Monday, February 20, 2012

Plato: Allegory of the Cave

Poor creatures. They have spent all their lives chained inside a cave. Behind them is a raised pathway from which people pass, carrying goods to the marketplace. Further behind is a fire. In front of the bonded cavemen is a wall on which the fire casts shadows of the walkers. The cavemen think that these shadows are the real things, since their painful position does not allow them to turn their heads or look them. Now, suppose, one of them was freed from his chains and got a chance to see the real people, or even to walk outside the cave and catch a glimpse of the world outside?

This is the allegory of the cave, written by the Greek philosopher Plato (423 BC to 347 BC) in the fourth  century BC in his famous book, The Republic. While writing the third, fourth and fifth books of Iqbal's biography, I am becoming increasingly aware that in a manner speaking the entire philosophy of Iqbal is an intellectual revolt against this allegory and its implications. It seems to me that the mission of Iqbal was to rid the literature of the world, especially of the East, from the influence of Plato - strange?

I am trained to be a historian. So, while Plato was a great philosopher, I would leave his philosophy for others and only attempt to highlight its historical context.

Iqbal's basic statement on Plato is that his philosophy was a Greek reaction to the crushing defeat at the hands of Persians. Representing a nation which had given up hope of winning in the battlefield, Plato invented a system of thought that could work like a virus. It could weaken the strength of the conquerors by teaching them that the real world was unreal. So, according to this argument, Plato was a kind of Trojan horse: take his ideas home, and they shall niggle you from the inside (see 'Secrets of the Self' for more details).

Unfortunately the history of ancient Persia is almost lost - it has come to us mainly in the form of fragments written by its adversaries. As such we do not possess enough documentation for deciding whether the Persian contemporaries of Plato ever imported his ideas. However, there are a few interesting connections which may be noted. I shall visit them in the next post. First, let's take a quick look at the philosophy of Plato from the perspective of Iqbal and notice its relevance to the political situation of the day.

Almost a century and a quarter before the birth of Plato, the great Achaemenid Empire came into being in Persia in c.550 BC. It became the largest empire known to history by that time, stretching from Egypt to Pakistan, and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. It entered into conflict with the Greek city-states, which eventually resulted in the sacking of Athens by the Persian emperor Xerxes in 480 BC. However, the Persian fleet was subsequently defeated in the Battle of Salamis soon afterwards.

This may have given a breathing space to Greeks, and perhaps also restored their confidence. However, a curious development that took place around this time was that the Persians shifted their focus from conquest to culture. The lasting monuments of the empire were built around this period, and they betray some cultural influence from the Greeks: for instance, one cannot miss an ironic similarity between the surviving pillars in the ruins of Persepolis and the architecture of ancient Athens. Is it possible that at this point in time, which was just before the birth of Plato, Persians had actually become open to cultural influences from the lands which they had conquered or defeated? This is a question which shall be revisited later.

Can we be permitted to place the allegory of the cave against this backdrop? Plato's own interpretation was that the humanity in general was like those captives chained in the cave: the world which appeared "real" to us is not unlike the shadows cast on that wall. The real things are "ideas" of archetypal forms, just like those real people whom the cavemen cannot see walking behind them because their chains do not let them turn their heads. Philosopher is someone who breaks free of this physical world - the shadows - and thereby gets to see the real world - the world of ideas or forms. Therefore, Plato argues, nations should be ruled by "philosopher kings". We should not have democracy because the unthinking masses are not unlike those cavemen who cannot tell the shadows from the real things.

This political implication of the parable itself betrays a sense of inferiority complex on part of Greeks in front of Persians. Greek states at that time were usually democratic, one way or another. They took great pride in being democracies. The Persian Empire was ruled by "the King of all kings" - shahenshah. Perhaps it is not too much to say that in debunking democracy in favour of enlightened monarchy, Plato was revealing a tinge of preference for the Persian way of government over the Greek model. Although I must add quickly that in my opinion Plato failed to understand the basic point about Persian monarchy, and the insight of the great founder of the Achaemenid Empire, as I shall try to show later.

For now, let's conclude this post on this note: while Plato may have invented his allegory in order to illustrate a philosophical point which he had in mind, we know very well that the motifs we pick up for constructing our stories invariably betray the working of our unconscious minds. If we apply the same principles of historicity which is usually applied on any literature of the world, the allegory of the cave can also be interpreted as an allegory about Greeks and Persians. The cavemen chained inside their caves were Greeks living in their rough mountainous terrains while the world outside was the great Persian Empire: the real thing.

The quest for understanding the Persian Empire - and acquiring wisdom about the sources of its astounding political power - had been on the minds of most thinking Greeks ever since the Achaemenid Empire came into being. Just a generation before Plato, Herodotus (c.484 BC to c.425 BC) had practically invented a new subject - "History" - for that purpose.

The first line of the famous work of Herodotus, written seven years before the birth of Plato, could be translated as: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus,, his Researches [Histories] are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict." It is quite possible that Plato also shared that purpose but while Herodotus had tried to achieve it by collecting facts, Plato embarked on the more dangerous business of pure speculation and hence came up with the idea of a "philosopher king" which Iqbal considered so important to be debunked.

Is the idea of a "philosopher king" really so bad? Well, to begin with, the Quran also has its own role model of an ideal king. The Quran refers to him as Zulqarnayn. Modern scholarship has identified him almost conclusively as (hold your breath) Cyrus the Great, the founder of the same Achaemenid Persian Empire which was ruling the world in the days of Plato. The chapter of the Quran in which this ideal king is described is called (and please hold your breath again): 'The Cave'.

Next: The Cyrus Mystery


  1. VERY interesting! Especially what you have revealed about Cyrus the Great being Zulqarnain of Surah Al Kahf. Waiting eagerly to read the next post on this topic.

  2. Does Iqbal at any point compare the Allegory of the Cave to the Quranic story of Solomon's (peace be upon him) palace of paved glass. Some commentators have read into it the allegory that it was meant as an admonishment to the Queen of Sheba who was a sun-worshipper to point out the power of God behind the sun which she understood and submitted as related in The Holy Quran.

  3. A very refreshing way to look at Plato's allegory and compare it with the Quran's 'The Cave.' I like this new approach.

    Can't wait till the next post.

  4. A refreshing perspective on Plato's allegory of the cave.

  5. anxiously waiting for the next post and meanwhile to reflect on the phenomenon of 'cave' why it is so important in history in one form or the other?Amazing approach to compare the allegory of cave and the chapter of the Quran with the same name

  6. Cannot wait for the next episode.

  7. absolutely interesting and very thought provoking. I have been teaching Plato's idealism to students and I got convinced of it also but I never dared to question it. But I am very happy to learn that Iqbal has debunked Plato's idealism

  8. You need to sort out your historical facts: in truth, by 479 BC it was the Persians who had been crushed and expelled from Greece. The only time the Persians were remotely successful in Greece was when they briefly held the north and burned Athens. They lost there, too. The biggest trauma in Plato's life had zero to do with the Persians, but instead centered around the Peloponnesian War (well after the Greeks had finished off Persia)which led Athens to kill Socrates, Plato's beloved teacher. "Debunking Plato's idealism..."? Unfortunately this blog is nothing more than a very uninformed, and further attempt (disavowed by Islamic scholars, BTW) to deny any deep influence by Plato on Islamic thinking. You need to go back and check your facts... and your motivation.