Plato’s Cave: Real

Plato’s Cave, Inside Out, Part 2:
Real Caves with Real People in Them

In my previous post, I retold Plato’s parable of the cave by suggesting that the shadows on the wall were the Ideas and that the objects which cast those shadows were the Real—in other words, there is no heaven of ideas or ideal forms superior to the corrupted embodiments of them in the material world, but rather that these forms were literally ideas, shadows of the real in the minds of philosophers and thinkers such as political ideologues, and frankly of most of us as well. To some degree, we are all Platonists.

In this article I want to consider the notion(s) of the cave from a different angle, not that of parable, but of actual human practice. Plato’s cave is a deliberate fiction created to make a point, but it may be based on practices that have been common to human cultures since the beginning of our species. Most of the best preserved fossils of very-ancient humans have been found in caves, along with the bones of various kinds of animals, including animals that also lived in or made use of caves, as well as with materials that in some instances are clearly artifacts of a kind (such as the small slabs of ocher etched with lines and cross hatchings found in some South African caves). There is abundant evidence that deep caves were thought to be entrances to the underworld and the haunts of beings such as gods of death and monsters and serpents, etc. It would not be surprising to learn that Plato was familiar with caves as cultic centers or as sites associated with certain gods or sibyls.

There is a native tribe called the Kogi living in the mountains of Columbia whose culture has remained largely intact since pre-colonial times. One of the most interesting practices of the Kogi is the way they train selected young boys to become priests: the boy is sequestered at a very early age, before he has acquired much knowledge of the world, in a dark cave where there is just enough light to prevent him from becoming blind; over the course of nine years, he is trained by priests in the knowledge and ways of his people and the world, emerging into the world at the end of his training as a priest in his own right.

This custom parallels Plato’s parable, yet in an inside-out way, by implying that right knowledge is acquired through the ideas of things rather than by the experience of things. The boy emerges with superior priestly knowledge which allows him to guide his people in the right ways. This could be seen as Idealism practiced in its most ideal form. And while it might appear to us as a bizarre practice, in fact something similar has always been practiced in literate cultures: our education system, after all, isolates the young from the outside world and inculcates them with a form of “ideal” knowledge from books (and now of course from electronic sources, which are in some ways even less real, less embodied, than printed books); those who succeed in the process are the elite of our culture. In former times, when education was limited to the male children of the upper classes and focused on philosophy, theology, and the classics, this was even more true. Monks and hermits were even more isolated from the world than scholars, and yet both scholars and hermits were considered to be wiser and more insightful than ordinary people caught up in the hurly-burly and distractions of the material world.

This notion that true knowledge and wisdom exist in separation from the world rather than involvement in the world is a particularly striking characteristic of the human mind; one might argue that it is what makes the mind human and therefore what most distinguishes us from other animals. But how did this state of mind come about? I doubt that it is hardwired, though of course it is grounded in the structure of the brain; but the brain is structured (at least in part) to think, and the origin of this notion has to be in thinking.

Let us consider the cave paintings of prehistoric France, those splendid depictions of stone age animals in the caves of Lascaux, Chauvet, Grotte de Fond de Gaume, some dating as far back as 33,000 years B.C. Since their discovery in the twentieth century, assorted theories as to their significance have been offered by anthropologists, Structuralists, psychologists, art historians, film makers (Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing film of Chauvet, for example), and others. All of these interpretations have their plausibilities, but in the absence of any written explanations by the original artists themselves, we cannot be sure which, if any, of these interpretations approximate what the artists themselves thought they were doing. Perhaps the paintings had magical or religious meanings; maybe they were just pictures. Or maybe they were something in between, something transitional.

Modern interpretations of the paintings presuppose that they were the end products of thought, that it was thought that created the art. For example, that success in the hunt was desired, so they created paintings of the sought-after prey in order to ensure that success. But what if the art created the thought? What if the paintings were a relatively late stage in a process that began with the patterns of lines and cross hatchings found on very-ancient ocher slabs, and those etchings were at first random exercises or experiments in using the hands and simple tools to put marks on things. Surely the first human to do such a thing, perhaps just scratching some lines in the dust while lying in wait for prey to pass by, must have been taken aback by what he had done. We must not think in our terms about the origins of art, but in terms of the very first humans who started the whole thing, without any precedent of any kind. Would not that have been astonishing? Perhaps puzzling and even a bit scary at first? Would it not have been somewhat like (but not entirely so) a very small child of today swiping a crayon across a blank sheet of paper for the very first time in her life? None of us can remember that moment in our lives, and perhaps none of us can fully imagine that very first moment in human history (and maybe not in our own species H. sapiens sapiens)—but such a moment had to have happened.

And then the process of making sense of it all began. A proto-artist might have asked, what can I do with this? And in the course of further experimentation or play with these interesting scratches, refinements could have evolved, until we get to the representation, at first in stick figures, then in more developed figural sketches, of animals and other objects of experience. At some point, perhaps very early in the process, scratches and figures began to take on magical or spiritual properties—they began, in other words, to be interpreted, i.e., explained. Explanations led to more refinements of form, which in turn led to more explanations, and eventually we end up here, where we are in the twenty-first century, with shelves of books (and thousands of websites) that explain not just the objects themselves; they explain the explanations as well, in an almost infinite network of thought.

But what of the caves? The art on the walls of Chauvet and Lascaux appear to be late developments of a long process. Their apparent sophistication and indisputable beauty seem to indicate that they are the expressions of a rich and complex tradition, and their familiarity (their seeming prefiguring of, for example, twentieth-century modern art) seems to invite very modern responses and interpretations. Their presence deep in dark caves that could have been illuminated only by torchlight encourages theories of shamanistic practices, perhaps intended to ensure success on the hunt. Perhaps the caves were viewed as providing closer access to spiritual forces believed to be operating underground, or to bring the people closer to their ancestors (quite a few known origin myths posit that the first people emerged from underground).

But there is another, admittedly speculative, possibility: That descending into the caves provided an escape from the pressures and distractions of the sunlit active world and allowed the artists to play with their art, to discover what more they might do with this ability, such as when they discovered that they could add depth and contour, a kind of three dimensionality, by drawing around the bumps and irregularities in the rock walls—after all, it isn’t likely that they thought about that while going about their routines outside the caves; the technique had to have been suggested by the irregularities of the rock surface they were working on down in the caves, at the time of creation. In that sense, the pictures were pure art.

But they could not remain pure art for long—the human need for explanation, for interpretation, would have engaged almost immediately, and hence the paintings would have acquired meanings, likely even sacred meanings, soon after the artist stepped back to contemplate his finished work. Such a wonder would have inspired thought, perhaps an entire treatise of thought of a kind analogous to what we today call theoretical, which then could be carried in the minds and words of the artists to the sunlit surface world and conveyed to the general population.

It is relevant to note that many artists and writers of today explain themselves by saying that they didn’t know what they wanted to say until they said it (or painted or sculpted it). They will say that they knew where they started but didn’t know where they would end up. Some art and literary critics assert that the meaning of a work of art or a novel or poem is not completed until it has been viewed or read and interpreted by a viewer or reader. In this sense, art is the beginning of thought, not its conclusion.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Wild Spirit Louisiana  On February 9, 2016 at 4:45 PM

    The text is dead until it is read…we can thank Louise Rosenblatt and Transactional theory — meaning is a transaction between reader and text…Rosenblatt set the literary world free from the notion of a static meaning ….her theory can be applied to all art forms…like your notion of completion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: