Plato’s Cine-Cave

In his Cave Allegory (Republic, c.360 BCE), Plato presents a strikingly visual account of the distinction between knowledge and belief and, in doing so, provides us with what may be considered the earliest cinema.

Plato (514a-517a) invites us to imagine humanity as prisoners who have been captive since birth in an underground chamber. There they sit, facing the back wall of the cave, unable even to turn their heads. Behind them, and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners runs a road, along which a wall has been built. Along the road there are men carrying artefacts and the fire projects shadows of these artefacts onto the back wall of the cave. The prisoners, “would believe that the shadows of the objects …were the whole truth” (515c). In what follows, we are asked to consider what would happen were one of the prisoners to be compelled to stand and turn to face the fire, and then again, what if he were “forcibly dragged up the steep and rugged ascent and not let go till he had been dragged out into the sunlight” (516a). Eventually, the released prisoner would come to realise that what he used to take for reality was nothing but shadow and illusion, and he was now seeing things more clearly. Eventually, however, he must return to the cave and attempt to convince his former fellow prisoners of their illusory state despite Plato’s warning that, “if anyone tried to release them and lead them up, they would kill him if they could lay hands on him” (517a).

Plato’s Cave may strike us as very familiar to the modern cinema – we sit in the dark watching projected images play out the drama on the screen before us. There is, however,  a very important distinction between the prisoners in the cave and modern cinema goers, in that Plato’s prisoners are unaware of the fact that what they see is mere shadow and illusion – they take this to be reality.  We, on the other hand, are able to distinguish what we see on the screen from ‘the real world’ outside the cinema. So, unlike Plato’s prisoners, who are deceived into taking the shadows for reality itself, it may be possible for us to use film to gain an insight into the world outside the cinema.

Plato’s allegory of the cave can be found in many films: A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore 1998), The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers 1999), Pi (Aronofsky 1998). Perhaps the most explicit illustration of Plato’s allegory is in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista 1970). This film-essay combines images from The Conformist, along with an Orson Welles reading of Plato’s text.

The Conformist will be the first screening of the Filmosophy summer school. Through this and other screenings we will learn what film can contribute to philosophy, and how philosophy can contribute to our enjoyment and understanding of film.

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2 thoughts on “Plato’s Cine-Cave

  1. Missed the chance to discuss this in realtion to Cinema Paradiso in the class last week.

    In what ways can the appearance/reality dualism of the cave (shadows/actual objects) be found in the movies/actual life of Toto?

    There seem to be several correspondences between what happens in Toto’s world and what happens in the movies he watches or projects, eg. most notably perhaps where, at the open-air cinema, the movie cyclops is throwing boulders down a cliff, while simultaneously Toto throws stones into the sea. I think there are several other more general instances of actual life reflecting life on the movie screen.

    In a reversal of the cave/cinema analogy, is it possible to see actual life as the shadow and screen life as the original?

    Would such a view explain Salvatore’s apparant internal reconciliation at the end of the film, of the tragedy of his lost love Elena and his unsatisfying life of many kisses, when he is viewing Alfredo’s montage of romantic scenes? The idea would be that, up until then, Salvatore considered his life of short-term relationships to be somewhat unfulfilling because it had no sort of grounding or meaningful reference point, but this was because the kissing had been censored from the movies, and so there had been no experience of an ‘original’ to this aspect of his ‘shadow-life’ behaviour. Now that the censored scenes are revealed, it somehow explains to Salvatore why he has lived the relationship-life he has whilst also validating that as grounded in reality (it has an orignal).

    Bit confusing and far-fetched perhaps – hope it makes some sort of sense!

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    1. This is fascinating Steve and I do, I think, see your point. There are a great many parallels drawn in the film between cinema and ‘real life’.

      Of course, Alfredo also implores Toto to realise that “life is not like the movies… It is much harder”. This is a point we’ll come back to again when we look at Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.

      It would be interesting to hear what others think of your suggestion.

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