Plato’s Cave and the Cinema

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 picture-house.

This short passage (narrated above by Orson Welles) is one of the most famous in philosophy.  The philosophically unenlightened are represented as prisoners chained from birth in an underground cave, able to see nothing but moving shadows cast on the back wall. These shadows they take to be the whole of reality.  The philosopher, however, will not be content with this.  He will break his chains and turn towards the light, embarking on the perilous journey from the cave to the outside world.  At first he will be dazzled by the daylight – but eventually he will be able to see clearly and, in doing so, he will see that what he used to take for reality was nothing but shadow and illusion. Only then may he attain true knowledge and philosophical enlightenment. The philosopher, Plato insists, then has a responsibility to return to the cave and inform his former fellow prisoners of their illusory state. However, his attempts will not be welcomed – in fact ‘they would kill him if they could lay hands on him’.  Plato here is, without doubt, referring to the life (and death) of his friend and teacher, Socrates, who was sentenced to death by the Athenian assembly for impiety and corrupting the young.

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. Consider Maxim Gorky’s reflections upon attending the Lumiere cinematograph in 1896:

‘Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.  If you only knew how strange it is to be there.  It is a world without sound, without colour.  Everything there – the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air – is dipped in monotonous grey.  Grey rays of the sun across grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey.  It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre’

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, despite the technical advances in film, are able to distinguish what we see on the screen from ‘the real world’ outside the cinema.

Plato’s allegory of the cave can be found in many films – Bertolucci’s 1970 classic Il Conformista, Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1989), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) -in some, its influence is explicit, in others less so.

One aspect which the Allegory of the Cave reveals to us concerns the nature of philosophy itself.  That is to say, philosophy requires us to question – not to take what we believe for granted.  As Bertrand Russell states:

As soon as we begin to philosophize … we find … that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given.

Now philosophers philosophise about everything under the sun, and film is just another of those things. In fact, much more than that, it is an incredibly prominent, pervasive, and potentially pernicious thing under the sun. As such, just as we have philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, or philosophy of religion, we have philosophy of film.

Philosophising about film began early in the 20th century with questions regarding whether or not film could or should be considered an art form.  As such, the question ‘Can film be art?’ is a philosophical one. Similarly, questions concerning exactly what film is, its relationship with reality, and why it is that we are emotionally affected by what we know to be fictional characters and events depicted in film, are all ones which philosophers have invested a great deal of thought into.As well as being the subjects of philosophical discourse, films have, in recent years, increasingly been used to exemplify philosophical views, arguments or to act as thought experiments. As such, some films may be thought of as vehicles for examining pre-existing philosophical ideas – philosophy through film.  Perhaps the most famous example, and the one which gave rise to this recent trend, is The Matrix, which is often used to illustrate the arguments of the 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes. Fortunately, there are many more examples that can be used to increase our understanding of philosophy and which, in turn, enhance our understanding and enjoyment of film.

Last, but not least, there is a controversial claim that some films, rather than being mere vehicles for previously held philosophical ideas or arguments, may be thought of as actually doing philosophy – philosophy as film (filmosophy). Thus, we might examine the films of directors such as Keislowski, Kubrick, or Haneke as philosophical treatises in their own right, offering – in much the same way as Plato does via his Allegory – reflection and insight into the world round us. So, unlike Plato’s prisoners who are deceived into taking the shadows for reality itself, we actually can use film to gain an insight into the world outside the cinema.

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6 thoughts on “Plato’s Cave and the Cinema

  1. I just noticed this site. It sounds like we have similar interests. I thought I’d mention that I wrote a book on this topic a few years ago. It’s called Shadow Philosophy: Plato’s Cave and Cinema. The book’s title comes from its focus on the analogy between the allegory of the cave and cinema; the book also brings Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange “into dialogue” with Plato’s Republic. It covers a range of topics such as the nature of justice and freedom, and the moral impact of art. Let me know if you are interested and I can send you an e-copy of the book.

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