Tag Archives: Plato’s Republic

‘Like, yet unlike.’

‘Like, yet unlike,’ is Merry’s comment in The Lord of the Rings when he first sees Gandalf and Saruman together: Gandalf, returned from the dead, has assumed the white robes formerly worn by Saruman, who has succumbed to despair and been corrupted by evil and is about to be deposed. So we have two people who closely resemble one another yet are profoundly different in character.

Scene: a school classroom. Enter an ancient shuffling pedagogue. He sets on his desk two items. The first depicts a scene from the days of empire, with a khaki-clad officer of the Camel Corps holding a horde of savage Dervishes at bay, armed only with a service revolver.

Teacher (in cracked wheezing voice):The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

Cackling to himself, he unveils his second prop, a glass case in which a stuffed domestic tabby cat – now rather moth-eaten, alas! – has been artfully disguised to give it the appearance of a (rather small) African lion.

Teacher (as before) The lion, the lion
he dwells in the waste –
he has a big head,
and a very small waist –
but his shoulders are stark
and his jaws they are grim:
and a good little child
will not play with him!

Once recovered from his self-induced paroxysm of mirth, almost indistinguishable from an asthma attack, he resumes what is evidently a familiar discourse.

Teacher: We remember, children, that whereas the simile (put that snuff away, Hoyle, and sit up straight) says that one thing is like another, the metaphor says that one thing is another, in this case that the soldier was a lion in the fight. Now in what respects was he a lion? it can scarcely be his appearance, though I grant that his uniform has a tawny hue not dissimilar to the lion’s pelt; certes, he has no shaggy mane (did I say something amusing, Williams? stop smirking, boy, and pay attention) and instead of claws and teeth he has his Webley .45 calibre revolver. Nonetheless, he displays a fearless courage in the face of great odds that is precisely the quality for which the King of Beasts is renowned, so that is why we are justified in calling him a lion. What is that, Hoyle? Why do we not just say he is like a lion? Ha – hum – well, you see, it makes the comparison stronger, you see, more vivid.’

Hoyle does not see, but dutifully notes it down, and refrains from suggesting that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, since he knows that will get him six of the belt in those unenlightened days.


But young Hoyle the snuff-taker has a point. Aristotle, it will be recalled, writing in his Poetics, says that the poet ‘above all, must be a master of metaphor,‘ which he defines as ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things’.  But this definition is as problematic as the teacher’s explanation: why is a comparison between two things whose most striking feature is their dissimilarity made stronger and more vivid by saying that they are actually the same?

The best that people seem able to manage in answer to this is that the literary metaphor has a kind of shock value. To illustrate the point, they generally allude to the conceits of the metaphysical poets, such as Donne, where what strikes us first as outrageous, is – once explained – redeemed by wit and ingenuity:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The best metaphor, it seems, is one where the dissimilarity is more striking than the resemblance.

But mention of the metaphysical poets recalls a different definition of metaphor, one provided by Vita Sackville-West in her book on Andrew Marvell:

‘They saw in it [metaphor] an opportunity for expressing … the unknown … in terms of the known concrete.’

That is in the form that I was wont to quote in my student days, when it made a nice pair with the Aristotle quoted above; but I think now that I did Vita Sackville-West a disservice by truncating it. Here it is in full:

‘The metaphysical poets were intoxicated—if one may apply so excitable a word to writers so severely and deliberately intellectual—by the potentialities of metaphor. They saw in it an opportunity for expressing their intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete, whether those intimations related to philosophic, mystical, or intellectual experience, to religion, or to love. They were ‘struck with these great concurrences of things’; they were persuaded that,
Below the bottom of the great abyss
There where one centre reconciles all things,
The World’s profound heart pants,
and no doubt they believed that if they kept to the task with sufficient determination, they would succeed in catching the world’s profound heart in the net of their words.’

If I had my time again (for indeed that ancient pedagogue described above is me) and wished to illustrate this, I would go about it rather differently.

Let us suppose a scene where a child cowers behind her mother’s skirts while on the other side a large and overbearing man, an official of some sort, remonstrates with the mother demanding she surrender the child to his authority. Though she is small and without any looks or glamour – a very ordinary, even downtrodden sort – the woman stands up boldly to the man and defies him to his face with such ferocity that he retreats. I am witness to this scene and the woman’s defiance sends a thrill of excitement and awe coursing through me. In recounting it to a friend, I say ‘In that moment, I seemed to glimpse her true nature – I felt as if I was in the presence of a tiger, defending her cubs.’

This is a very different account of metaphor. It is no longer a contrived comparison for (dubious) literary effect between two external things that are quite unlike, in which I play no part save as a detached observer; instead, I am engaged, involved: the metaphor happens in me: the identity is not between the external objects, but in the feeling they evoke, which is the same, so that the sight before me (the woman) recalls a very different one (the tiger) which felt exactly the same.

The first point to note is that the contradiction implicit in Aristotle’s account has disappeared. There is no puzzle in trying to work out how a woman can be a tiger, because the unity of the two lies in the feeling they evoke. And as long as my response is typically human and not something unique to me, then others, hearing my account, will feel it too, and being stirred in the same way, will recognise the truth expressed by saying ‘I felt I was in the presence of a tiger.’

Further, the very point that seemed problematic at first – the dissimilarity – is a vital element now. It is the fact that the woman appears as unlike a tiger as it is possible to be that gives the incident its force: this is an epiphany, a showing-forth, one of those ‘great concurrences of things’ that seem like a glimpse of some reality beyond appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’.

Yet that description – ‘some reality beyond appearance’ – is just what pulled me up short, and made me think of the Tolkien quote I have used as a heading. Is not this the very language of Plato, whose world of Forms or Ideas is presented as the Reality that transcends Appearance?

Yet the world as presented by Plato is essentially the same as that of Aristotle, which has become, as it were, our own default setting: it is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us; it is a world where we are detached observers, apprehending Reality intellectually as something that lies beyond the deceptive veil of Appearance. It is the world we opened with, in which metaphor is a contradiction and a puzzle, perhaps little better than a long Greek word for a lie.

Though both accounts – the Platonic-Aristotelian world on one hand, and Vita Sackville-West’s version on the other – seem strikingly similar (both have a Reality that lies beyond Appearance and so is to some extent secret, hidden), there are crucial differences in detail; like Gandalf and Saruman, they are like, yet unlike in the fundamentals that matter.

The Platonic world is apprehended intellectually. What does that mean? Plato presents it in physical terms, as a superior kind of seeing – the intellect, like Superman’s x-ray vision, penetrates the veil of Appearance to see the Reality that lies beyond. But the truth of it is less fanciful. What Plato has really discovered (and Aristotle then realises fully) is the potential of general terms. A Platonic Idea is, in fact, a general term: the platonic idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘horse’, of which every actual horse can be seen as an instance or embodiment. Thus, to apprehend the World of Forms is to view the actual world in general terms, effectively through the medium of language.

This can be imagined as being like a glass screen inserted between us and the landscape beyond, on which we write a description of the landscape in general terms, putting ‘trees’ where there is a forest, ‘mountains’ for mountains, and so on. By attending to the screen we have a simplified and more manageable version of the scene beyond, yet one that preserves its main elements in the same relation, much as a sketch captures the essential arrangement of a detailed picture.

But the Sackville-West world is not mediated in this way: we confront it directly, and engage with it emotionally: we are in it and of it. And our apprehension of a different order of reality is the opposite of that presented by Plato; where his is static, a world of unchanging and eternal certainties (which the trained intellect can come to know and contemplate), hers is dynamic, intuitive, uncertain: it is something glimpsed, guessed at, something wonderful and mysterious which we strive constantly (and never wholly successfully) to express, in words, music, dance, art.

The resemblance between the two is no accident. Plato has borrowed the guise of the ancient intuited world (which we can still encounter in its primitive form in shamanic rituals and the like) and used it to clothe his Theory of Forms so that the two are deceptively alike; and when you read Plato’s account as an impressionable youth (as I did) you overlay it with your own intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute and it all seems to fit – just as it did for the Christian neoPlatonists (in particular, S. Augustine of Hippo) seeking a philosophical basis for their religion.

I do not say Plato did this deliberately and consciously. On the contrary, since he was operating on the frontier of thought and in the process of discovering a wholly new way of looking at the world, the only tools available to express it were those already in use: thus we have the famous Simile of the Cave, as beguiling an invitation to philosophy as anyone ever penned, and the Myth of Er, which Plato proposes as the foundation myth for his new Republic.

And beyond this there is Plato’s own intuition of a secret, unifying principle beyond immediate appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’, which we must suppose him to have since it is persistent human trait: is it not likely that when he had his vision of the World of Forms, he himself supposed (just as those who came after him did) that the truth had been revealed to him, and he was able to apprehend steadily what had only been glimpsed before?

It would explain the enchantment that has accompanied Plato’s thought down the ages, which no-one ever attached to that of his pupil Aristotle (‘who is so very nice and dry,’ as one don remarked) even though Aristotelianism is essentially Plato’s Theory of Forms developed and shorn of its mysterious presentation.

So there we have it: a new explanation of metaphor that links it to a particular vision of the world, and an incidental explanation of the glamour that attaches to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Like, yet unlike.



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The Exploration of Inner Space III: What Plato’s got to do with it

chimborazo-3Chimborazo, Ecuador

WHEN I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

Turner’s poem is called ‘Romance’ and it records an experience most of us have felt at some point in childhood, the enchantment that arises from the potent combination of exotic names and far-off places, usually the result of reading books. I first heard it (my father was a great reciter of verse and lodged many poems in my head long before I ever read them, though I think it may have been my brother made me aware of this one) when I was still at primary school and I remember being perturbed by the second verse:

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

How could that happen and he not notice? I wondered. The fourth verse resonated with me: in those far-off days, we thought nothing of walking considerable distances to school, and being the youngest, I was often on my own, my brothers having moved on to the Big School, and I was certainly a dreamer:

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school—
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

volcano-popocatepetl-by-jakub-hejtmanek-wallpaperShining Popocatapetl, Mexico – photo by Jakub Hejtmanek

This poem came to mind on my morning walk when I was trying to recall when I first read Plato. I was about fourteen; it was a summer holiday in Barra, with no television. We learned to play cribbage and I read Plato’s Republic. So, not the misty heights of the South American volcanoes but a golden land of a different sort, the bright morning sunshine of the Mediterranean and ancient Greece, ‘when all the world was young’ – and not Romance, but Philosophy.

I say it was not Romance, and yet I wonder. For all his stern strictures on the ‘deception’ of art and poetry (which he would banish from his ideal state, unless it could be used for propaganda purposes) Plato is at his most persuasive when he is at his most poetic: the Simile of the Cave, where the prisoner starts out shackled in darkness, watching the play of shadows on the wall, but escapes to the upper world and gazes at last on the Sun of Truth, remains one of the most potent invitations to the study of philosophy.

Central to Plato’s thought is his Theory of Forms (or Ideas). This posits a world of immutable Forms which are what really exists – that is Reality; the world we perceive with our senses is deceptive Appearance, a mere shadow, whose contents stand to the World of Forms as the copy to the original. Thus, there are many tables, but each is an instance or expression of the single Idea or Form, ‘Table’.

As a teenager I found this beguiling, but I think an ambivalence was always there: although Plato plainly states that this World of Forms can be apprehended only by the intellect and not by the senses, his own presentation of it is so vivid (The Simile of the Cave and the Myth of Ur, which is an account of metempsychosis, following the journey of the soul after death into the timeless world of Forms thence to rebirth in another body, where its ‘acquisition’ of knowledge is actually ‘anamnesis’ or remembering its sojourn between death and birth) that it lends it the quality of concrete reality; to my teenage mind it was super-real: it had all the the vividness of the sensible world, only more so; as such it was a continuation by other means of fairyland and all the mysterious realms that had succeeded it in the stories of my childhood – it was the secret realm that lies hidden behind everyday reality, attainable only to the fortunate few.

(Another strand that was important to me was the compatibility of Plato’s thought with my religious beliefs – which should be no surprise, given that Platonism was the first big philosophical influence on Catholic thought, long before Aquinas assimilated Aristotle)

It has taken a good four decades and more for my perspective on Plato to shift. I think his way of looking at things retains a great deal of potency but is mistaken (or rather misleading) in two key particulars. The first of these is the elevation of the intellect with a concomitant denigration of the senses. I am beginning to think that this may have been a major wrong turning in Western thought and that its effects have been almost wholly pernicious. Plato may not be the first but he is certainly the foremost in establishing the antithesis between Appearance and Reality, effectively relegating the senses (and with them the emotions) to an insignificant and untrustworthy sideshow: the senses cannot be trusted; the intellect alone apprehends Truth. That is something that has bedevilled Western thought ever since; it could be summed up as the triumph of Head over Heart.

The second fault is not in his description but his labelling of it. There is a world that is apprehended by the intellect and a world apprehended by the senses, but it is the latter that is Real and Original, the former that is artificial and derivative.

(At this point, a curious things happened. Casting about for a suitable image to convey that Plato’s way of looking at things was a complete inversion of how they actually are, I recalled a particular optical illusion, where a hollow mask is rotated and we see it as a positive, convex face whichever side we see, and to accommodate this, we reverse the direction of its rotation. I recalled that I had used it in a previous piece I had written (Force of Habit) but when I checked, the link was broken. Searching for another version I came on this but what really excited me was the note at the end:

‘this illusion often fails to work on people suffering with schizophrenia; they are able to see the hollow mask for what it is. In this case the raw visual information (bottom-up processing) is not over-ridden by higher cognitive processes (top-down processing). Some psychologists believe that this dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality.’

Top-down processing suggests that we form our perceptions starting with a larger object, concept, or idea before working our way toward more detailed information. In other words, top-down processing happens when we work from the general to the specific; the big picture to the tiny details.’

Screenshot 2015-03-23 13.13.06

This, couched in different language, is just what Plato proposes in his Theory of Forms: the Form or Idea is general, and specific instances are derived from it (interestingly, it was Plato’s pupil Aristotle who devised the system of classification using Genus and Species, where things are grouped together according to their common or general characteristics, and subdivided according to their specific or detailed differences – a way of looking at things that seems so ‘natural’ that we forget that it was an invention).


However, what excited me even more than this unexpected sidelight on Plato was how well the idea that the ‘dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality’ fitted with the notion I floated in my last piece  namely that some (perhaps much) ‘mental illness’ has its roots in an inability to learn the conventional way of seeing the world that most of us have adopted. Of course, from my point of view, I would insist on the inverted commas round ‘reality’ here, and I would resist the superiority implied in describing ‘top-down processing’ as ‘higher cognitive processes’.

In other words, Plato’s Theory of Forms – or ‘top-down processing’ if you prefer – is the very ‘carapace’ that we interpose between ourselves and reality, as discussed in my previous articles [here and here]. It is worth exploring this idea further.

The first thing to say is that we must remember, first and foremeost, that what we are discussing here are not actual things but ways of seeing – what Plato (and all who have followed) are offering is a way of looking at the world, a way of thinking about it – ‘seeing it as’ .

In saying this, I do not mean that before Plato no-one saw it this way and that since then everyone has learned consciously to do so. What Plato has made explicit and others (principally Aristotle) have refined is a technique, a way of dealing with the world, of operating in it, that was doubtless already implicit in much of our behaviour (though it would be interesting to know to what extent).

At the heart of this technique is abstraction, or the power to generalise, the trick of ignoring (superficial) difference and homing in on (underlying) similarity. This is certainly a very powerful tool: it enables us to use general terms, group things under the same head: ‘tree’ for all and any tree, ‘car’ ‘man’ ‘insect’ and so on. We can imagine that without it our mental processes might be very cumbersome; certainly our language would be. (I have discussed an aspect of this before, in relation to number, here).

I remember as a youth having an interesting discussion with an elderly Australian jesuit, Fr. John Flynn, an eminent islamic scholar among other things. His brother was a man of the same cut and had compiled one of the first dictionaries of the Australian Aboriginal tongue. One point that has stuck in my mind was that (apparently) they had no single verb ‘to wash’ but used a different word depending on what was being washed – the feet, the hands, the head, some article*. Fr Flynn cited this as evidence of ‘primitive’ thinking and I remember arguing that it might rather have been that, for them, more significance attached to the difference between the specific acts than to the similarity of the action, so that to suppose that washing the feet was like washing the face might strike them as ludicrous or possibly indecent.

This calls to mind what is said in the excerpt quoted above about one set of cognitive processes ‘over-riding’ another and the attitude this implies. We could say that the Aboriginal Australian (in the instance cited) has not developed the ‘higher’ cognitive processes that enable him to see that all acts of washing are essentially the same, share the same general form; but equally the Aboriginal Australian could retort that our debased ‘Western’ way of looking at things is a bit like having bad eyesight – we can no longer distinguish critical details. It is we who are deficient: we have forgotten how to see.

I find that idea exciting. It resonates with other things that I feel are bound up with this whole area of discussion, the question of what constitutes Reality and how best to perceive it. One is the celebrated ability of the Aboriginal Australian to ‘read’ the landscape and navigate without any of the aids that ‘Westerners’ require; when it comes to reading our surroundings, it is we who are illiterate. (When we lost this ability is an interesting matter to consider. There has recently been something of a revival in Britain of the idea of reading a landscape in this way (as here, for instance) and it is a commonplace that those who work close to nature and depend on it for their livelihood – shepherds, farmers, fishermen, say – are much more skilled in gleaning information from their surroundings.)

Another point of resonance is the experience of learning to draw, and developing skill in art generally; one of the first things you have to be aware of is the extent to which we allow concepts to interpose between us and the thing we are looking at. The simple exercise of drawing a familiar object – a cup, say – soon brings this home. We know what a cup is – we have the idea of it ‘in our head’: it seems superfluous to provide an example; we could draw one from our imagination. And to begin with, that is what we do. We fail to see the specific cup that is in front of us and draw our idea of it instead; we need to learn various techniques for seeing past the concept to the actual object, which is a pattern of light, shade and colour. (One such is the technique of ‘negative space’ where instead of attending to the object, you look at the space round about it (see some interesting applications here)).

Here I think we are approaching the heart of the matter, which is the possibility that we have evolved a way of seeing the world that has proved so useful and beneficial in so many respects that we have become blind to its shortcomings (it is, in fact, a form of elective indispensability, an idea I discuss in an earlier piece). The consequence is that when we experience difficulty as a result of these shortcomings – as I think is increasingly the case – we fail to recognise the source. We resemble, if you like, people who have become increasingly wearied and burdened by a heavy back-pack and try every method to make it easier to carry – walking sticks, different diet, improved fitness – save the obvious one of taking it off.

*I am open to correction here, as I am recalling something from forty years ago.


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