Friday, September 9, 2011

The Cave, unpacked: part 2

So, since no one seemed to object to my idea of using Living Epic, for the foreseeable future, as a place to riff on my stuff at PlaythePast. . . The next bit of that post is:
Here’s what you need to know starting out: 1) Plato loved Homer—the sheer number of quotations from Homer, made in passing by Socrates and others, almost always provided to give unquestionable support to a commonly understood point, proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt.
I suppose if there’s a difficulty here, it’s in what I mean by the word “loved.” Let’s look at an example--and where better to find it than the story of the cave itself. Socrates, in telling his interlocutors about how strongly the philosopher, who’s been outside the cave, would reject the life of the prisoners, quotes the Odyssey. Not just any passage, either: Socrates quotes the famous words from the mouth of the shade of Achilles in the underworld, about how he’d rather still be alive as the meanest slave in the world than be king of the dead. Ironic, huh? The philosopher would rather be in the upper world--the “real” world--than in the lower one, just like Achilles.

More ironic: if I’m right that the shadow-puppet play of the cave is in large part Plato’s metaphor for the education provided by Athenian culture, comprising above all the epics of the homeric tradition, then Plato is using “Homer” against “himself.” The philosopher wants to be free, specifically of Homer.

But doesn’t it take a critic who loves Homer to create this fantastic, nostalgic web of irony and metaphor?

When I say in that post that Plato “loved” Homer, I’m using “loved” as a short-hand for something like “regarded as indispensable and ineluctable,” but this riff may let me follow on to some sort of greater love, albeit one much more complex. Homer was Plato’s education, as it was Socrates’; how could Plato despise it, when it had led him whither he had arrived, able to imagine a world outside the cave?

When we who are trying to use such insights to reform education yet again think about our own educations, I hope we can treat it much as Plato treated Homer--rejecting gently but firmly, speaking of ancient quarrels, but acknowledging, as Plato does in the story of the cave, our eternal debts.