as these are restricted still to material, the are moving toward the area of ‘Intelligence’.
The translation of Greek into English language as well as a common understanding of his terms in Western culture questions Plato’s conception of the Divided Line as one of hegemony and judgement itself, i.e. Knowledge equals Intelligence equals good, Opinion equals Visible equals bad. Alongside the notion of the ‘ordinary people’ as ‘unwise’ and perhaps stupid. In the notes of the translation by Desmond Lee (Plato, 2007) the author remarks that an interpretation of ‘shadow and reflection as less true or genuine than their original’ is a misapprehension (ibid, p.400) Also a negative touch of ‘Beliefs’ and ‘Illusions’ would better to understand as ‘commonsense assurance’ and ‘conjecture or state of mind’. Also that the ordinary people tend to be less critical in their ‘careless acceptance of appearances’. (ibid, p.401)
Therefore, to understand the Allegory of the Cave one need to understand Plato’s conception of the Simile of the Sun as an allegory of the Sun and the Good and the Divided Line explaining the dualism of the visible and the intelligible. But one need to careful in stretching allegories as illustrations too far.
C) Plato and Art: the model and the copy and illusions
In book X of Politea (The Republic) Plato looked at art and especially how truth and reality is represented (Plato, 2007, pp.335-353).
A carpenter who makes a bed or table as an appropriation of the ‘form’, the idea of the table, the creation of a particular table. The carpenter is a creator of objects, of artificial things. Plato goes further that one can easily create all kind of objects by using a mirror, the reflections on the surface of the mirror are objects, reflections, illusions. And that would be the same way a painter creates objects based on appearances. The carpenter’s table resembles the form of the table but it is rather a ‘shadowy thing compared to reality’ (ibid, p.338)
Plato’s logic goes along the following line of creation and truth:
- God makes one of a kind bed in nature (origin, authorship, the real)
- Second remove from reality: Carpenter making a particular bed as copy from the first in nature, with the ‘eye on the form’
- Third remove from reality: Painter represents what the other two made, but just the appearance of those, deceptive, not the reality., with the ‘eye on the physical thing’
Plato applied three levels, three techniques and in relation to the Divided Line ,
Use (Knowledge) => Manufacture (Belief) => Representation (Illusion) (Plato, 2007, p.343)
Plato’s conception of the mind is a dualistic conception, consisting out of calculated reasoning and of relying on appearances being deceived by them. Optical illusions that are a main elements in Op-Art, mind confusing and at times vertigo triggering images (Fig. 5) A dualistic notion that is enforced by the neuroscience perspective of left and right brain parts. Plato compares the visual ambiguity with dramatic poetry, both are appealing to the mind by ‘encouraging the unreasoning part of it’ (ibid, p.349), the lower elements of grief, sorrow, sentiment and emotions. For Plato all aspects of desires and feeling of pleasure e.g. pity, joy, anger are restricting the individual from reasoning and judgement. Plato challenges all arts in the respect that should not ‘only give pleasure but brings lasting benefit to human life and human society’ (ibid, p.351). He saw the bad in art in its subversive nature to transfer feelings from the author to the audience, feelings Plato considered as morally questionable.
Basically, Plato’s conception and constitution of the city (Republic) is one of denial of the human’s body vulnerability.
D) Plato today
“Behind every cave there is, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave”
– F. Nietzsche
Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995) inverted Platonism with his critique that Plato entered transcendental ideas (of the ‘Forms of the Good’) into philosophy. Deleuze built his concept on immanent ideas that can be experienced (Smith, 2012, p.18).
Is Plato still relevant today? Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004) described 1977 in her essay On Photography (Sontag, 2013) that ‘humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revelling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth’ (Sontag, 2013, p.529). Knowledge is more and more built on collected images as they ‘give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, and help to take possession of a space in which they are insecure’ (ibid, p.533). Sontag made a strong statement here, taking note of human conditions and the vulnerable and reluctant nature of humankind.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) statement of the existence of a deeper cave behind a cave (Deleuze, 1983, p.53) is further explored by Deleuze in his typical French wordplay of effond(r)ement, ‘ungrounding’ or ‘foundation’. Thus the ascent towards the light for reaching knowledge about reality and truth is an illusion. Because who can say that what the prisoner in the Allegory of the Cave sees when climping out of the cave is not just another illusion and shadow? Just another cave around the cave? Plato’s abstract idea of knowledge and truth is a transcendental idea that cannot be experienced. Deleuze is taken the other way round, to avoid being imprisioned in an endless loop of copy of copy of copy respectively cave inside cave inside cave. The difference as real experience is the essence of the simulacrum, in a positive sense.
In context of Plato we talk about the ‘lower’ levels of illusion and beliefs of the visible world, and most likely in a descent down to reflections and shadows. Is the realm of experience truly separated from the realm of thought?
Deleuze suggested that art theory should be a reflection of ‘real experience‘ (Deleuze, 1983, p.51) and the process of actualization of immanent ideas are the new real (Smith, 2012, p.26). I can see a clear link to Sontag’s conception that the camera as a device makes ‘real what one is experiencing’ (Sontag, 2013, p.534). Fully embedded in the simulacrum the evidence is not provided by being there but by making an indexical image of being there. Picture taking is an event in itself and replaces the real event, simulacrum.
“An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would [without]”
– Susan Sontag
Sontag states that ‘after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real’ and that makes ‘the horrible seem more ordinary – making it familiar, remote, inevitable’ (Sontag, 2013, p.542). Alongside Freud’s notion of repetition related to suppressed memories: ‘I repeat because I repress (amnesia)’ (Smith, 2012, p.21), I do sense here an important aspect of human condition, Repetition is a key aspect for Deleuze. He opposes repetition to representation, repetition because of the empirically inaccessibility of the ultimate idea itself. And through the essence of repetition, constant ‘disguise and displacement are actualized.
“What is repeated can never be represented in the present, but is always disguised in the roles and masks it produces”
– Gilles Deleuze
Sontag’s perception of knowledge is that ‘the realistic view of the world compatible with bureaucracy redefines knowledge as techniques and information’ (ibid, p. 543) Another strong notion that resonates with the conception of Transhumanism. And taking pictures are for her a mere ‘semblance of appropriation, a semblance of knowledge and wisdom’. For Plato these are the false claimants, the phantasmatic simulacra. For Deleuze this would be the expression of repetitive actualization of differences. Like Reality TV photographic images make ‘us feel that the world is more available than it really is’ (ibid, p. 545) and Sontag concludes that ‘having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph’.
One key aspect of Platonism today is the focus on reasoning and the mind as separate intelligible entity. Although Plato acknowledged the ‘weakness’ of ordinary people he constituted a divided line between the ordinary world of sight and the world of knowledge. There is no place for embodied experience and sense making through ‘real experience’. What one ‘sees’ need to deducted towards a first principle based on rational conclusions. A notion of division still relevant today.
- Plato’s conception is based on representation as repetition of copies (icons) of an transcendental idea of sameness. Deleuze called this the ‘naked model of repetition’.
- Deleuze proposed an inverted Platonism in order to overcome the dilemma of sorting out falsified claimants, viewpoints. Through an immanent model of difference the internal essence is differentiated by its actualization (simulacrum). (Smith, 2012, p.25-26)
- Experience and empirical knowledge seem to be separated from Plato’s conception of knowledge as an idea, as first principle. Deleuze opposed to Plato’s transcendental idea of intelligible knowledge the conception of immanent difference and experience. A dualistic conception that like binary poles seem rather to split than bring together.
- I find that Plato is restricting himself self-consciously towards dualism. Based on his real investigation of how to build an ideal constitution in Athens he started with a selection process and rule of division, to separate true and false, model and copy, This was initially a mental exercise in the realm of logic and thought. In order to explain those non-empirical ideas he created Allegories as a dichotomy between perceptions and conceptions. A dualism that was afterwards used in all fields. Used rather as an illustration the allegory itself became real. People tended to think in sight versus thought, in both ways, confusing representation and resemblance, confusing ideas from reality.
- Knowledge was and is still separated in epistemological and ontological reality and truth.
- Images, especially with the rise of photography and later with film, became an important part of human experience. Experience as a ‘non-intelligible’ approach. For Plato at the bottom of knowledge, in the realm of illusion and shadows, as mere representations and far removes from reality.
- Plato considered knowledge as the realm of the non-visible, the intelligible, pure logically. For Plato the attention to the lower levels of human condition e.g. emotions and ambiguity are restrictive to reason.
- Deleuze and Sontag highlighted that knowledge is related to experience in life. Thus it is also related to the visible world.
- I am still missing thoughts about embodied experience, partly mentioned by Sontag that experience is mediated through a camera. Would there be other aspects of embodied experience leading to knowledge? More to look at in another post.
- Plato’s strong dualism and division in higher areas of intelligence and lower areas of human conditions are restricting human intelligence to reason and information only. The aspect of knowledge as information was highlighted by Sontag with the expansion of image and picture taking. Information as mere function of human intelligence is also a notion expressed by Transhumanism. Altogether, this restriction rejected other aspects of human intelligence as emotional intelligence, mindfulness, empathy, vulnerability, and meaning versus knowledge.
- Plato’s strong division between a higher ranking intelligent mind and a lower ranking sensual body has some long lasting impact till today. He rejects the incoherent body as a source of suffering and unhappiness. A reason why he wanted to expel arts from the city.
- I am left with the open question about how to overcome the dichotomy and the possibility of a continuum, a gradation between visible things and pure logic. And sensing that the simulacrum as disguising and masking a deferred reality, as an abstract idea empirically not accessible, should be considered rather neutral, perhaps to find another term. And perhaps more relevant to the way we as human beings are engaged in a world through an embodied mind. And surely an area where art can play a major a role.
- Overall there is a wide area of uncertainty between reality – truth – knowledge – intelligence. How relevant these aspects are in human life and how accurately we can experience or grasp them is still an open question. Plato as well as Deleuze are rather providing illustrations by allegories of conceptions, of viewpoints on the world.
- Deleuze, G. (1983) ‘Plato and the Simulacrum’, In: October, 27 pp. 45-56.
- Plato (2007) The Republic, Penguin Classics, 2nd rev., reissued with new introduction ed. Translated by Lee, D. London; New York: Penguin Books.
- Smith, D. W. (2012) Essays on Deleuze. Edinburgh University Press Ltd [Scribd]. Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/232677529/Daniel-W-Smith-Essays-on-Deleuze-BookFi-org [accessed 09 July 2017].
- Sontag, S. (2013) Essays of the 1960s & 70s, The Library of America. Edited by Rieff, D. New York: Penguin Random House Inc.