“To this roofed cave we have come.”
—Empedocles [b 120]
“Happy is he who has gained the wealth of divine thoughts, wretched is he whose belief about the gods is dark.”
—Empedocles [b 132]
Introduction to an Exegetical Fragment
What is commonly called “Plato’s allegory of the cave,” I intend to come to understand, or rather, come to an understanding not only “about” it, but, more importantly “through” it: I intend to come to understand something of what the “allegory of the cave” means for me, a living human being—that is, what it means philosophically and what it means as philosophy. “Philosophically” means: what does the allegory teach? “As philosophy” means: what does it mean to philosophize this way? And hence a subsequent question: what does it mean for philosophy that philosophy, at one of its major early moments, is, or was, practiced in this way?
Image and Allegory
In the first place I must ask: what is this story? Is it indeed an “allegory”? And what do I mean by that term? Plato, of course, calls it an “image,” which appears to be something like a thought experiment, a necessary means toward the grasping of something that cannot be grasped except precisely through this image. Plato says the same thing about the “image” of the “dividing line” at the end of Book VI, with which the present “image” of the cave is explicitly correlated.
By “allegory” is commonly meant a story that expresses something else, a properly conceptual truth, by other—lesser—means, which, once grasped, exhaust the meaning of the story, which was, all along, merely a shell. This common understanding of allegory refers indeed back to the Greek term—allēgoria, speaking otherwise, from állos (“other”) and agoria (“speaking”). From this perspective the parables of Jesus of Nazareth are allegories. But the stories Jesus told about the kingdom, the last judgment, about himself, about Rome, about the Temple, about the future…, these stories are not merely allegories in the common sense. Once the message of Jesus is understood, once the disciple comes to an understanding of what Jesus is telling him in a veiled way, the disciple cannot disregard the narrative itself, as if it were a useless husk. Jesus’s parables refer to aspects of a higher truth by reference to the things of ordinary experience: by higher truth I do not mean a mere spiritual lesson in garb that helps uneducated people grasp it (in this case the parable would be a mere allegory), but, rather as truths, words about realities that are impinging on this world itself in and through the person of Jesus: the “kingdom of God” is here, now, pressing into the world of human experience (ruled by political, economic, and social powers set explicitly against Jesus and his mission) and the parable itself provides the hermeneutic for understanding how the kingdom is here, what it means, and how to enter it. Further, the parable itself is an event of the inbreaking of that very kingdom precisely in the very peculiar, “hidden” manner in which it is “breaking in.” It is worth hoping that the “allegory of the cave,” if not on par with the parables of Jesus, is at least more than a mere allegory. Perhaps it is a matter of truth, as far as Plato is an authority on the truth, on philosophical truth (on the question of what matters most to my humanity), and it therefore is a matter of an event of some truth or other, and through it, the truth itself. The enterprise of philosophy, at least for Plato, in fact depends on this possibility.
In his opening lecture of Vom Wesen der Wahrheit, the first half of which is a patient philosophical exegesis of this didactic story of the cave, Heidegger uses two terms to name this story under our examination, “allegory” and “sense-image” (Sinn-Bild), and he uses them interchangeably to express what Plato means (according to him; at least this is implied for it is not explicitly stated) by calling this story an image. According to Heidegger what is crucial about this story in Book VII of Plato’s Politeia is the specific function it enacts, namely, “to provide a hint or clue.” This means, on the one hand, that the “image” is not meant simply to stand for itself, as if there is nothing to be understood through it. Like the parables of Jesus (at least in this way) the Sinn-Bild of Plato performs the work of “indication”: it tells us “that something is to be understood,” specifically by “providing a clue as to what this is.” This activity of “hinting,” of offering a “clue,” Heidegger explicates further: “The image provides a hint—it leads into the intelligible, into the region of intelligibility . . . into a sense. . . ” The passage towards meaning, towards understanding that which is indicated, that to which one is directed by it requires—Heidegger is adamant—the story itself: one passes to understanding not from the story, but in and through it. The Sinn requires the Sinn-Bild, without which it is merely a story, something to entertain, a tool for passing the time.
Yet the Sinn-Bild is not merely a story but is philosophical; it is not told for its own sake, like entertainment. It is a meaning-bearing image because it is and as it is a sense-bearing image, an image as such. And as an image it concerns the intelligible, which it symbolizes, and is told for the sake of that something else that it “indicates” or suggests or invokes, namely, understanding. And as a meaning- bearing image, the work of understanding it means interpreting it philosophically. And already here, Heidegger provides the critical clarity by which any proper understanding of this story stands or falls: “what is to be understood is not a sense, but rather an occurrence.” As philosophical, this story is an event; I must think what it gives to be thought on its own terms. What are these terms?
If it is the case, says Heidegger, that the Sinn-Bild is simply the “provision of a clue through something which is presented sensuously,” then this simplicity is deceptive. I could be tempted to think that the “allegory of the cave” is in fact a mere allegory, and something which, therefore, I do not have to take seriously in itself, on the terms that it proposes to be understood. This understanding of the story would imply that the domain of intelligibility is itself reducible to the abstractions of my mind, that the concepts I can forge through my own power are precisely adequate to that which is. Heidegger’s entire exegesis of this story is intended to deconstruct precisely this conception of reason, of truth, and hence of human being and of being itself. And Heidegger understands Plato to be ambivalent on this very point. For him Plato is the critical point of an original obfuscation, the veiling-over of the original experience of the truth as “unhiddenness” and its transformation into mere “correctness.” And Plato’s ambivalence about the “image” that he himself presents, and, more broadly, about myths and poetry more generally that he employs in his philosophy and which he appropriates but always critically, respectively illustrate precisely this fact in the history of philosophy, which is, for Heidegger, the story of an unfolding inadequacy to an original “philosophical” experience: the truth as a-lētheia.
Heidegger says therefore at the beginning of his study: “Such a clue leads us to what simple description, be it ever so accurate and rigorous, can never grasp. There is thus an inner necessity to the fact that when Plato wants to say something fundamental and essential to his philosophy, he always speaks in an allegory and places us before a sensory image.” Why does Plato do this? The answer is that he has to. His philosophical fidelity to the transcendent and unqualified truth requires him to make recourse to image and to story. Heidegger does not say this but I want to acknowledge here that precisely this is something like a sacred paradox and something that lives at the heart of Plato’s philosophy.
The necessity, says Heidegger, is not a matter of incertitude on Plato’s part. On the contrary, it is precisely a matter of a certitude, though of a specific kind: “On the contrary,” he says, “[Plato] is quite sure that [what he is speaking of in the story] cannot be described or proved.” And here I reach, unless I am mistaken—what I can call, following Jean-Luc Marion, a “negative certitude—something basic to “all genuine philosophy” (“genuine philosophy,” which is, I think, the central concern of Heidegger himself). Heidegger draws the unavoidable conclusion:
In all genuine philosophy there is something in the face of which all description and proof, however brilliantly scientific, fails and sinks down into empty business. This fact alone, that Plato speaks of aletheia in an allegory, gives us the crucial clue as to where we must search, and where we must stand, if we want to come closer to the essence of the truth.
Philosophy must understand what it itself is in order to philosophize, but it cannot understand what it itself is through the medium of its primary language, conceptuality. In the case of the question of the “essence of the truth,” which Heidegger finds to be the central matter indicated by the allegory of the cave, this self-understanding takes on a fundamental form of being serious about the radical limitations of one’s knowing, limitations that, when embraced, are the means by which I would most deeply enter the truth itself. The allegory teaches this very truth about the essence of philosophy, namely, that the “indescribable and unprovable something” that philosophy seeks in no other way but through the allegory itself, is “what the whole effort of philosophy is about.”
Image of Philosophy
I have already found myself transcending (but not yet explicitly) Heidegger’s main interpretation of the allegory—as a story giving access to the essence of the truth as alētheia. Rather I find that, before that (and whether that conception of the truth—for and against Plato—is what the Sinn-Bild hints at or not is not my concern, for it now appears secondary) the story is first about the meaning of the philosophical itself. A question immediately arises. Is the “allegory of the cave” a—for lack of a better term—parable about the meaning of philosophy, and, more specifically, about the relevance, even centrality, of allegory, image, story, and even myth to philosophy itself, a truth that can only be reached and articulated pre-conceptually?
This is the hint I would like to make, and I can only see how far I get through the interpretation of the “image” itself. What is called for, Heidegger will say later in his commentary, in any approach that aspires to be truly “touched by what is essential” and hence worthy of philosophy, is first “to give ourselves wholly over to the text,” in order to be properly “moved by the power of Plato’s presentation” itself, for the manner of presenting is, as far as philosophy is concerned, “not at all incidental, not at all an aesthetic addition,” but the presentation of a philosophical truth, and through it, the saying of the “unsayable” truth of the matter itself.
Entering the Cave
Every philosopher is familiar with the “allegory of the cave.” In order to enter into it in the way that Heidegger indicated I need to make it as unfamiliar as I can.
Before attempting an exegetical interpretation of the story, let me make my entrance by reflecting on Glaucon’s reaction to Socrates’s recounting of the allegory. His first reaction is “how strange!”: átopon . . . légeis eikóna—“a strange image you are describing.” The telling of this story is átopon; not only is its lógos, or intelligibility, peculiar or odd, but it, literally, has á-topos, “no place.” The story does not fit in the ordinary state of things; it does not seem to tell me anything about the truth of things that I experience; it does not seem to speak to my human situation at all. Heidegger will rightly observe that Glaucon’s first observation as the story gets underway is meant to express the reaction out of the midst of the “everyday” normal understanding of humanity, that the allegory is itself “something extraordinary . . . peculiar and removed from anything everyday and normal.” And yet, Socrates’s response is crushing: “They [the prisoners of the cave] are like us.” Socrates asserts nothing less than that the image is a real description of my “normal” human state, that it is a presentation of the truth about me and my situation in the world. It is not strange or foreign at all, except insofar as my everyday situation is precisely strange and foreign. “Socrates assures us,” concludes Heidegger, “that the allegory depicts precisely the everyday situation of man, who, insofar as he does not possess any standard other than this everydayness, cannot see its strangeness.” Glaucon says the story does not seem to be about anything relevant; Socrates says it speaks the very truth about us.
Here I have, with Glaucon’s first interpretation as the story unfolds, a crucial paradox about the nature of the “image” in general. For Glaucon sees the “strangeness” of the story vis-à-vis the everyday, from out of an unreflective self-conception of humanity, wholly secure in his experience. But precisely because he looks from out of his ordinary everydayness, Glaucon does not see the strangeness of what the story is saying, namely, that the ordinary world of human experience, normally presupposed and passed over without reflection, is itself the strange world spoken of by the story. The paradox is deepened when I see that the narrative itself—far removed from ordinary description of the world that is seen, felt, remembered, anticipated, etc.—is the clearest, truest description of the world as it really is in itself. The world is strange; the “image,” in its strangeness, gives me what can be given in no other way.
What is an “image” for Plato? The answer is everything of human experience: the world of experience in its totality and in all of its features that contribute to its wholeness is an image. There are “correspondences” between this world here and that world there, the world of the forms, between earth and heaven, the world of bodies, which changes and moves, and the world of ideas, which is eternal. The soul belongs to that world and the body belongs to this world, for the soul is divine, has kinship with the gods, and the body is at best, and at root, an image of the soul. A beautiful myth, recounting the origin and end. Philosophy is the practice of death, that is, separation of the soul from the body, the ascetical intellectual work of passing from the real to the more real, from image to reality, from existence to its source.
Philosophy is the practice of what is essential to humanity, in order to habituate oneself to it, to be more fully conformed to what is true about me. The metaphysical fact of “correspondence” means that the one who knows the truth about the gods, about the other world, that it is dominated by goodness, the source of justice, truth—in other words that that world ought not to be conceived in the image of this world, as the traditional poets Homer and Hesiod have proposed, but rather that this world is the image or shadow of that world of realities: what is best in this world, relative perfection, beauty, autonomy, mathematical precision, approximates best to that world above—the person perceiving this, committed to it, can properly understand and live rightly, most divinely, here below, living here as if already, ahead of death, a citizen of that world, and hence appearing strange.
The basic metaphysical fact of correspondence that is a manner of exposing the intelligible structure of the “philosophical” myth of origin and end (which for Plato, recall, is simply the truth behind the core myths of Greece, cleansed of all the merely human accretions collected over time) means, strangely, that I have to tell myths in order to understand that which is, namely, the higher world and my relation to it from within the domain of shadows that owns nothing of itself and that is nothing in itself. Philosophy is simply an explication of the myth. My highest reasoning works from and remains ever within the broader grasp of the mythic pre-understanding. The meaning-bearing image awakens my understanding of the mythic ground of philosophical reason. This I consider to be the “indication” of the philosophical teaching of the cave-image, which itself cannot be grasped in propositional understanding and cannot be approached out of a desire to reduce it to such. The story is a “showing” of the truth of myth and an enactment of the passage from philosophy back into the new, or rather, renewed, mythography with which Plato wants to replace the old mythography of the poets.
The center of the story, and my interpretation, is the “sun of the Good.” Plato only gives a “negative” definition of the Good itself, the source and goal of philosophy—the only “object” worthy of philosophical reflection, that which all philosophy is always about. The “Good” is unseeable, like the sun itself for physical eyes, and yet the goal of philosophy is precisely to look at the Good itself and to see it “clearly.” But one cannot see directly that by which one sees: the sun is sight itself, and the Good is intellectual vision itself. One does not see the eye by which one sees. The fundamental impossibility of realizing the goal of philosophy is precisely the point where philosophy turns over into myth. This point is philosophy’s perpetual center.
Image of Philosophy’s Myth
The story of the cave is not a myth per se—nowhere does Plato say this. It is an image, a story about the practice of philosophy, about the necessity of eschatological myth at the center of philosophy, which the philosopher enacts through the practice of philosophy ahead of death. Plato’s is in other words akin to what is called an “inaugurated eschatology” in Christian theology: it is an enactment of that which is to come, ahead of the end that is coming, viz., death and the meting out of justice. It is the philosopher, whose knowledge and practice loosens the cords of desire that attach the soul to the body and its world, who may escape the cycle of reincarnation ruled by death.
Though not a myth in itself, the story of the cave is, as Blumenberg says, “grounded in the mythic tradition and authorized by that tradition.” Blumenberg goes so far as to name the story a “myth,” a denotation that is true enough in his own philosophical lexicon: myth is the first and primordial response to the brute fact of reality, an original arranging of the basic furniture of experience into a livable, meaningful world. In the case of the cave story of Plato this “arranging” is a matter of authoritatively summarizing and transcending the traditional authorities of culture in a time of intellectual crisis brought on by the new mysticism of the philosophers (to speak like Eric Voegelin), a turning point from which there was no return, once introduced. Myth therefore “explicates a particular feeling about the world” that can be communicated in no other way. For Blumenberg, faithful to the modern self-conception that he is committed to legitimating, the “myth of the cave” is situated in the “twilight zone” between mûthos and lógos. As he puts it: “The formal ground plan of the cave myth, upon which an escape route of human self-fulfillment, indeed self-transcendence, has been overlaid, is thus rooted in the primeval mythic vision while at the same time having the function of an absolute metaphor.” Myth is not a “preliminary form” of lógos, but in actuality, for Blumenberg, the necessary background for every lógos as it springs from metaphors rooted in ordinary experience and hardens into concepts, becoming “metaphysics” when these concepts are conceived as naming the real in itself. Myth is “absolute metaphor” in Blumenberg’s terminology because it is the first springing forth of human intellectual prowess in its attempt to manage the absolute character of existence. Myth, as a primary “symbolic form,” lives in every culture and is that primary order which makes truth “true”—that is, functionally believable—in that world.
Much can be gained from listening to Blumenberg regarding the permanence and perenniality of myth, the irreducibility of myth to reason, even the grounding of the story in the primordial mythic vision of Greece (wherein the world was imagined, as in the Ancient Near East, as a giant cave, with the dome of the sky set on pillars planted into the earth), and therefore philosophy’s new, critical reception of this tradition. Like Heidegger, Blumenberg understands the cave story as the communication of a “primordial event.” It is the setting for the defining passage for humanity from subterranean darkness to elemental light, of—expressed in “religious” terms—salvation, the realization of the meaning of humanity. Like Heidegger, Blumenberg recognizes the primordiality and irreducibility of myth; for him likewise the cave-image cannot be called an allegory in the modern sense of the word, for the truth that it communicates cannot be grasped if the image is discarded. And further, the mythic “background” makes possible the “foregrounding” activity, when it appears for humanity, of theoretical intelligence and its culture.
A few observations are finally necessary about the primordial mythic vision, determinative of Greek culture, into which Plato enters and wants to think anew in the story. Plotinus, and Porphyry following him (De antro nympharum 8), refers to the caves of Plato and of Empedocles in the same breath. Plotinus: “In the Cavern of Plato and the Cave of Empedocles, I discern the universe, where the breaking of the fetters and the ascent from the depths are figures of the wayfaring toward the Intellectual realm.” Plotinus sees all previous philosophy as greater or lesser expressions of the mystical experience of the soul, escape from the body, and concert with the divinity, which is the sole task of philosophical practice. Heraclitus, Empedocles, and especially Plato have expressed this very task that is humanly experienced “many times” (IV,8,1): “lifted out of the body into myself . . . beholding a marvelous beauty . . . enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine. “ But this is not all they have expressed, for there is the return: “yet there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning.” Ascent and descent are the two moments of the philosophical experience. And philosophical experience enacts in nuce the metaphysical experience of the soul in its arising and falling back into matter that determines the repeating lifecycle of the soul in its many “lives.” Philosophical practice repeats over and over again therefore the very over and over again of the soul’s rising and falling within the cosmic cycles, of which it is a part. Enacting this, philosophy becomes the path of escape from this cycle of reincarnation toward permanent return to the divinity that is the soul’s own truest nature in a union that transcends the intra-cosmic order of difference. Philosophy practices death, and sees the paradox that the “cave of the world” in which one lives and to which one is bound is the real death, and that physical death is the path of liberation, if the soul can free itself, through philosophical ascēsis, from the strong ties that bind it to the material domain. “Everywhere,” he continues, Plato teaches therefore that the “commerce of the soul with the body” is an “enchainment, an entombment.” In other words Plato “upholds the teachings of the Mysteries that the soul is here a prisoner” (IV,8,1). The mystery religions and Plato teach the same universal truth. Likewise the Cave of Empedocles and Plato name the same universe as a death tomb in which we can awake, by, as it were, dying to this world of material attraction and living in the midst of this tomb with eyes already awoken to the invisible world of the one divine life. The mystery religions indeed teach this truth, but it is philosophy that can accomplish this escape from death they themselves promise.
Regardless of the validity of Porphyry’s Neoplatonic “allegorical” interpretation of Empedocles’s cave, drawing it together with Plato’s cave story has determined our understanding of it until today. For Empedocles himself, it seems, the cave is the site of a passage through a new womb into which one can descend and be reborn, after passing through it into the underworld. The philosopher-magus descends into the cave, the womb of the earth, and comes back enlightened. Evidently, Empedocles performed this, quite literally, by physically entering a cave and “incubating,” experiencing the sleep of death and passage into the other world at the depths of the earth and then experiencing the rebirth of a return, entering the light of day with new magic powers. The innovation of Plato is to make the cave myth that he inherited as an heir to the Pythagorean-Empedoclean tradition(s) itself a metaphor for our present circumstances, as the cosmological myth of the Phaedo demonstrates with its elaborate geography of the underworld of rivers dominated by a central fire. The “cave” of Hades into which our souls descend at death is a symbol of this world in which we presently live.
The concern of the Phaedo myth is “eschatological,” as I noted above: it is about the fate of the soul, the salvation of which can be accomplished through philosophy. Here as everywhere Plato recasts the mythic landscape. The philosopher tells new myths, or better, he renews the mythic inheritance through philosophical insight, insight into the truth of the myth, which is insight about what it means to live—what better word is there—truly “religiously.” To understand the cave story I must allow myself to put behind me the fruitless and banal and wholly obfuscatory “debate” about mûthos versus lógos in Plato. The fact is that mûthos and lógos are equally “philosophical” precisely for the one who is truly a philosopher in Plato’s sense. They are different modes of access to the truth, and mûthos precedes and remains transcendent to the reach of dialectical clarity (although at the far end of dialectical clarity, Plato thinks, one can penetrate properly into the mythic truth, truly experiencing those realities of which the myths speak). Philosophical “perception” allows the vision of myth more scope. As I ready myself to study the cave of Plato, I give the last word to Kingsley, since he summarizes what seems to me to be the sanest point of view in a few words: “Certainly [Plato] was interested at a theoretical level in distinguishing between mythos and logos; between ‘myth’ as the conveyer of ideas that are beyond logical demonstration, and the positive certainty arrived at by reasoned argument. Even here, however, the matter is complicated by Plato’s refusal to draw a clear line between mythos and logos, and by his repeated insistence that what to a superficial person is just a ‘myth’ may have all the decisive attributes of a logos for someone whose perception runs deeper.” If the task of philosophy requires fidelity to the human experience, including the peculiar vaguenesses that are essential to it, then the traditional consensus about Plato is indeed quite correct. He is a remarkable philosopher.
An Exegetical Fragment for The Cave, Politeia VII
I will proceed in exegetical style with the text, commenting on the story in English translation, not with the end of giving a complete (“exhaustive”) or even adequate commentary on the text, but rather with my question in mind: What does the story indicate? What is it that the story, precisely in its explicit form, says that cannot be said in any other way? Commentary is therefore an exploration of the indication of the image—it is philosophical because it understands precisely where it stands in relation to the text, in a secondary place. We are attempting to understand the given on its own terms. Commentary is also, however, thought thinking the best it can through the text, toward that which the story, as an intellectual correspondence, displays—the best Plato could himself perform under the conditions given to him. And these are conditions that I fundamentally share with him as a worldly being.
First, let me frame the image in its immediate context. Book VII begins with the reason for the presentation of the image: “Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine. . .” It follows directly from what Socrates said above it and is contained within the same speech. It is the presentation of an “experience” entered into by the imagination, made for the sake of a comparison. The story “corresponds” in other words with the “effect of education and the lack of it” on the soul. Education, affiliation with a teacher, a school, a manner of life, a tradition, is my initiation into the truth. What is this truth?
Following the presentation of the image there is an explanation, much like Christ’s explanation for his disciples of the paradigmatic parable of the thrower of the seed. “This whole image,” Socrates explains to Glaucon, “must be fitted together with what we said before.” And this explanation is concluded again with a reference to “the image described before” the present one. The image of the cave is therefore a corollary explanation of the previous image, and it accomplishes its task only “if indeed things fit the image I described before.” In answer to the question just posed, then, the truth of the cave-image is also that which is presented in the previous image, that of the dividing line. Before returning there, let me provide Socrates’s explanation of the story, which is the enactment of “fitting it together” with the previous image and its explanation. For by this enactment, Socrates says, is the proposed “fitting together” of that image with the way things are itself enacted! Hence the supplementary character of the second image is disclosed to be in actuality a deepening of the first image, a passage into and through that which it initially gives. The layering of image on top of image enacts therefore the most essential activity of philosophy: one passes from image to explanation, and the explanation only refers to the image, which already contains that which the explanation simply repeats in a more abstract mode, aiding the understanding of that which the image gives. The image makes perceptible that which rational explanation only further explores: although the image is the lowest form of truth, corresponding to the bottommost state of the soul and the emptiest form of reality, it is only through it that the higher modes of truth can be reached; it corresponds to the truth in its entirety as a repetition of it. The first image attempts to present the basic conditions of the soul and their correspondence with the fourfold ordered truth of reality. The second presents the activity of educating the soul—philosophical paideia—within this reality made perceivable by the first image, the “turning a soul from a day that is a kind of night to the true day—the ascent to what is, which we say is true philosophy,” as Socrates will say later (521c). What is the first image?
Before answering that question I still have to give Socrates’s explanation of the second image. “The visible realm,” he says “should be likened to the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above [of the liberated cave dweller] as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm, you will grasp what I hope to convey.” The entire story of the cave is an image of reality itself, like that of the first image, only a deeper entering into it (as I discovered above). Here I can add that education makes that first image meaningful and is the means to the discovery of it itself and of its significance, namely, the experience of how it corresponds to reality. It ascends through reality like a ladder, which is simultaneously a descending into the depths of the soul.
The cave image has two basic features, corresponding to the visible and invisible realms, namely the cave and the world outside, illumined by the sun. The visible world is a shadow of the invisible world—the fire within the self, the soul, corresponds to the sun of the world’s day, as the sun in the visible world corresponds back to the Good that rules the invisible world. The cave to the outside is like the body to the soul. “Whether it is true or not,” Socrates continues, “only the god knows. But this is how I see it.” With this remark Socrates acknowledges the impossibility of certainty regarding that which matters the most, and the corresponding necessity of presenting an image about it that is not less than the reality. This gives what I can call, echoing Blumenberg, the mythical character of the image. In fact, this is the way Plato talks about the myths he often presents.
Regarding the most basic and most important things, Socrates must present stories that convey the truth that humans, unlike the god(s), are powerless to see in the truth that truth enjoys as it enjoys it in itself. These stories taste and feel the truth from within, communicating in an irreplaceable way that to which the world of my experience corresponds, a truth that is invisible to me in itself by virtue of its blinding light. How does Socrates see it? He explains: “In the knowable realm, the form of the Good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.” If the goal of philosophy is the vision of the good, then its outcome is sensible action in the totality of one’s life. The basic fact of a calibrated correspondence between the two worlds, with the higher world “grounding” the totality, means, paradoxically, that the highest truth of the higher and lower worlds is communicated with through the image, and more broadly the mythic: the lower is the richest path into the higher. This hidden highest truth is the “cause of all that is correct and beautiful,” “produces light and its source” in the visible world, including the sun and even sight itself. It “controls and provides truth” and my relation to it, giving “understanding.” My vision of it makes possible right action, a relation much like orienting myself in the world by the sun. Paideia, education, begins with this understanding, which can be all but directly stated.
The Cave of Christ: can it be interpreted philosophically as a cave of emergence, of illumination? There are, traditionally, two caves in Christ’s life, the cave of his birth, and the cave of his death, the tomb. The cave Christ emerged from on Easter morning represents the mouth of hell, into which, on Holy Saturday, he descended in his death. Yet Christ’s cave is not only the mouth of hell but the womb of the world, of the created order, the cosmos, which includes the earthly and subearthly regions. It is the cave, the cosmic vault ruled by elemental powers, the stoicheia, out of which humanity is born into a heavenly vavasourship. The transformation of death happens within the cave, in the sleep of death. One could almost say that the first cave of Christ, which is the womb of his birth in the Virgin, symbolized by the maternal cave of the nativity, is itself a symbol of that to which it is first and primarily ordered, the cosmic cave of his death and resurrection, which is a birth into a transfigured, liberated existence, the New Creation. The teaching of the Cave of Christ, serving as the mythic backdrop of the vera philosophia of the Christians, is that the whole cosmos is a womb of germination; at death (prefigured, shared in, through baptism) one is born into the real world, the new world beyond every possibility of conceiving from within the womb, but which is nevertheless the real world toward which we are ordered (and the kingdom by which we are ordered), into which we—and the entire cosmos that we know—are finally thrust in the end, with violence through the pangs of birth. Who knows what lies on the other side of this thick but nourishing physical membrane of our present existence? Only the dead really know, those who have been reborn, who have passed through into that world. From within the womb of our present life we only have some sketches, disparate indications, muffled sounds, rumors, dull lights, always grossly condensed and simplified when pressed through the thick order of our leaden world, a world that for now only vaguely reverberates the real world within itself like a fading echo.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt courtesy of Angelico Press from Philosophy in Word and Name: Myth, Wisdom, Apocalypse, all rights reserved.