What we know as Western Philosophy started about twenty-six centuries ago, right at the boundary between the two rival ancient empires of Greece and Persia. The first philosophers came from the Greek colony of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor. The originality of their philosophy came from seeking to understand the world, strictly via natural explanations. What is a “natural explanation”? Miletus, was situated on the border between two empires for a natural reason. The Greek Empire was a maritime Empire, like the Phoenicians, so its colonies were situated on Islands or near rivers on the Mediterranean coast, whereas the Persian Empire was a land based Empire, so the Mediterranean coast formed a natural boundary between the two.
Perhaps it was also the invention of writing, which creates a public record, and encourages objectivity, that led the Milesian philosophers to eschew the old form of explanation which up till then, had been religious mythology. Before philosophy, impressive natural phenomena such as our planetary system and the weather, were solely understood as coming from, and explained by, the gods and their supernatural powers.
But the funny thing is, the Philosophers and their natural explanations would probably have been forgotten in the mists of time, if it wasn’t for a particular Athenian philosopher who, two hundred years afterwards, re-introduced myth back into philosophy. The Greek philosopher Plato is justifiably known as the greatest Western philosopher. Unlike virtually every other ancient philosopher, we have every one of Plato’s works in full. That makes him also, the world’s most successful philosopher. I believe that a big reason for Plato’s success was his construction of a powerful ideological justification for both monarchy and monotheism. Through his particular combination of dialogue and story, Plato gave monotheism a new lease on life, when, except for an obscure desert tribe, it had lain moribund since its origins in Egypt; and it was that, together with his simple didactic writing style, that helped encourage philosophy to grow and flourish in, what would have been, an otherwise hostile world.
Plato’s dialogues, a form of argument that goes back and forth between discussants, are justly famous as didactic devices. Ideally a dialogue teaches both sides of an argument, and indeed, many of Plato’s dialogues end in an impasse between the sides, called an aporia. The form of writing called “dialogues” has no greater exponent than Plato. Countless philosophy and theology students over the last two millennia have read, enjoyed, and learned from them. But they have also been fooled by the excellence of his philosophy to ignore the unconscious power of the little stories that just seem to innocently crop up here and there within the main dialogues.
Philosophy could be said to be about giving and receiving arguments - the Greeks called this logos. Religions are based around stories about God and the gods, which the Greeks called mythos. It was two hundred years after the Milesians invented philosophy, that the Greek philosopher Plato managed to re-introduce myth back into philosophy, with a stunning effect that still has reverberations today.
Plato didn’t have a theory of truth, although his most famous student, Aristotle, did. But in many dialogues written by Plato, he told the story of his teacher Socrates’ pursuit of truth; and in one particular dialogue - The Republic - created a powerful image to symbolize the life of Socrates and his pursuit of truth - in The Parable of the Cave. When you hear talk of “The Truth”, as if truth is one answer to one question, and somehow the “enlightened one,” has received “The Truth”, ultimately, from a singular source, Aka - “The Light”- this goes straight back to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, written twenty-four centuries ago. Here it is, in a nutshell:
Imagine a group of prisoners kept in a cave their entire lives, chained to a wall, so that they can only see shadows cast by the fire. Now imagine one of the prisoners somehow escaping the chains and the cave by ascending to an opening in the ground. The first thing that happens when he gets out is that he is temporarily blinded by the sun. Slowly it "dawns" on him that, what, in the cave, he took for reality, is but shadows, because he realizes that the sun is the real source of illumination and of life. Suppose further, that the former prisoner is inspired to go back down into the cave and tell the other prisoners the truth about what’s really out there. The first thing that happens to him when he goes back into the cave is that he can’t see in the dark. He ends up blindly fumbling around, and has a difficult time convincing the rest of the prisoners, who can see better than he in the dark, that there is a brilliant reality up above.
Consider this: someone discovers an amazing “truth”. He tries to tell others of his great discovery but no one will listen. Would that have sounded familiar, even if you’ve never heard of Plato or his parable? The Parable of the Cave is one of the founding myths of western civilization. It appears to be buried deep in our collective consciousness.The power and longevity of that myth is what is behind saying: “I’ve seen the light”; behind calling an idea or a person “brilliant”; behind the famous prologue of the fourth New Testament gospel, John I, 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it;” behind Jesus’s declaration in John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life;” and behind Blake’s famous image of the “doors of perception”.
I can imagine being challenged here: "Where is your evidence?” It just seems obvious to me that the author of the Gospel of John was familiar with Plato’s parable, because he is using the imagery of light, darkness, and ascent in the same way. The New Testament Gospels were originally written in Greek, four hundred years after Plato wrote The Republic. There was, at the time of the written gospels, a large group of early Christians called “gnostics” who seemed to have been directly influenced by Plato’s mythological writings, in this case, not just the parable of the cave, but also the “Myth of Er”, that comes right at the end of The Republic, and the myth of “the Demiurge” in the dialogue - Timaeus.
Note that the parable of the cave is not Plato’s theory of truth, because it is not an argument - there is no logos here. This is the type of story Plato himself, in the same book, The Republic, calls a “Noble Lie”; and, as a myth it does its work via the unconscious, not by reasoned argument. This myth powerfully equates truth with light and darkness with ignorance. It suggests that The Truth comes from a single source -the sun - a source which seemed immutable, infinite, and the origin of all life and knowledge. Without even thinking we come to associate the idea of hierarchy and authority with the sun, and this image provides the perfect blank canvas for many future justifications of monotheism and political elitism. Here you have monotheistic theology and monotheistic epistemology all in one package, and basically burned into our collective consciousness by the sheer power of Plato’s imagery.
You may be thinking, how could The Parable of the Cave be so powerful an influence, it's just a dumb little story? One could say, it was just the right idea, at the right time. You see, over time it becomes harder and harder to believe in the literal truth of supernatural explanations. According to the account in Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, God creates humans from dust, and sometime later gets angry because they are having sex with giants, and decides to drown the lot of them; (except for one particularly pious patriarch and his family) and sometime later curses the surviving humans with mutually unintelligible languages, so that they can’t finish building a tower that seems, to God, to be too high; and it’s not much better in any other myth of origin. Surely, one wants a more mature, a more ideal picture of God - a God who is Perfect, The All Knowing Source of all Illumination and Knowledge, Infinite in Power, Immutable, etc., etc...
If religion is going to get big and institutional, it needs a system of ultimate justification that can impress larger groups of people, groups that may be large enough to include people from different cultures. If forms of government are to be stable, it stands to reason that you need some kind of ultimate justification for the government’s authority. Something like the divine right of kings, that connects a human institution - monarchy - to a theology - an understanding of divinity. And Plato obliges by supplying all the basic ingredients, partly out of foresight, but mainly because he wanted to construct a Mighty Bulwark against the pluralism and relativism of his Greek opponents, the Sophists and the Poets.
And what is Plato’s famous “divided line” from The Republic, but a schema of the Shamanic world tree? The one with its roots in the underworld, it’s middle in this world, and it’s upper reaches piercing the heavens. The shaman is said to perform his rituals in a darkened yurt, with a fire in the middle, and a smoke-hole in the top-center. A pole (remember the divided line?) runs from the ground through the smoke-hole, and up above the yurt, and the shaman, after a drum induced, or drug induced trance, is said to ascend the world tree and visit all of the three, or five, or seven “worlds” that the divisions on the line might correspond to. Eventually the shaman emerges from trance and speaks of his adventures to his audience in the darkened yurt, recounting the knowledge he’s gained in the other worlds.
Is it a coincidence that both the “the cave” and the “divided line” have parallels to ancient shamanism? Plato was obviously aware of the Greek Oracles, as well as the mystery religions, both of which probably had elements in common with Shamanism.
It’s notable too, that Plato’s Parable has a lot of vertical action going on, namely, going up out of the cave into the bright sunshine, then going back down into the darkness of the cave. This is also a reverse schematic of Resurrection, going from death to life, then back to death again. Note how it mirrors the path of the sun, which is born in the morning and dies at night. It is no coincidence that Socrates death and Plato’s resurrection of Socrates status as the great philosopher, are there in the background of this myth, three hundred years before Jesus. Socrates was not a popular philosopher in Athens. Plato, through his dialogues has made his teacher famous for all time. In doing so with such imagination and vigor, I believe he rescued philosophy itself from oblivion.
Remember, all of Plato’s works survive today, twenty-four centuries later; some of the works of Aristotle have survived; but, very little of the works of any other ancient philosophers have survived. Plato obviously did something right, and we can all learn from him.
What Plato did, by inserting mythological stories into his dialogues, was to attract maximum attention to his philosophy, making it more memorable, and above all, with his parable of the cave, making monotheism and monarchy seem more natural and attractive. After Plato’s death, a long line of religious and secular authorities recognized his superiority over other philosophers and used his ideas to advantage: Plotinus, the anonymous writer of the fourth gospel, Augustine, Maimonides, and others. For all we know, all the rest of philosophy, and the very idea of universal natural explanations, which eventually became what we know today as science, may only have survived because it first rode on Plato’s coattails.