PRISONERS OF THE MIND: Shining Masonic Light on the Mysterious Meaning of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

PRISONERS OF THE MIND: Shining Masonic Light on the Mysterious Meaning of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

What is the meaning of Brother Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book Seven of his immortal work, The Republic? And why is this allegory so widely read and studied in the world of “higher education” today, over two thousand years after it was first published? The purpose of this short labor of love is to explore the possible answer to the first of these two vital questions for the mutual benefit of myself and the reader, leaving the answer to the second question to the reader to explore and find independently, if he or she so chooses, as such an intimate journey into the depths of one’s own heart and mind will be sure to reveal to him or her just how important, beautiful, and fulfilling it is for each of us to discover the true meaning and purpose of human existence for ourselves, as common, yet unique, individuals.

Fortunately, for us, Plato explains the gist of the meaning of his allegory of the cave within The Republic itself. This should make things a little bit easy for us. Unfortunately, for some, the fact is that Plato was a mystic and a philosopher– a lover of wisdom— which means that he wrote all of his timeless dialogues for the sole purpose of sharing and examining the nature of wisdom with other philosophers through the interrelated philosophical principles of epistemology, dialectic, metaphysics, ethics, The Republiccontemplation, and meditation.

In other words, the genuine and intended meaning of Plato’s allegory will forever remain an incomprehensible mystery to any reader of it who is not a true wisdom lover. Furthermore, the meaning of all of Plato’s sublime wisdom that has come down to us in written form through the ages, can only be captured by one who pursues true and ancient philosophy in the manner of the immortal philosophers of antiquity, who were known Initiates of the Ancient Mystery Schools such as Freemasonry. Such a noble pursuit demands nothing less or more than an open heart and mind that are both truly focused and desirous of knowing ultimate reality, as well as the true meaning and purpose of living in this world as a mortal– as a human being. From this we can understand that no matter how clearly and eloquently Plato may have briefly explained his allegory’s hidden meaning through the wise lips of Socrates within the pages of The Republic, it can only begin to be even vaguely understood by the man, woman or child who deeply loves wisdom.

And there is more: The meaning of the allegory of the cave will not unfold and reveal itself deeply within one’s soul if we overlook the importance of the philosophical concept of justice. This is due to the resplendent fact that The Republic is a philosophical lamp whose light is centered around the mystical oil of the search for the true meaning of justice and the heart’s burning desire to know what it truly means to be Plato Cavejustor virtuous. We must therefore keep the mystery of justice firmly in heart and mind as we proceed. Now, let us step into the Light.   

A QUICK SUMMARY OF THE ALLEGORY 

There is a group of chained prisoners in a cave, who have been prisoners there since they were born. They are chained in such a way that they can only see a low stone wall in front of them, and they have never seen anything else in their entire lives. There is also a fireplace constantly burning at a short distance behind them, which allows for the shadows of people outside the cave, who walk past it, to be casted upon the low wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners, who have never seen anything else in life but themselves and these shadows, believe that these shadows are real things, and that there is nothing much more to life than the appearance of these shadows. One day, however, one of the prisoners in the cave breaks free and escapes from the cave. Upon seeing the world outside of the cave for the very first time, he quickly realizes that his former perception of life was limited, and all wrong. He has seen the light of the Sun and now knows that the shadows in the cave were not what they appeared to be. He then returns to the cave in an attempt to enlighten his former prisonmates about the true nature of the shadows, but they do not believe him. Instead, they threaten to kill him when he offers to set them free so that they can see the truth for themselves.

THE SECRET AND INNER MEANING OF THE ALLEGORY

The prisoners in the cave, as Plato vividly points out in The Republic, are us, or “you” and “I”. They are the symbolic personifications of the popular but mistaken notion that there really is such a thing as a separately existing “you” and “I”, as it is the crown jewel of trueplato-allegory-of-the-cave and ancient philosophy that there is really only one or self that exists, and that this authentic exists eternally as the infinite Universe in its entirety.

According to Plato, the underground den or prison within the cave is symbolic of the “world of sight”, by which he means the objective world as perceived by a non-discriminating and irrational mind through the five outward-focused senses of sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell. This prison is therefore a philosophical symbol of the mind itself, which lets us know that the cave, which contains this prison, and which, like the mind, is a secret dwelling place, is likewise a philosophical symbol of the mind, so that there is essentially no difference between the cave and the prison described by Plato. More precisely, the cave symbolizes the human mind in general, while the prison within the cave symbolizes the human mind or ego that is delusional and out of touch with reality.

The fire and light that are both inside and outside of the cave are symbolic of the “light” and life of both individuated consciousness and cosmic or universal consciousness, which are ultimately interconnected as One Mind. Plato states this darkly through the symbolic character of his wise teacher, Socrates (whose name means master of life), by having Socrates explain to Plato’s brother, Glaucon (whose name means owl-eyed), that, “the light of fire (in this allegory) is the Sun, which, when seen, is inferred to be the universal author of all things that are beautiful and right. It is the parent of light and the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual world. It is the power which he who wants to act rationally in public or private life must keep his eye fixed upon.” Now, ask yourself, does it sound like these alleged words of the enlightened Socrates are referring to the Sun in a literal sense, or to the Sun as being an ancient symbol of the “light” and life of consciousness which constitutes the The-Allegory-of-the-Cave-by-Plato-1-1024x761mind? Isn’t it true that you can close your eyes and still see things through the “light” of your mind, even while you are sitting or lying down alone in the dark?

What about the shadows in the cave? And what about the wall in the cave that serves as the screen upon which these shadows are seen? This wall and the shadows casted upon it are symbolic of the various objects, or people, places, and things, that the individual mind perceives as the objective world, or the world “outside of”, and “separate from”, one’s own relative self or ego-personality. Like shadows, these objects or forms that collectively make up the objective plane of life are merely the fleeting reflections of something that can be said to be real. They are nothing more than transitory effects that are caused by the obstruction and limitation of the light or illumination of consciousness. These philosophical shadows are what Plato would call relative and substantially illusory or unreal “forms”, while the metaphysical objects of which they are merely the reflections and imperfect revelations are what he would call the absolute, eternal, and perfect “ideas” behind these phantom-like forms.

As for the chains that keep the prisoners locked up and divested of mental and spiritual freedom within the cave of their own dim consciousness, they are a potent symbol of our closed-minded concepts and selfish ways of thinking, as these counterproductive mental constructs keep us mentally binded, blinded, and unable to behold the light of metaphysical and philosophical enlightenment. When we succeed in breaking these chains by freeing our minds through true education, which involves philosophy and meditation, we discover the greatest secret of life and existence, which in turn gives us insight into the true meaning of justice, the main subject of Plato’s Republic. Platos - CaveThis most valuable secret of all secrets is that all life is One Life, all minds are One Mindand all things are One Thing.

Not only does Plato’s Republic teach us that the mind can be, and that it all too often is, the worst kind of prison that we can ever find ourselves locked up in, this golden dialogue also teaches us, perhaps paradoxically, that the mind is also the key that we must use in order to free ourselves from that prison:

The mind is the prison

And also the key

And as Freemasons 

We have chosen to be free

 

The Quadrivium

The Quadrivium

What scholars call the “foundation of Liberal Arts” – the Trivium – is taught in order that one may expand to other subjects, building upon the skills learned. These subjects have been varied over time, based on the philosopher teaching them but they are now generally accepted as mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy – the Quadrivium. While these subjects were taught by ancient philosophers (Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, etc.), they became “the Quadrivium” in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, after Boethius or Cassiodorus had a go at translation.

(Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent article on Mathematics in the Middle Ages, which discusses the Quadrivium briefly.)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (usually known simply as Boethius) (c. 480 – 525) was a 6th Century Roman Christian philosopher of the late Roman period. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485 – c. 585), commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman and writer, serving in the administration of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.  The former, Boethius, did a great deal to translate most of the ancient philosophers from Greek to Latin. Many of his works on Aristotle were foundational learning in the Middle Ages. Cassiodorus made education his life’s passion, particularly the liberal arts, and worked diligently to ensure classical literature was at the heart of Medieval learning. Both men have been credited with coining the term “Quadrivium,” or “where four roads meet.” Adding to the mix of Medieval education “influencers” is Proclus Lycaeus, one of the last classical philosophers and an ardent translator of Plato. He is considered one of the founding “fathers” of neoplatonism and had a great influence on Medieval education as well. His translations of Plato are peppered with his own ideas of education and philosophy. One of his most interesting books, considered a major work, is “The Platonic Theology.”

sevenLA1For the serious student of the classics, all of these philosophers, in their original Greek or Latin (with English translations alongside the original) can be found in the Loeb Classical Library series. Many used book stores, especially near universities, carry these books and they can be had for about 10$ each. There are hundreds of books but all are quite good as original references (See NOTE below) Back to the Quadrivium…

While many see the Trivium and Quadrivium as “separate,” I think this is a manufacture of our modern educational system. The Trivium are the basics for communicating thought, generating ideas, and conveying those thoughts clearly; yet, like Freemasonry, I don’t know that you would have jumped completely away from your foundations. Plato, in The Republic, does note that the quadrivium subjects, as identified above, should be taught separately. The Pythagorean School divided the subjects up between quantity (mathematics and harmonics, or otherwise known as music) and magnitude (geometry, cosmology or astronomy.) Personally, I find it difficult to talk about music without first having at least fundamental mathematics and exploring both together makes sense. I have not delved into the curriculum of the universities of the Middle Ages in Europe but if someone else has, it would be interesting to hear about it. sevenliberalarts

What I find most fascinating about the art surrounding the Quadrivium (and the Trivium, for that matter) is that nearly all of the plates, pictures, or engravings represent the subject matter as female or feminine. Perhaps it has to do with the receptive qualities of studiousness, or the idea of fecundity or maybe gentleness; whatever the reason, many of the Medieval and Renaissance European depictions show all subjects with a feminine demeanor. Since nearly all scholars in the middle ages in Europe were men, perhaps it was simply a bleed-over of the Medieval ideal of women. I am sure this is another subject for another time.

On an additional side note, I searched for representations of the Quadrivium and Trivium in Islamic art, also knowing full well that Islam is aniconistic. Islam really had begun to gain ground at the last part of the classical period in North Africa & Europe and as such did not really experience the same type of “downfall” or Dark Ages, that Europe did. The schools of Islam continued to develop the subjects of the quadrivium and trivium uninterrupted until Europe “caught up.” In fact, many of the mathematics, geometry, and astronomy texts of the latter Middle Ages were translated from Greek to Syriac Aramaic or from Arabic to Latin, and later taught in Latin universities in Europe.  Suffice to say that Islam did have an impact of the learning of the West, probably much more than most people today are aware.

So, why would the Freemason study the Quadrivium? The answer, to me, is obvious. If the one of the primary studies we must take on is Geometry, we need to understand how number fits into this process. We need Mathematics to understand Geometry, and Music to understand relationship of numbers, working in harmony. Astronomy teaches us our place in universe, and allows us to expand our knowledge of our own earth toward the heavens. Geometry, or the study of the measurement of the earth, is far more than the squares and triangle theorems we all know…and love. It’s about how to apply these numbers to the world around us. As we will see in each of the subjects, they can be taken for their base modern “ideas” or we can expand and overlap them, apply them to the natural world, and thereby become better caretakers of not only the earth we live on but the beings who live on it with us. The idea of a Renaissance Man is one who is well-versed in these foundations and has ideas that expand the world around us. They make the world a better place to live in, now and for the future. The Freemason, to me, embodies this idea completely.

Next stop, the subjects of the Quadrivium. Thank you for joining me!


NOTE For those interested in more of the Loeb Classical Library, but limited access to purchase these books, Harvard University Press has been working to put them online. The link is here: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/digital.html.

Individuals can subscribe for a yearly cost, with subsequent years being cheaper, and non-profits can also subscribe for a reduced cost. If you are a serious researcher and you would like primary sources, this library is an excellent resource.