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We are all familiar with the famous, incomparably suggestive cave allegory in Plato's Republic. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to modern movies, TV, and social media, this allegory seems to retain an uncanny relevance.

Though Plato describes his "cave" as a place of illusion, pantomime, or reversal, we also know that, like all Greeks, he was deeply aware of the Delphic Oracle as the origin and "authorization" of the Socratic quest for knowledge.

While devoted to the "truths" of the god of the sun and light, Apollo, the oracle itself was situated in a subterranean cave, as described by Plutarch and modern archeology. Greeks at the time of Plato and Herodotus were aware of political flimflam at Delphi, yet never overtly dismiss it.

My question is, simply put, is anyone aware of other cave allegories in ancient philosophy and/or drama? The reason for the lengthy prelude above is that I would also appreciate any "leads" about related writings in cultural studies, critical theory, or interesting modern philosophical interpretations of this metaphor.

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  • The oracle at Delphi declared Socrates 'the wisest man in Athens', so why would the lineage of thought from him dispute it's authority? Socrates used the Delphic maxim 'Know thyself' as a core organising idea, it embodied a wisdom tradition. Socrates was also sentenced to death for blasphemy, a pretty stark bulwark against 'exposing flim-flam'. It's an interesting point Plato's cave is seperated from Apollo. But the oracle, called the Pythia, was meant to inhale the sickly-sweet air from dead Python, the monstrous snake child of Gaia that Apollo slew. I.e. there had been a cult transition.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 13 '20 at 3:54
  • I agree, as far as I know Plato never disputed the oracle, and I am personally a big fan of the Delphic injunction. But I believe Herodotus and other contemporary sources did mention that payoffs for "favorable" or "unfavorable" omens happened, though I don't have sources to hand. From my own reading, I gather that the oracle had a highly political dimension where some human-level corruption was not unknown. Perhaps a bit like the Vatican. It's hard to tell what the many skeptical minds of that period thought about it. Nov 13 '20 at 15:25
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    It occurred to me to look to Aesop - Plato & Aristotle were familiar with en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fox_and_the_Sick_Lion
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 13 '20 at 15:27
  • Nice, never heard the before about the tracks and, so funny!, the notorious Spartan greed. Nov 13 '20 at 17:19
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The Elusinian Mysteries were a widespread Greek cult practice which had exceptional continuity, focused on Demeter & Persephone, thought to continue a Minoan cult (so pre-Greek), and which continued well into the Roman era, and only ended with full Christianisation of the Roman Empire around 400AD.

What exactly the Mysteries were, is the subject of much speculation, particularly because they were intentionally secret & kept mysterious, on pain of death to initiates revealing them - it seems they gained some of their power from new people not knowing what to expect, as for instance Masonic rituals do today. It may be totally irrelevant, but it is interesting to note the step well at Quinta le Regaleira in Sintra, which would have involved a precession down into the ground, where at the base of the stairs it meets paths along an underground stream with niches for events.

It is notable that Persephone was a Cthonic deity, which means sacrifices would have been made in a pit or underground in a bothros probably by burying, as opposed to an Olympic deity like Demeter, who would have recieved sacrifices on an altar typically by burning (see passage tombs, for a comparable example to a bothros, considered gates to the underworld). We have learned substantially more about these practices of Greek religion since the decipherment of Linear B, the written language of the Mycenae (the related Linear A is the even earlier written language of the Minoans, still undeciphered).

Here is what has been deciphered from inscriptions:

"At Eleusis inscriptions refer to "the Goddesses" accompanied by the agricultural god Triptolemos (probably son of Ge and Oceanus), and "the God and the Goddess" (Persephone and Plouton) accompanied by Eubuleus who probably led the way back from the underworld. The myth was represented in a cycle with three phases: the "descent", the "search", and the "ascent" (Greek "anodos") with contrasted emotions from sorrow to joy which roused the mystae to exultation. The main theme was the ascent of Persephone and the reunion with her mother Demeter. At the beginning of the feast, the priests filled two special vessels and poured them out, the one towards the west, and the other towards the east. The people looking both to the sky and the earth shouted in a magical rhyme "rain and conceive". In a ritual, a child was initiated from the hearth (the divine fire). The name pais (child) appears in the Mycenean inscriptions. It was the ritual of the "divine child" who originally was Ploutos. In the Homeric hymn the ritual is connected with the myth of the agricultural god Triptolemos. The goddess of nature survived in the mysteries where the following words were uttered: "Mighty Potnia bore a great son".3 Potnia (Linear B po-ti-ni-ja : lady or mistress), is a Mycenaean title applied to goddesses, and probably the translation of a similar title of Pre-Greek origin. The high point of the celebration was "an ear of grain cut in silence", which represented the force of the new life. The idea of immortality didn't exist in the mysteries at the beginning, but the initiated believed that they would have a better fate in the underworld. Death remained a reality, but at the same time a new beginning like the plant which grows from the buried seed. A depiction from the old palace of Phaistos is very close to the image of the "anodos" of Persephone. An armless and legless deity grows out of the ground, and her head turns to a large flower." - from Wikipedia, where these are all supported by references

And

"Upon reaching Eleusis, there was an all-night vigil (pannychis) according to Mylonas[50] and Kerenyi.[51] perhaps commemorating Demeter's search for Persephone. At some point, initiates had a special drink (kykeon), of barley and pennyroyal, which has led to speculation about its chemicals perhaps having psychotropic effects from the Ergot fungi.

"Discovery of fragments of Ergot (fungi containing LSD-like psychedelic alkaloids) in a temple dedicated to the two Eleusinian Goddesses excavated at the Mas Castellar site (Girona, Spain) provided legitimacy for this theory. Ergot fragments were found inside a vase and within the dental calculus 25-year-old man, providing evidence of Ergot being consumed (Juan-Stresserras, 2002). This finding seems to support the hypothesis of ergot as an ingredient of the Eleusinian kykeon." - Greater Mysteries, on Wikipedia

So, it seems there was a powerful, ancient, widespread and accessible cult practice, of going into a cave, having a psychaedelic substance, and coming out with mysterious knowledge, and this would definitely have been known to Plato, whether or not he was an initiate. It's hard not to think, Plato may have been specifically satirising this as a source of knowledge with his Cave metaphor.

Edited to add: Plato was definitely an initate, and so was Socrates (presumably before he was a soldier, because anyone who had killed someone could not participate).

"self-restraint and justice and courage and wisdom itself are a kind of purification. And I fancy that those men who established the mysteries were not unenlightened, but in reality had a hidden meaning when they said long ago that whoever goes uninitiated and unsanctified to the other world will lie in the mire, but he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods. For as they say in the mysteries, 'the thyrsus-bearers are many, but the mystics few'; and these mystics are, I believe, those who have been true philosophers. And I in my life have, so far as I could, left nothing undone, and have striven in every way to make myself one of them." - spoken by Socrates in The Phaedo

There follows a discussion of the immortality of the soul, and true knowledge as remembering or recollection rather than as discovery or as a creative process, and goes on to give the account of the soldier Err of the afterlife which is conjectured by scholars to align with the Elusinian account. It is notable that these stories being allegorical is an interpretation rejected by modern scholars, though it has had a powerful sway in the past on Neoplatonists, and influencing Abrahamic faiths.

The plot thickens! I am inclined to think even while respecting the Mysteries, in the Cave story Plato is still elevating reason over initiate story-based sources of knowledge.

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  • Thanks for this, very interesting. I knew a little about the mysteries, but not the fact of physical "descent." Yes, I was thinking myself about possible implied criticism in Plato before I got to your last line. But it's true that "descents" and "ascents" play role in Plato. As far as I know, the only first-hand description of The Delphic Oracle is Plutarch, much, much later. Years back there was a reported discovery of volcanic fumes at Delphi, but I believe this is much contested now. But you are probably right that Platos' cave is in some way an image drawn from these mysteries. Nov 13 '20 at 17:15
  • @NelsonAlexander: see edit
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 13 '20 at 17:16
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Porphyry wrote About the cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey (Peri tou en Odysseia tōn nymphōn antrou). It is a matter of opinion how philosophical is that, but the same goes for most neoplatonic writings. A thesis from 2019 by J. S. Kwon, The Platonic Defense of Homeric Allegoresis in Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs mentions in its abstract

Porphyry of Tyre, makes an implicit defense of Homeric myth in his allegorical reading of Homer, On the Cave of the Nymphs, against the criticisms that Plato raises in his Republic, while still attempting to construct his arguments within a Platonic metaphysical system.

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Since you mentioned modern interpretation, I would highly recommend "The Country of the Blind" by H. G. Wells.

And ~70 years before Plato's account, Heraclitus wrote a whole book on the subject -- of which only a few fragments remained.

The Truth holds always, but humans, time and again, prove unable to ever understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it.

In fact here is my meddle of quotes from Ancient Greece, the Upanishad, the Bible, all referencing the same conundrum... or call it Plato-Socrates-Heraclitus effect:

Each subsequent attempt at persuading them cave dwellers to exit would only bring you tears & sorrow leave you more bewildered, but no closer to the solution.

In the beginning was the Truth, and the Truth was with Everything, and the Truth was Everything. All things happened through it, in it was life, and the life was the Light of all men… And the Light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not comprehend it.
  — John 1:1–5

And although the Truth is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.
The mysteries practiced among men are unholy mysteries.
  — Heraclitus

The unenlightened sees diversity in Unity but the Gyani (one who know the Ultimate Truth, The Self) realized Oneness in diversity
  — Bhagavad Gita, 2nd century BCE

⬇⬇⬇ 💥💯🏆💯💘 ⬇⬇⬇
Mortals are immortals, immortals are mortals;
  Living their death, dying their life
.
    — Heraclitus

Listening not to me but to the Truth, it is wise to agree that all things are one.
  — Heraclitus

The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father.
  — Gospel of John, 14:10, 16:25

Pin your faith to natural knowledge, stumble through the darkness of the blind; pin your faith to supernatural knowledge, stumble through darkness deeper still.
One can understand this only if one understands that it can not be understood, and one is not able to understand this if one thinks it can be understood.
  — Kena-Upanishad

To find your Self, think for yourself [rather be happy with your subconsciousness, as your very own chatbot, speaking “your thoughts” to you. — Yuri]
I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.
  — Socrates, 5th century BCE

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
  — Jeremiah 17:9

… and yet,

Once a man knows good from evil, nothing on earth can compel him to act against that knowledge.
  — Socrates

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  • Thanks. This is rather broad and gets away from specific "cave" analogies into universal "light versus dark," but some good stuff, I've always liked H.G. Wells and never heard of that book, so I'll check it out. Nov 14 '20 at 15:13
  • @NelsonAlexander > away from specific "cave" analogies into universal "light versus dark," -- the "light vs dark" theme is indeed omnipresent and for a good reason, it refers to a very specific problem at the core of human nature. A problem that became so widespread, it's been long assumed to be our nature -- rather than an issue that needs to be addressed.
    – silkfire
    Nov 14 '20 at 22:25
  • ... that's why the selection of the quotes -- they stand out because they too speak of an issue, rather than re-stating that "it is how it is" bull for a millionth time.
    – silkfire
    Nov 14 '20 at 22:37

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