Victor Nuovo: More enlightenment from Plato’s ‘Republic’
Seventh in a series.
This essay continues my Platonic digression on the theme of a moral universe. A moral universe is one in which Good is as basic to our existence as Heat and Energy. In a moral universe, Good is empowered to triumph over Evil, Truth over every Lie, Justice over every Injustice. Goodness, Truth and Justice are fixtures in a moral universe, just as much as Up and Down, Hot and Cold, Left and Right, Equal and Unequal. The Good itself, which is the very essence of Goodness is supreme; it rules over all; it is the beginning and end of everything that is.
Plato’s universe contains two worlds, one that is material and tangible, like the one in which we live and move and have our being; and the other intelligible, the realm of truth. In the former, the Good is the Sun, whose rising “gives birth to light, and is the source of light,” warmth and energy. In the latter, “The Good is what gives truth and understanding;” it enlightens the mind and illuminates the soul; it shines brightest when it discloses moral truth. The intelligible world is where the soul is renewed by being filled with truth, and there it also finds solace and refuge, and Plato supposed, where it goes to dwell after physical death.
Plato supposed the two worlds were related in the same way as a real object to its copy, the real thing to its shadow or image, reality to its mere appearance. It is common among most of us to suppose that Ideas are copies of visible and tangible objects. Plato thought otherwise. He was sure that ordinary people have it the wrong way around. Objects in the visible and tangible world are copies of Ideas; the visible, tangible world is a copy of the intelligible. This is spelled out in the “Timaeus,” which is Plato’s account of the creation of the physical world.
Elsewhere, in Book VII of “The Republic,” the parable of the cave is Plato’s grand illustration of his two-world theory. Imagine our everyday world to be a vast cave, which is not unlike a movie theater (Plato was ahead of his time); the inmost wall of the cave is flat like a great screen, and we human beings are like viewers fixed in our seats gazing at the screen, supposing it to be existence and life; we imagine that it presents, not represents, reality. Behind us are puppet-like figures that move back and forth on a stage running parallel to the screen, and behind them a great fire, so that the images and shadows of the figures are cast upon the wall of the cave. And because the whole of our existence is spent as viewers, we are accustomed to suppose that these are not just shadows and images but real things, not appearances but reality.
Now imagine what happens if we prisoners of the theater are released from our bondage as viewers, and beckoned to stand up and turn around? First we see the moving objects and the fire that illuminates them, and slowly but surely we recognize that what took for reality is really only a play of shadows and images on a wall.
Yet the light of the fire dazzles our eyes: It is difficult, even painful, to discover the truth. We’ve grown accustomed to shadows, and are resistant to change.
Then, having turned around, we discover that beyond the fire there is an even greater light shining in through the mouth of the cave. It is dazzling, but it beckons, and draws us onward and upward. There is a path that leads from where we were seated, like the aisle of a theater, and it ascends to that greater light beyond. That greater light radiates from the Sun, which is the visible image or representation of the Good itself.
Figuratively, this parable presents the essence of Platonism. Platonism is not a religion; it is a philosophical theory of reality; it requires not faith but a love of truth; it beckons without ceasing all lovers of learning whose chief desire is truth and justice. Plato was the first to teach that to discover truth a conversion is necessary, a turning round, not of the body, but of the mind. It is from Plato, that our intellectual tradition has received the notion of the ascent of the soul, and following its conversion, a steady ascent towards truth and reality.
Plato was not unique in this respect. One can find similar thoughts in the Upanishads, especially its account of the teachings of sage Yajnavalkya his reflections on the self, or Atman; or the denial of the self in the discourses of the Buddha, which lead to what may be an even higher enlightenment than Plato ever imagined. But neither the sages of the Upanishads nor the Buddha had political concerns, nor a passion for justice. My quest has been for a moral universe, and I have found it described in the writings of Plato. The world would be a better place if they were studied and taken to heart. Our nation is in great need of this sort of enlightenment.
Postscript: In retrospect “The Republic” is one of the most radical works ever written. Plato was the first in the European tradition to acknowledge gender equality, free love, public care of children, and universal education — He was not strong on family values and had a low regard for popular religion. And he has bequeathed to posterity a discipline for the education of the soul and the pursuit of all that is Right and Good. Onward and upward!
The handiest English translation of “The Republic” is published by Oxford World Classics. It is affordable and readable. Visit your local bookshop; and while there, if you haven’t already read it, buy a copy of Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here.”
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