Why does Classics matter?
The Classics matter, and History matters, not just because ancient texts are curious and interesting to read, but because they allow us to revisit the past and to understand a world and a culture that is different from our own. The past is another country (as L.P. Hartley famously remarked) and the historian a traveller. As we are enriched by foreign travel in this world, so too we can appreciate and learn from the successes and mistakes of another age in time.
Sometimes we will find that ideas we thought were new are in fact old, that what seems sensible has already proved erroneous, and that some things, which were known long ago, should not have been forgotten. Most important, the cosmopolitan historian does not need to accept the parochial customs of his own era, any more than that of any other, but can pick and choose according to taste. It is thus that most of the modern world’s population chooses to be guided by texts composed in the ancient: whether that be the Bible, the Koran or the teachings of Confucius.
In practice, knowing about the Greeks and Romans is not more fulfilling than learning about anywhere else: the main thing is simply to know other languages and other cultures. But Classics has traditionally been important because, for whatever reason (and there are many), Ancient Greece and Rome has in all subsequent ages proved an especially popular and attractive destination for time-travellers.
The Escape from Plato’s Cave
Let us start with one text from the ancient world (and one of the most famous): Plato’s Republic, written around 375 BC. In the seventh book, Plato provides perhaps the most memorable image and allegory in all ancient philosophy. Socrates wishes to explain what education is – and in particular what the education of the guardians (the philosopher-rulers of his ideal city) should be. For Plato, education is not simply a matter of filling pupils with knowledge: Socrates said that he knew nothing (and knew he knew nothing) but nonetheless he still helped his associates to learn. Rather, the aim of the teacher is to ‘turn’ the attention and soul of the pupil in the direction of what is better and away from what is worse. To illustrate this point, Socrates asks us to imagine a cave:
Imagine human beings living in an underground, cave-like dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.
Socrates goes on to describe the shadow-puppet display that is put on for these prisoners. All they have seen are the shadows or reflections of real things which are carried behind them in the light of the fire. The philosopher, Socrates suggests, is like one who has been freed and turned to look at the real objects. Then, gradually, he walks up to the entrance of the cave and looks out to see not artificial light, but the real light of the sun. From there pity may lead him to return to the cave to attempt to rescue his companions. But not all of them are ready to be rescued: they have become so used to looking at shadows and copies, and some of them have earned a reputation for cleverness in their interpretation, that they are not interested in reality. Thus in humanity there exists a fundamental divide between those who seek enlightenment and those who prefer darkness.
This image of the cave is heavily informed by Plato’s overarching understanding of ‘reality’ and knowledge. In Plato we find one of the earliest contributions to a great philosophical debate that is still being fought today. The dispute concerns whether anything exists beyond material entities and their interactions. The Republic is Plato’s attempt to show that Justice is not a construct or concept, but the paradigm and cause of all just things. In other words, Justice exists eternally and is independent of the human mind. It is something that human beings need and value for itself.
In the first book of the Republic, the sophist Thrasymachus of Chalcedon angrily articulates the opposing view: Justice does not exist, except as a lie constructed by the weak to fool the strong into protecting them. The happiest person in existence is the one able to wield absolute power with impunity – that is, a tyrant.
In contrast, Socrates argues throughout the Republic that the likes of Thrasymachus are wrong to concentrate on only the material and sensible world directly beneath their eyes: they need to look upwards, out of the cave, to the heavens. What we see on earth is not what is of supreme importance, since earthly things are but copies, or shadows, of a higher unseen reality. Thus Justice exists, as does Goodness and Virtue. A life lived in pursuit of matter and power alone will lead only to misery in this world and damnation in the next.
A variant of this same debate appears in another dialogue of Plato, the Theaetetus (c. 369 BC). In this work, Socrates and the young mathematician Theaetetus discuss the works of the sophist Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490–420 BC). Socrates and Theaetetus met in 399 BC, according to Plato, when Socrates was already in his sixties and Theaetetus was a young student of the geometrician Theodorus. Protagoras had, it seems, sparred with Socrates around two decades earlier, in a debate in Athens recounted in Plato’s Protagoras (c. 380 BC), but at this point he is already dead. The trial and execution of Socrates followed shortly after the discussion staged in the Theaetetus.
The dialogue centres around the question of ‘What is knowledge?’ One of Theaetetus’ first attempts to provide an answer is to suggest that knowledge is perception. Socrates notes that this view is very similar to Protagoras’ teaching that “Man is the measure of all things”. Theaetetus has unwittingly suggested that knowledge and truth are relative to the individual, that they are simply what we perceive them to be at a given time, and that ‘knowledge’ is therefore constantly changing as we ourselves change. From this perspective, there is no simple objective or universal truth. Knowledge is not about knowing what is true always for everyone, but what is true now for me. This leads us effectively to the moral relativism of Thrasymachus in the Republic: what is just is merely what a particular society or person decides is just at a given time.
Socrates attempts to disprove this theory. Protagoras has undermined his own argument, since if knowledge is perception, and all perceptions are equally valid, then how can we believe Protagoras’ theory. Protagoras is meant to be wise and knowledgeable, but by his own theory he is shown to have no greater knowledge than the foolish people who do not accept that knowledge is perception. But the fact that people universally seek out teachers (such as Protagoras) who will impart knowledge to them suggests that knowledge does not simply depend on perception. Rather, truths exist to be learned or discovered.
Plato suggests that Justice and Knowledge are things that do not depend for their existence on the human mind or on perception. Justice is like a compass that, whichever way you turn it, always comes back to point in the same direction. A society, such as that of Nazi Germany for example, that decided that injustice was now just and which perceived justice differently from the rest of mankind, would in time be proved to have acted erroneously. And the Nazis were not wrong because most people disagreed with them: that they knew in secret that what they were doing was wrong is shown by the efforts they took to conceal their crimes, from both their own people and the outside world, even during the course of the war.
And why do the strong not always abuse the weak, as Thrasymachus suggests they should? How have the weak managed to dupe the strong so successfully in those societies governed by law and justice? Sometimes it may be because the strong fear punishment, or they may be too lazy to commit crimes. But ultimately, if a person does not become a criminal when it is both expedient and praiseworthy to do so, it is because he or she does not want to be unjust: because that person does not want to feel a guilt that cannot be assuaged by a different conception of justice. Plato therefore concluded that Justice was what he called one of the Forms, something that human beings did not create and which they could come to know. And coming to know the Forms is like stepping out of the cave and seeing the sun for the first time.
Narnia’s Wardrobe: Plato’s Cave in the Modern World
Is this the sort of thing that can teach us how to live in the modern world? The scholar and novelist C.S. Lewis recalls a conversation he had with friends at Oxford as a student in the 1920s in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):
Once when [we] were lunching in my room, I happened to refer to philosophy as “a subject”. “It wasn’t a subject to Plato,” said [Owen] Barfield [then an English student at Wadham College and later a fellow member of the literary circle the ‘Inklings’, which included J.R.R. Tolkein], “it was a way.”
Until this time, Lewis had been labouring under what he calls “chronological snobbery”. To him, the past offered nothing of value to the sophisticated modern: progress had made the books from the past obsolete as assuredly as the watermill or horse-drawn cart in an age of steam and locomotion. The past was merely a curiosity, to be studied as a subject.
Lewis’ later conversion to Christianity was partly the result of his decision no longer to patronise the past, but to learn from it and those authors of genius whose works have survived. The value of doing so is emphasised in his 1933 novel The Pilgrim’s Regress, an allegorical tale based on the model of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). In Lewis’ work, the hero John meets a hermit called History, who has spent his career travelling as a peddler, but who in the modern age has retired to a cave. History castigates the ignorance of the age: “They know very little. They never travel and consequently never learn anything.’”
The works of Plato had a recurring influence on Lewis’ subsequent novels and philosophical works. In his most famous creation, The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–6), Plato’s theory of the Forms is evident especially in the final novel, The Last Battle. In this story, Narnia, a parallel world to our own, comes to an end. Aslan, the lion who represents Christ in Narnia, leads his followers into a new world that, when they reach it, appears to resemble the one they have left. But the old Narnia was, as Lord Digory tells Peter “not the real Narnia”:
That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world.
And if you were thinking that the references to shadows and copies are reminiscent of Plato’s Cave, you would be right:
“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato [says Digory]: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” The older ones laughed.
The Cave itself makes an appearance in Narnia on two occasions. The Silver Chair tells the story of a young prince who is trapped by a witch in an underground land. He is put under a spell and forgets who he is or that there is a life above the earth. But at particular moments he regains control of his reason (or, from the perspective of those in Underland, he is mad) and at these times he must be bound to a chair, just like the prisoners of Plato’s Cave.
Likewise, in The Last Battle the dwarves have been bound and thrown into not a cave, but a stable. When Aslan appears shortly before the end of the world, they refuse (like the inhabitants of the cave) to leave and make the journey into the ‘real world’. Their bonds have been cut, but they decide not to leave their prison, even when Lucy (like Plato’s philosopher) attempts to persuade them.
“It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”
“How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain’t there?” [replies a Dwarf] “And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?”
When Aslan roars in an attempt to prove to the Dwarves that he is real and outside the stable, the Dwarves respond by saying: “Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!” The Dwarves here make the same mistake as the prisoners in the Cave of confusing what is artificial with what is real.
But the Cave had already appeared as an important allegory for Lewis when he attempted to describe the process of his conversion in his earlier work, with which we began, The Pilgrim’s Regress. In this novel, the Platonic Cave merges with the dungeon where, in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and his companion Hopeful are imprisoned by the giant Despair. In Lewis’ version of Bunyan’s allegory, the giant is called The Spirit of the Age. Lewis here delivers a cutting caricature of the Zeitgeist of the 1920s and 1930s. John, who had abandoned Puritan Christianity and the Victorian notions of Beauty, was led to the City of Eschropolis (‘Ugly City’ in Greek). When he tries to escape, he is imprisoned by order of The Spirit of the Age.
This giant, like the witch in The Silver Chair, aims to convince his prisoners that all their previous beliefs were simply delusions and that our understanding of the world is merely the result of unconscious desires – a swipe at Freudian analysis. Milk is not milk, the gaoler tells his prisoners, but a bodily secretion no different from or less disgusting than excrement. When John attempts to argue that this cannot be, since milk feeds calves and dung does not, the gaoler knocks him down. “An argument,” John is told, “is the attempted rationalisation of the arguer’s desires.”
In the prison, nothing exists except as a construct to serve the interests of the author of the construct. The answer to the argument that two plus two makes four, for example, is “you say that because you are a mathematician”. John is only saved from this dungeon by Reason, an armoured lady mounted on a horse, who slays The Spirit of the Age with her sword. John gladly flees with Reason, but the rest of the prisoners remain, as in Plato’s Cave, stubbornly in gaol.
Escaping the Zeitgeist Today
The debates between Socrates and Thrasymachus and Protagoras are in many ways the same debates that Lewis engaged in as a student in 1920s Oxford, or as a Christian apologist and intellectual in his later life. Questions of what reality is and whether unseen concepts exist have important consequences for how we understand the world and how we live our lives. It is unlikely that these puzzles will ever be solved definitively in this world, but each of us must provide our own answer to them, nonetheless. And for that reason, it is worth knowing what Plato and Protagoras thought, as much as anyone else.
And does there perhaps still live among us, in the twenty-first century, a Spirit of the Age? He may be a relation of the old one, perhaps a descendant of a common ancestor. He may arguably be the same one as in Lewis’s time. Either way, he also appears to believe, much as Thrasymachus and Protagoras were supposed to do, that knowledge is perception; that truth and disinterested inquiry do not exist; that what is called ‘facts’ is simply a means to preserve and enhance power. Old books and old arguments have merely served the ends of the oppressors of the past. And so new books and a new education are needed to serve the aims of this Spirit of the Age: “educate yourself,” he cries, but he means “re-educate”. All his talk is of “deconstruction”, “destruction”, “burn it all down!” History has heard all this before, of course, and knows where it leads – it isn’t anywhere good.
There is another way. We can leave the Cave. We do not have to be prisoners of the giant. There is a world out there, full of human experiences and achievements stretching over many centuries – to the Romans, the Greeks, and far beyond. That world is wide and beautiful and, despite all our human faults, fundamentally good in the final analysis. Come and look on the light of day.
Edmund Stewart is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham.
The header image is the work of 4edges.