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Or why the Cave is dangerous




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Plato’s allegory of the Cave, found at the end of the Republic, offers a fine tool for interpreting much that is wrong with modern life. In particular, it helps in understanding a disturbing wave of highly commercial sado-masochism that is sweeping the western world. Not since the middle ages has misogyny been so mainstream. Spearheading this movement is of course E L James with her Fifty Shades of Grey, but behind her there are plenty of other would-be puppeteers lining up to profit. It seems every second romance novel has on its cover some or other lurid picture straight out of a BDSM fantasy these days—a picture straight from the Cave, in fact.


So what then of the Cave? Plato’s allegory is rich and detailed, and has spawned countless interpretations, but the main lines are as follows: Imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners, chained there from birth, forced to sit facing one of the Cave’s walls. Behind them imagine a low partition, and behind that a fire. Now imagine puppeteers marching up and down behind the partition, conducting some sort of virtual puppet show,and causing  the shadows from the show to fall on the wall the prisoners face. Knowing nothing else, the prisoners mistake the shadow-objects for real objects, the projected voices for real voices, illusion for truth.


And then imagine one of the prisoners being released and taken,kicking and screaming, up into the daylight. The light of the sun (Plato’s Form of the Good) blinds the eyes of the one who has lived long in darkness. The real objects of the outside world themselves look like shadows at first. But in time the prisoner’s eyes adjust and he or she is able to look upon the sun, and in its light, perceive reality as it is.


But back to the Cave where, in terms of the narrow focus of the present scenario, (it can be applied more broadly, of course) the puppeteers are busy uttering untruths, such as ‘a little SM on the side is harmless’; ‘so long as its consensual, it’s fine’. Against this, and with the authority of one who has escaped that particular cave, I reply there’s no such thing as a harmless little bit of SM. This distorted form of human relationship is always located somewhere along a trajectory that leads straight to death. It is a death can take different forms –  the metaphorical death of the fantasy-based relationship itself, perhaps. But at its most extreme it can get a whole lot worse than that.


In a telling conclusion to the allegory, when the escaped one returns to the Cave to seek the release of fellow prisoners, he or she finds they do not want to leave. They are far too comfortable there, far too addicted to their illusions.


And the point of all this? Perhaps just to ask where, if anywhere, we might find ourselves in terms of the structure of the Cave. Are we stumbling towards the light? Are we staring hypnotized at shadows on a wall? Or are we doing or supporting in some way the work of the puppeteers?



The work of art depicted in this image (Plato by Rafael) and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.