Between Cave and Clean Air

            Most everyone is in the cave. It’s dark and we’re looking at shadows we are convinced are real. There are others puppeteering behind the scenes. It’s a depressing situation, but most people get it a little, even though they might not have ever seen the light. People know that they aren’t living in absolute truth. They also have a sense that to escape the cave, or at least try to do so, will be grossly unpleasant. When we approach Plato’s cave, we usually dwell on the dilemma of the people chained, and the situation of the majority who have not seen the Good. But the allegory is just as much about the one who has seen the light, the philosopher, as it is about the people who remain in chains. In fact, this is the story of the tragedy of philosophy, or more, the tragedy of the philosopher.

Socrates called himself a midwife who helped others give birth, hopefully not to “wind-eggs” but to good and healthy children. As a midwife, he could not shout or engage in the vicious, sneering type of debate of our current mode, because that would cause the would-be mothers to clutch up and not deliver. Socrates served as lover. He inseminated and he nurtured patiently, and he brought to life at least a few quite impactful progenies. One man followed him so loyally that he wrote up in a lifetime of work the essence of his intellect and heart, inasmuch as he could. Another man could not completely follow his philosophical path because he could not reign in his passions well enough, but he loved Socrates, despite his famously imperfect face and form, with an unreasonable desire because, ultimately, Socrates was not easy.

Socrates, perhaps, would agree at least agree with Lacan in this, that the Real (or more like it, a feature of the Real) is ab-sex. He patiently revealed that Love leads through the partial and illusory, through pain and confusion, to the cause of Love itself. So, this good and gentle Socrates, or from Alcibiades’ perspective this heartless and cruel Socrates—why did they kill him?

As a child, perhaps Socrates was watching the shadows, and he was entertained. But at some point, probably in his teens, he gleaned that something, someone, was behind those shadows—there was more going on than met the eye. When he “turned around,” when he was forced to turn—by some mysterious someone– he saw the men with power, the men willing to live most of their lives in the same cave just so they could feel the power of making a world for the others and holding them in chains. And for a while, he no doubt stared at these men, and he thought that they were the reality of the world.

Socrates said that turning around is a painful thing—a man’s whole body has been chained in one position his whole life, and so just turning his head is a painful act, and then seeing the fire behind the men who are making the shadows pierces his eyes. There is a great deal of confusion—was what he saw before the reality, or is what he’s seeing now, what’s causing him pain—is this the real world?

Those chains didn’t come off all by themselves. There’s that other person involved, and Socrates says that this whomever drags him by force past all of this, past the fire, past the powerful men, upward. He doesn’t want to go, but someone’s making him—is it the force of arms or the force of logic? Someone is forcing him out of the cave and, for the first time in his life, his half-blind eyes see the outside world. It’s so bright. It’s so confusing. His eyes can’t handle it. He’s stunned, and he waits a long time for his sight to adjust. This is world-transforming light. He’s able to see the colors, the true motions, eventually the sun’s rays themselves. And notice, now the machinations of the shadow-throwers mean so little to him that it’s hard to even think about them.

And yet so many prisoners are left in the cave.

Even though he now exists in a dazzling world, a world that now has hold of him, that erases the cave, well, he’s alone. It seems the guy that dragged him out split. The guy doesn’t hang around and say, “come with me to the Island of the Enlightened where your community awaits.” How nice but ultimately false that would be. The former prisoner is on his own, and that is the most excruciating pain. “My God, whom will I love, and who will love me? I have pity on all those who are chained—can I free them? Not only for their sake but for my own, because I don’t want to be alone.”

And so, he attempts to descend, to try to free others. But the cave is now exceedingly dark to him—it’s very hard to navigate, even though the fire is still burning. But he persists, and when he gets to his former cell-mates, he appears dazed and crazy. He is “the source of laughter…. And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?”

Meaning, if laughter and disrespect is all you get, thank your lucky stars. But here is the source of the most bitter pain, the hardest job, to stay in that moment and, despite their jeers and threats, try to do what someone (or something) did for you.

Do you discern the patience, the love, that Socrates felt for the damned? When homely, old, but infinitely wiser and hence more beautiful Socrates told Alcibiades he could lie beside him and on the other side Agathon could lie, did he exercise the utmost in self-control for the sake of Love, able to love them both while not even being capable of being pulled by either one of them into the chained space of the cave? Is it possible that he could live in both worlds, more truly in one, but also truly enough in the other, and feel the dank earth beneath his feet while breathing the perfumed oxygen from above?

Will the one who freed him come back and stay by his side? Surely, but the longing for others will not abate, because they are his brothers and sisters. Can he live in both worlds and enjoy them both, while realizing that on one side the only hope for connection is narrative but on the other side, the story fades in favor of reality itself?

I suspect he must live this way and accepting that may be the only way he stays sane, because there remains the fact that he came from the cave, and part of him will always live there, oscillating, unsettled.


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