Size: 48×72″ Philosophical paintings
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Allegory of the Cave
In his seminal work The Republic, written around 380 BC, Plato shares his theory of knowledge where he uses his famous Allegory of the Cave to illustrate the type of (limited) knowledge he believed most people hold. He claimed that what most people consider ‘real’ is analogous to what you might expect from people who have been kept prisoner in a cave all their lives. Having only ever seen by the light from a campfire behind them, these cave dwellers take the flickering shadows on the cave wall in front of them as the things themselves. In fact, these shadows are cast by puppets of objects like a tree or the sun being carried back and forth by puppeteers behind the wall. In other words, the cave dwellers perceive the shadows as being ‘real’ objects in the same way a young child might perceive shadows at night to be ‘real’ monsters. In fact, these so-called monsters are really shadows.
There are some people who leave the cave and see the sun and all that is Real and True. According to Plato it was the duty of these philosophers, such as Socrates, to return to the cave and help the cave dwellers turn their heads to face the light and to leave the cave. It is this head-turning moment that is portrayed here. The philosopher indicates the direction of the cave entrance to a woman who is distressed by the brightness of the light.
It is important to note that at the time, a philosopher was a man who studied mathematics, biology, astronomy, geophysics, cosmology and meta-sciences. Plato did not consider himself to be one who had achieved such intellectual enlightenment, yet he strived to do so.
Like a translator translates a story from one language to another, thus making it accessible to many more people, I plan to be a visual translator of philosophical texts so that people will have access to these seminal stories and ideas.
For centuries philosophers have been discussing the human condition and everything related to our existence, all of which is relevant today. I want to inspire people to discuss these concepts, to question current beliefs and systems, to dig deeper. In short, I hope to rekindle the curiosity we all had as children, and to stimulate questions, especially the question “Why?”
Use of light and colour
I wanted to create a timeless, theatrical atmosphere, like the characters are part of a classic play. In true traditional form, I chose to feature the primary colours yellow, red and blue surrounded by umbers.
As you can see, there are four light sources in this painting. I flooded the cave dwellers with a blue usually associated with light from a screen; in fact, some are looking at a screen. I portrayed the cave dwellers as statuesque figures who appear static, cool, and disconnected. I left parts of them undefined, especially their hands and feet, in order to indicate that these cave dwellers are incomplete or ‘less than whole.’
In contrast, the enlightened individual, having been out of the cave, seems to emanate the light of the Real Sun. Note: a fire would not give off the type of bright light that exists at the feet of the philosopher.
In most ways I stayed true to Plato’s theory, but there were a few elements I decided to change in order to fit the 21st century.
First, I chose to depict a woman having her head turned, despite the fact that Plato would not have considered women capable of achieving wisdom. In fact, this woman will be featured in the next few paintings as she journeys out of the cave and back in again.
Second, I incorporated modern technology to represent the shadows on the wall. The phone is obvious, but less obvious is the laptop being clutched to a woman’s chest. This woman is turning her head, and warmed by the light of the fire as if to indicate the she will be next. Plato would have considered such devices to be even further removed from reality; a television or iPhone would be a shadow of the shadows on the wall.
One point I would like to mention here is that the cave dwellers are looking at shadows on the wall. We, as viewers of the painting, cannot see these shadows. In fact, we are being watched.
We are shadows on the wall.
Plato was born in Athens around 427 BC and died around the age of 80. Given his wealthy aristocratic origins, Plato likely received training in the arts, politics, and philosophy and would probably have entered a political career. However, his disillusionment with democracy my well have been a result of the actions of leaders during and after the collapse of Athens. Further, the condemnation and execution of his beloved teacher Socrates resulted in Plato’s formulation of a “new conception of political leadership in which authority and knowledge are appropriately combined.” 1
According to Stumpf, “Plato had concluded that as in the case of a ship, where the pilot’s authority rests upon his knowledge of navigation, so also the ship of state should be piloted by one who has adequate knowledge, a theme which he developed at length in his Republic.”2
Plato was a prolific writer, and by the age of forty had preserved Socrates’ dialectic method by writing a series of works collectively known as Plato’s Dialogues. In order to use the dialectic method to create moral, enlightened, effective political leaders, Plato founded the Academy, the world’s first known university.
Plato argued that the visible world of actual things, represented by the shadows on the wall, is less real than the world of Ideas, represented by the sunlight at the cave entrance.
Why? Because things around us are impermanent, whereas Ideas based in intellect are permanent. For example, three oranges will disappear, but the Idea Three has a timeless quality.
According to Plato, only the world of such timeless Ideas could produce true (objective) knowledge, whereas the world of appearances could only produce (subjective) opinion. “Plato rejected the moral relativism of the Sophists, arguing that…if we have knowledge about the true nature of things, including the true nature of man, we have also the basic clue to how men should behave.”3
Plato questioned the motives of the Sophists, who used wordplay to manipulate others rather than to discover the truth. In Plato’s opinion, a good political leader would be someone who understands that which is Good and True and leads for the good of society, not for himself.
Plato believed that art, and anything that involved imagination, led one further from the goal of absolute Truth. According to Plato, a painting of the sun is only the artist’s subjective opinion, and is therefore equivalent to being a shadow of a shadow.
I am starting my life’s work with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave for several reasons. First, his Allegory was what first gave me the idea to combine Philosophy and Art. Second, Plato is considered to be the founder of Western thought, and it simply felt right for me to begin here and build my body of work in a similar fashion. Third, Plato’s writings are so visually descriptive that in Plato alone I have enough ideas to explore and paint for several years.
For those of you who have seen the movie “The Matrix”, you may remember when the main character Neo is given a choice between two pills: the red pill will lead him to the truth, the blue pill will leave him in life as he knows it. After taking the red pill, Neo is pulled out of the simulated world of the Matrix into the real world, where machines keep humans alive to use as batteries. The few humans who live in the real world are at war with the machines, trying to free all humans from the Matrix.
In this painting, we could compare the woman on the ground to the movie character Neo; she is being offered a choice between being led out of the cave to see all that is real, or stay in the cave with her companions.