From the Cave of Plato

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

It is just an age-old habit of giving different forms and expressions to old ways of thinking the world. A few people gather around a table and talk about what is best in the field of political institutions, public administration, ruler-subject relations, beliefs, religion and education. In ancient times, politics was the privilege of a small self-proclaimed clique mostly composed of royals, emperors, sultans and so on whose authority thinkers and philosophers took care not to undermine. As to the other findings that sprouted out of their great minds, they took them to public notice. They sat behind a long table in front of a few selected members of the populace and pontificated on the roles and duties of every category in society, workers, men and women.

The pursuit of the ideal City, not London, Tokyo or New York, but in the Greek sense of the Republic in the Classical era no doubt influenced thinkers over the centuries and some of them contributed to major reforms in several areas such Arts, Philosophy, Science, Politics and Religion, which benefited their people in their part of the world . Torchbearers led their companions from darkness to light, from the darkness of the cave where their fellowmen mistook shadows for real people and objects and not as illusions, where they tended to understand life as they perceived it, and not as it was. From ignorance to intelligence, from perception to reality.

Discoverers of knowledge

The allegory of the myth of the cave in Plato’s myth goes like this. People are chained as prisoners in a dark cave where they can hardly turn their heads to see what is around them. Outside, behind the cave, a light casts shadows in the cave and the chained prisoners believe that the shadows are real people and objects. One of them manages to escape, goes outside and discovers Light, Beauty, Intelligence, Justice, Good, etc. He (symbolizing the thinker, philosopher and liberator) goes back to the cave and tells the other prisoners about his findings. He offers to take them out of the cave and see for themselves. They (ordinary people) do not believe him and kill him.

It happens that some torchbearers are authentic discoverers of knowledge and others are false prophets. Some were considered as troublemakers who disturbed the established order and they were punished by the superior gods reigning on Mount Olympus or their earthly political rulers. Prometheus was punished and chained for bringing fire to mankind, so was Heracles. Socrates was made to drink poison by an order of the emperor in the pre-Christian era; Galileo was condemned to death by the Pope. Heracles foreshadowed the coming of other messiahs. One was crucified, and another one was lucky enough to escape the wrath of the political rulers on a winged horse, maybe.

The point is that in the course of history the ideas that were the founding pillars of various institutions that regulated people’s lives gradually gave birth to ideologies imbibed with idealism.

A group of people (it is always a few people deciding for the big crowd around) tried to convey and spread the ideas of their masters among the people in their own lands, and often, in other people’s lands. This gave rise to all sorts of ideologies and systems of thought that have been conveniently rounded off with the suffix ‘ism’ and overzealously brandished as absolute truth. To make matters worse, a very simplistic outlook on life, governance and beliefs spread around from countries and cultures which were obsessed (and still are) with the idea of Evil. This gave rise to Manichaeism, good against evil, a bipolar way of thinking. While some parts of the world which have more experience in philosophical thinking already explored the complexity lying between good and evil, others stuck fanatically (and still do) to a bipolar way of thinking. Simplistic and restrictive.

Trouble started when the idealism of torchbearers and their followers are not shared by one and all. It happens that people across the world and over times immemorial are imbibed with a sense of justice, righteousness and intuitive wisdom, but they can also be scared and become sheepish followers of every new master. Now, depending on who leads the world economically, politically and militarily, the ideas of the dominating countries spread around, or are forced down the throats of other people by word or by sword.

 Chains and shackles

In the field of politics, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are replete with major reforms and radical changes in countries, which had the opportunity to shed off their chains and shackles. History tells us how monarchs were surrounded by self-serving courtiers, how liberators become power-thirsty and warmongers, how they don the cap of tyrants and go on rampage, how revolutionary ideas spawned widespread massacres and atrocities. One thinks of Lenin, Stalin, the gulag, Siberia, the enthronement of the new monarch, the ‘proletariat’ in all Eastern Europe. Imported ideologies created civil wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, as a result there had been brutal revolutions to overthrow kings and emperors. Communism spread like a fever in China, destroying traditional family values, with sons witnessing the execution of their fathers, and students trampling on their teachers.

On the other hand, liberators from the free world went on rampage with equal violence, dropping napalm bombs on civilians in Vietnam, slaughtering communists and socialists at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, bombarding elected presidents in Chile and so on. Meanwhile other countries were under the yoke of colonialism and were not allowed to lay down the terms of progress for their own people. And when they did, a big number of them in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and small islands took decisions for the people in closed quarters, determined to keep the spoils for a clique and not give back dignity to the people. What a world!

Similarly, in the field of religion, other ‘isms’ cropped up in the language of those who dominated the world. In some cases, torchbearers claimed to show the way of enlightenment to their fellowmen; others became fanaticized groups of minority idealists from which self-proclaimed leaders arose and consorted with political authorities to instrumentalize religion with a view to conquering lands and expand politically, economically and militarily. Sacred scriptures laid out all the intricacies that regulate the life of people. The oldest scriptures grappled with every aspect of life, the idea of the Divine, devotional worship, ethics, politics, army, society, family, social institutions, man-animal relations, the unity of life in Nature, pleasure, sensuousness, sensuality and so on . Other scriptures or the disciples of the deceased messiahs discoursed over a few aspects in Holy Books 1, 2 and 3 and discarded all other components that are part of everyday life, probably because of the obsession with evil or cultural codes.

However, all scriptures hold life as being sacred. In the pursuit of the Platonic myth of ideal society, the perfect model of the individual and his submission to a superior law, Holy Books set up rules for every individual to follow, what they should do and what they should not do. They inevitably led to dogmatism, intolerance and proselytism. They all value life including the life of the unborn infant in his mother’s womb but specified some nuances about the life of adults, especially males of other ethnic groups who should be eliminated and not allowed to procreate or perpetuate their kith and kin. Slavery was allowed as long as slaves were captured from other ethnic groups. Not all lives are held as sacred. Proclaiming to have the monopoly of absolute truth, hardliners set off to distant lands and conducted mass slaughter and spread terror , an extreme interpretation of the idea of ‘others’, neighbours, foreigners, etc. With hindsight and with the benefit of historical truth, it is within the scope of any populace across the world, endowed with an inherent sense of justice and righteousness to distinguish between holiness and terror manuals.

It is the male ‘animal’ principle of nuzzling his nose in other people’s caves, believing all his other fellowmen are living in darkness. In a largely male-driven world, the movement into and out of the cave is bound to go on for some more time with some of the torchbearers propagating new versions of Plato’s myth and becoming in turn obscurantist and deliberately enclosing people in caves. But in a knowledge-oriented world, we have every reason to be optimistic, don’t we?

* Published in print edition on 18 May 2012

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