I have long held the conviction that Western thought was formatively birthed in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Recently, while preparing to teach my Postmodern Philosophers class, I found my conviction grimly underscored.
You may have read the Republic, in which the Allegory appears. Prisoners are chained facing the back wall of a cave. Along a parapet behind them, people walk back and forth, carrying objects. A fire built behind the people on the parapet casts their shadows on the wall the prisoners face. What the prisoners see is really only shadows. The prisoners of the Allegory reflect Plato’s estimate of the sophistry-loving citizens of Athens.
A teacher releases a prisoner from his chains and compels him to turn away from the shadows and start a difficult ascent towards the light. The first stage upward brings the prisoner-turned-student to behold the ever-changing world that we see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Nothing permanent here, but a definite step-up from subjectivistic delusions. The motifs of conversion and ascent towards light have for millennia powered and intertwined the West’s conceptions of learning and salvation.
Climbing farther upward, the student sees the fire, the in-the-cave counterpart of the great Sun that shines outside the cave. In the final stage of the ascent, the teacher prods the student out the very door of the cave into the blinding radiance of the eternal Sun itself. At first it is agonizing, until the student’s eyes adjust and he comes to be able to gaze upon it. The Sun for Plato represents the Form of the Good, the ultimate reality, proper object of knowledge, and highest good. It gives life and understanding to all things. It is accessed by the highest form of knowledge: reason, rational inquiry, Socratic dialogue. It is not accessed by the senses.
The intermediate stage, the cave fire, represents lower forms of knowledge, typified best by our knowledge of geometrical forms such as triangles. When you draw a triangle on the blackboard and do a geometric proof with respect to it, just ask: what triangle is the proof about—the one on the board? No—it is imperfect. The proof is about an unseen but perfect triangle. That gives you a good sense of what Plato had in mind by the forms: ultimate intangible rationally apprehended permanent archetypes after which all of reality is copied.
The thus-enlightened student’s obligation is then to return to the Cave to govern, to teach, to set other prisoners free, even though once back in the Cave his Sun-adjusted eyes make his stumbling efforts appear out of place. Plato was offering in the Allegory his rationale for Socrates’ unpopularity and for the rule, in his utopian and just republic, of philosopher-kings. He was also painting a powerful vision of true knowledge, as opposed to mere opinion.
Christians from Augustine to C.S. Lewis have noted the affinities between the Allegory and Christianity. The Good is God, the ultimate Being whom to contemplate is perfect happiness. Men love darkness rather than light. Jesus is the Teacher who draws and accompanies us on the ascent.
But more generally in the West, “enlightenment” has been repeatedly associated with the ascendancy of our rational capacities, in the unsullied employment of which alone true knowledge is to be had.
For the last two centuries, thoughtful people have been raising questions about this enlightenment ideal. Romanticism, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, the Existentialists, Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein, and postmodern philosophers such as Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida, are only some of those who have challenged the integrity of the vision of Reason. They have repeatedly named its damaging and dehumanizing consequences and prophesied its imminent self-implosion. Where Reason has been married to Christianity, the progeny have been deemed especially offensive.
Many people have not taken all this seriously, even though they live its cultural fallout without knowing it. Why is it that people are outraged at the offensiveness of “imposing your truth on somebody else”? Why is it that they act as if back down in the base of the tower of Reason is something akin to decaying and stinking corpse?
because there is. At the back of the Cave, so to speak, is one grand
cover-up. “Athensgate,” perhaps! The Allegory gives birth to the West’s
exalted ideal of Reason, of Truth founded on lucid certainties and
built up through logical deductions. We bought it, hook, line and
sinker. We never realized that the Allegory of the Cave, which exalted
rational inquiry over the story telling of Sophists, was itself a story.
Jean-Francois Lyotard has briefly defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarrative.” Narratives aren’t the problem; metanarrative is. I think of metanarrative as narrative-turned-evil, like the Cyber-Dog in the Wallace and Gromit story.
The metanarrative is ascendant Reason, which hides and denies its
narrative origins, and continues to “delegitimate” any narrative-based
truth claims such as biblical Christianity. It’s also delegitimated
physicality, femaleness, emotions, art, tacit knowledge, and human
labor and action along the way.
that continues to court the ascendancy of Reason may in this milieu
find the way barred by increasingly restive antagonists. But the times
present positive inducement for Christians to own its biblical
narrative origins—not as anti-intellectual, sub-par, non-epistemic
pietism, but as the most authentic, human, and epistemically astute
approach possible. This isn’t about surrendering either truth or
rationality, or objectivity. It’s about doing them responsibly,
effectively, healingly, and as unto the Lord. It’s about humbly,
confidently, acknowledging the fundamental, storied commitments that
shape all our bodies of knowledge, whether the subject matter is the
Gospel, a public policy, or molecular biology.
Narrative is fine. “Living the Christian story” is even better. Cover-up isn’t.
 I do not mean to say that Plato himself intended the cover-up. Perhaps we may say that it has been the Modern era which has been and continues to commit perjury—or just conveniently forget.
 The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge; G. Bennington and B. Massumi, trans.; Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 10; 1984. University of Minnesota.