There be dragons!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Plato's dream


I know it's sounds like a first year philosophy undergrad, but is all of The Republic a dream? The opening of the Republic, katabein, suggests a descent into a dark place resembling the state of sleep. Dream imagery exists in the discussions about opinion versus knowledge. The myths run together much like images out of dream. Moreover the entirety of the dialogue consists of Socrates telling, in a rational manner, the experience he went through as though he were recalling a dream. Consequently it seems as though the work were something like a dream. Socrates in retelling the dream becomes Er, the man who has survived the experience and returns to tell others. The emphasis on gnosis as a form of awakeness and opinion as a form of sleepwalking confirm this since Socrates seems to be the only one who knows while all others are merely men walking like trees.

Interestingly enough too is the recycled imagery of the three major myths that seem to indicate a dreamlike reincarnation of forms that result in a single continuous story. The unenlightened "dirt man", Gyges, who in his waking world does not value the things around him descends into a world of horror and darkness - giants and nightmare shapes; he feels he is a slave, a shepherd beholden to another man and thinks that the insight, the ring, the ability to define himself, gives him the power to grasp at divinity & freedom (kingship); yet he does so by murder and seduction, dominating the world around him, and making, we assume, his own life into a train wreck.

This train wreck is continued in the Myth of the Cave where the ring of power has now become the iron rings of the chain that holds Gyges & the other denizens to the floor of the earth. Now having gone through the awfulness of the plane crash, an awfulness of his own contriving, he finds himself bound to the necessity of shadows like Macbeth bound to a world of nightmares. Then the miracle occurs; he awakens and the chains fall off and he arises from his cavelike existence to ascend into the real world again. Does this released man meet his ghost-like invisible former self descending into the cave which he thinks will yield wonders but only yields slavery? Hard to say whether such overlap occurs. What does seem to happen is that the released man now undergoes a type of purgation as he climbs up the rough ascent of the cave passage and endures the pain of seeing the light again. Yet now, after the trauma of the war/plane crash/train wreck, everything seems a marvel - bright and new - as though he were born into the world for the first time and he stares in real wonder, thaumata, at the sun itself.

The trauma and the wonder continue in Er who has experienced the trauma of death on the battlefield. Gyges experiences the little death of his own making which he suffers as the denizen in the cave and which becomes a real death in the person of Er. In this third myth the freedman now values the world which he so readily left behind in the first myth. His boredom with the things around him has evaporated due to the threat of losing those very things and has been replaced with a wonder and gratefulness at life and being alive. The marvels that Er sees are visions not so much of the afterlife but of the world around us; other people thinking themselves trapped in the wheel of fate, the underlying pattern of the spindle of necessity which so few people see, the freedom of every man to choose his own course of life. These are images which exist in the world which shepherd Gyges originally forsook, a world which he put in jeopardy by his own attempt to grasp at what appeared to be immortality. Thus Er awakens from the dream and comes back to the "cave" of the real world to relate to others his own katabein and resurrection.

The theme (willfully jeopardizing this world, ruin, resurrection) seems to be the skeleton of many modern stories, in fact, perhaps, THE story which we tell ourselves over and over again; "The Second Coming", "Fearless", "Saving Private Ryan", "Crime & Punishment", "A Good Man is Hard to Find" - it is the "I had it all, I lost it, it was returned to me as gift" story; one which we retell in our own exile and waking hours to remind us that our little lives are surrounded by a sleep.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

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