How might Plato set his own cave metaphor in motion? How might the sting of seeing oneself inside one’s cave help to promote epistemological modesty, and to underscore “the epistemological benefits of cross-cultural engagement”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Rebecca LeMoine. This present conversation focuses on LeMoine’s forthcoming book Plato’s Caves: The Liberating Sting of Cultural Diversity. LeMoine is an assistant professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. Her work on ancient Greek political thought has been published in journals including: the American Political Science Review, History of Political Thought, and Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought.
ANDY FITCH: Let’s say that, on the semester’s first day, you pass some ominous right-leaning campus group flanked by faux-marble statues and wearing Spartan helmets. Let’s say you then encounter a progressive cadre blocking access to the classroom building, convinced anybody professing on Plato’s paeans to the patriarchal elite must have received secret Koch brothers funding. Let’s say whatever patrician white guys your university has left, and whatever most fragile freshmen (a confounding mix of quite vulnerable and quite sheltered students), start to converge from multiple directions, crying out that they already have felt enough for this lifetime the sting from having one’s basic worldview challenged. Let’s say everybody then begins citing (some enthusiastically, some angrily) Plato’s supposed endorsements of ethnocentric homogeneity. Let’s even say that everyone starts quoting not just from the Republic, but from the Menexenus to make their most emphatic case. What types of methodological recalibrations might you propose to all sides? How might you combine attention to this dialogue’s surface details, and skepticism regarding any literalist extrapolation of Plato’s personal views? How might Menexenus’s xenophobic Aspasia character’s complex intersectional status (as a woman amid a self-described democratic society in fact denying citizenship to most inhabitants, as a non-native mother calling into question Athens’ blood-and-soil identifications, as a resident alien reflecting and refracting Athenian virtues and vices in various ways) start to complicate, for example, the type of naturalizing ideological appeal we might expect to find in a patriotic funeral oration (here mediated, no less, through Socrates’s playful recollection)? How might this one compressed textual scene instead help you open up a broader study of oft-overlooked emphases upon foreignness and inter-polity relations in Plato’s dialogues? And how might that particular focus allow “for deeper insight into Plato’s disposition towards democracy”?
REBECCA LEMOINE: Whenever I teach Plato’s writing, I find that there’s a temptation (even among the best, most careful readers in the class) to approach the dialogues as though they were treatises. It’s an uphill battle each class meeting to remind students (and, admittedly, sometimes myself!) that Plato isn’t speaking directly in his own voice. Rather, similar to a playwright, he uses characters, settings, and dramatic actions to communicate his ideas. This means that we can’t fully understand a Platonic dialogue unless we read it as a whole, attentive to Plato’s artistry. Unfortunately, even some of the most brilliant scholars of Plato tend to focus on the arguments themselves, divorced from the dramatic context. I don’t mean to suggest that this approach has no value, but I think the increasing emphasis on dramatic context is a positive trend in the field.
Plucking a line of Platonic dialogue out of its larger context is like capturing a sound bite: it can be misleading or inaccurate. Take, for instance, the proposal in the Republic to treat Greeks as friends and non-Greeks as natural enemies. It’s not Plato who’s proposing this policy. It’s Plato’s character Socrates. And even if we assume that Socrates represents the voice of Plato, we can’t be sure that Socrates himself really agrees with this stance. After all, the dialogue begins with Socrates describing how yesterday he went down to the Piraeus (the place in Athens most associated with cultural diversity) to witness a festival being put on for the first time and to “pray to the goddess,” presumably the goddess being honored at this festival. As we later learn, the festival is the Bendideia and the goddess is Bendis, a Thracian or non-Greek goddess. How, then, can we take Socrates at his word when he later proposes treating non-Greeks as enemies? Don’t actions speak louder than words?
We must also remember that Socrates’s proposal to treat non-Greeks as enemies is put forth in a specific context, to a particular group of people at a certain time and place. As my undergraduate mentor used to say, “If you talk to your professor the same way you talk to your friend at a party, you have problems.” When we read Plato’s dialogues, I think we need to be mindful of these natural dynamics that govern human interaction. The fact that Socrates doesn’t say the same things across every dialogue in which he appears suggests that this character adapts his speech to conform to his interlocutors’ assumptions and desires, often in an effort to provoke them to examine their opinions.
In the Republic, Glaucon assumes the ideal city will be Greek, so Socrates engages him in the exercise of constructing a Greek city. But when Socrates effectively finishes the exercise by casually stating that this city could be about to come into being in some “barbaric” place, I think we see that Socrates doesn’t share Glaucon’s prejudice. He’s only playing along. And if we remember that Socrates began the story (his story) by highlighting his openness towards non-Greeks, then the assumption that Socrates favors a society closed to foreign influences really begins to unravel. Again, this doesn’t mean Plato shares the views of his character Socrates, but the fact that the dialogue as a whole dramatizes how cross-cultural interaction can provoke philosophizing suggests that Plato too values cultural diversity.
Similarly, in the Menexenus, it might seem as though Plato approves of blatantly xenophobic ideas, such as praise of Athens for the “purity” of its citizenry and for its hatred of barbarians. But again, we’d be making the mistake, first of all, of equating Plato with the voice of his character Socrates. Second, this interpretation ignores the fact that Socrates himself attributes this overtly xenophobic speech to Aspasia, Pericles’s foreign mistress. Aspasia is a figure in ancient Greek thought whose Greekness is continually questioned, who’s often presented as an exotic, Eastern woman and therefore regarded with suspicion. Once we read Socrates’s speech through Aspasia’s voice, it becomes difficult to ignore the discordance between Athenian rhetoric and the actual practice of democracy in Athens. To begin with, how can Athens boast about its purity when one of its most prominent citizens, Pericles’s son, is likely of mixed blood, as the presence of Aspasia vividly reminds readers?
So the major benefit of a more contextual interpretation of Plato on the subject of foreigners is that it allows us to see Plato grappling with this complicated relationship between democracy and cultural diversity. Cross-cultural engagement is beneficial for democracies. It can help to expose contradictions, and thereby serve to inculcate the intellectual humility so vital to the health of democracies. But, paradoxically, this very benefit isn’t always welcomed by democratic people. In that respect, encounters with foreigners resemble encounters with the Socratic gadfly. Just as Plato faced the problem of defending philosophy even while recognizing how the unsettling that philosophy provokes can lead to conflict, I think we see him struggling to defend cultural diversity — knowing that it, likewise, can be immensely beneficial, but all too often becomes harmful, given how people react to it. Do we just give up, then, on philosophy and cultural diversity? If not, what can we do to mitigate the problem?
Right, so let’s assume your campus audience’s most reactionary members now seek to beat the fastest possible retreat back to Plato’s proverbial cave, where they at least can watch puppeteers keep everything in its proper place (or maybe pull those strings themselves, for more naive dwellers). Let’s say your most revolutionarily inclined interlocutors pronounce themselves already woke, forever freed from the cave’s antiquated confines. And let’s say you then further perplex everybody, this time by referring to “caves” in the plural. Let’s say your interpretive model of overlapping, socially constructed, forever contingent and provisionally realized cave-perspectives again stings this whole crowd, threatening to displace whatever relatively secure worldview these individuals might seek to situate themselves among (or define themselves against). Let’s say you then make even more concrete the possibility for further caves within caves, directing us to the Republic’s own cosmopolitan and internally diverse (even just among its Athenian residents, even just among its Athenian citizens) conversational scene. How might the Republic’s intimate depiction of this “world as a world of caves” further help you make the case “that Plato’s view…is much more egalitarian than traditionally believed…that Plato recognizes no culture is homogenous…and that Plato sees the potential in cross-cultural interaction for intellectual liberation”? How in particular might encountering foreign (or so-called foreigners’) caves help prompt the cultivation of Socratic wisdom: pointing us towards our own internal contradictions, pushing us towards a more self-reflective citizenship?
It’s often forgotten that the Republic isn’t simply a conversation between Athenians. It’s a conversation among Athenians, metics (or resident aliens), and a visiting foreigner. Why did Plato decide to write a dialogue about justice using such a diverse cast of characters? He could have chosen Athenian characters to play all of the conversational roles in Book 1, or he could have just started the dialogue with Book 2, where his brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, give an account of the contradictions in Athenian views of justice. By choosing to begin, instead, with the perspectives of foreigners, and to set this dialogue in a place associated with cultural diversity on the night of a foreign festival, I think Plato is suggesting that cross-cultural conversation is, if not essential, then at least deeply important in spurring examinations of justice.
This is where the concept of the “caves,” plural, enters in. Many are familiar with the story of Plato’s cave, which compares human beings to prisoners in a cave, whose only notion of reality consists of the shadows they see projected on the wall in front of them. Various interpreters have compellingly argued that the cave represents the political community. Building on their arguments, I show that the cave isn’t just politically constructed — it’s also culturally constructed. There’s significant evidence that each political community creates its own unique version of the cave, and thus that Plato’s Socrates is envisioning not merely one cave, but rather an entire world of cave-like polities. Though I don’t consider Plato a cultural relativist, the implication is that all peoples are essentially alike: all human beings live in a political community that resembles a cave. And judging by the depiction of cross-cultural interactions across the Platonic corpus, Plato himself likely shares this vision of the world as a “world of caves.”
Once we put “the cave” back in its broader environment, as part of a world of caves interacting with one another, the question arises: if philosophers can help to liberate prisoners from the cave, what about encounters with foreigners, or those from other caves? In my book, I argue that foreigners are more likely to discern the artificiality of our reality, as dialogues such as Plato’s Republic reveal. In pointing out this artificiality to us, whether directly or indirectly, foreigners appear little different from the philosophic liberator — even though these foreigners may still be prisoners within their own cave. Cross-cultural interaction thus has the potential to awaken our sense of wonder, by helping us see the familiar as strange and by forcing us to give an account of our beliefs and practices. What is this if not the provocation to philosophize? Prisoners from another cave may not be able to help me ascend completely out of my cave into the realm of Truth, but they can help me realize that I’m in a cave in the first place. That in itself is helpful, because no learning can take place without first discovering that we don’t know something.
Awareness of one’s ignorance is crucial not only to the learning process, but also to democratic health. Across various dialogues, Plato shows that democracy is in danger of becoming tyrannical precisely when citizens stop cultivating intellectual humility. When democratic citizens start thinking that they know everything, that they are effectively gods, they begin committing injustices towards the foreigners both outside and inside their cave — and, eventually, towards their “own” people. So exposure to foreign caves is essential for helping to keep this proclivity towards intellectual hubris, and ultimately tyranny, at bay.
Unfortunately, because most people don’t exactly enjoy the liberating sting of the gadfly, it’s hard to reap the full benefits of cultural diversity. Most of us would rather cling to the familiar stereotypes, and to all the other shadows in our cave. It’s not impossible, though, for the experience to lead to a turning of the soul. Which conditions are ripe for such a turning is one of the puzzles that I see Plato grappling with throughout his dialogues. I don’t think he ever fully solved this puzzle, but he seems to have seen great promise for the philosopher to act as a mediator unlocking the liberating potential of cross-cultural engagement. If he’s willing to come back down into his cave of origin, the philosopher can use his familiarity with this particular cave to translate, so to speak, the intellectual provocations of foreigners into terms that might resonate more with his fellow cave-dwellers. The difficulty is that the philosopher himself has become a sort of foreigner, so he may have no better luck.
Of course Socrates himself rarely leaves his home turf, though might on occasion (most notably in the Phaedrus) project himself into some outsider perspective. Socrates doesn’t seek to outrun “the” cave’s sprawling clutches, so much as to embrace as constructively as possible the cozy (if nonetheless perspective-altering) comforts of somebody else’s cave for a while. And here I’ll wonder: if we ourselves can’t always rely on a Socratic gadfly to stir us towards self-reflection, if we must supplement such encounters through engagements with foreigners, might we do the same with texts? Might Plato’s intricate dialogues-within-dialogues offer any number of refracted puppeteers pulling the strings for various audiences (with many of these “audiences” themselves puppets dangled before us like mirrors)? Or might the physical book before us (perhaps the same couldn’t be said of an ancient scroll) constitute its own horizon or cave or caves within caves? Or how else might dramatic dialogue prove especially conducive not solely to articulating Plato’s cave conception, but to setting it “in motion” — and not just within the textual narrative but within our lives, with our own triangulated reading process itself always embodying this interplay among various interlocking and interpolated socio-hermeneutic horizons? And again, along all of those lines, how might experiencing Platonic dialogic pluralism help us to practice enduring, absorbing, incorporating, and maybe even ourselves transmitting and sharpening diversity’s sting?
Yes, I believe that texts, particularly the Platonic dialogues, can serve as a means of exposing ourselves to the liberating sting of cultural diversity — at least to a certain extent. It’s no coincidence that my book’s epigraph is a quote from Fahrenheit 451 about how books might get us half out of the cave. Reading a book from a foreign culture can be a startling, eye-opening experience (that’s why some regimes today practice censorship of foreign literature). And a text from the past might seem even more foreign than one from another contemporary culture, given how globalized our world is today. I see this when I teach ancient Greek texts. To use a rather crude example, there’s a line in Aristophanes’s comedy The Clouds that lists positive physical traits in a man, ending with a certain male body part being small. My students often think this is a joke. When I explain to them that it’s not, they’re shocked, as though it never occurred to them that even this aspect of their beauty standards could be socially constructed. Just this tiny glimpse into a distant culture’s way of thinking helps to show these students that they themselves are in a cave, so to speak.
What’s so uniquely powerful about the Platonic dialogue is that this form of writing puts different caves “into motion” — both, as you said, within the narrative and within the reader’s own imagination. Not only do we get to see characters with different cultural mindsets engaging in philosophic conversations with each other. We’re also invited to join them in these conversations. Plato’s dialogues remain relevant, because they explore questions that confront nearly every human society. Yet, interestingly, this exploration doesn’t take place in a vacuum, abstracted from reality. Rather, each conversation is consciously set within a certain context, framed by the assumptions and concerns of particular individuals from specific places. This suggests that the act of philosophizing must necessarily begin in the cave, and often involves the juxtaposition of different perspectives on the cave.
In my book chapter on the Phaedrus, I argue that, for Plato, the practice of philosophy entails precisely this: seeing the familiar through foreign eyes. In this dialogue, Socrates essentially takes Phaedrus on a psychological journey, one that helps Phaedrus see himself from a distance, as he participates in the act of engaging with a foreign text. Through these reflections, Phaedrus discovers that, thanks largely to his Athenian upbringing, he tends to view foreigners and the foreign itself rather instrumentally. Ultimately, by watching this self-discovery unfold, we as readers are shown that how we approach the foreign matters — whether we view it as something to be utilized for our own personal gain, or as a mutual opportunity for learning.
Since the cave conditions us to view everything from a certain horizonal perspective, that means it also conditions how we view foreigners and the foreign itself. Something is needed, then, to shake us out of the stereotypical ways in which we tend to view foreigners. Traveling abroad or actually getting to know someone from a foreign culture, perhaps through work or school, can often generate this effect. But not always. In such cases, Plato’s dialogues can help to inoculate readers against a fear of learning that often prevents one from appreciating the epistemological benefits of cross-cultural engagement. It’s hard to read a Platonic dialogue without feeling unsettled. Of course, some readers might just throw the book in the trash. But for anyone willing to read, exposure to Platonic dialogic pluralism can help to cultivate greater familiarity with, and thereby openness to, this experience of existential perplexity that cross-cultural encounters often occasion.
Plato’s brilliance is really showcased in the Phaedrus because, in depicting Phaedrus discovering that he’s been socially conditioned to treat the foreigner Lysias’s speech as an object of instrumental value, Plato invites readers to reflect on their own engagement with a foreign text — the Platonic dialogue itself. Yet this also points precisely to one of the limitations of Plato’s dialogues, or any other written work. Even though the text may prompt an exemplary imitation of conversation between reader and characters, or reader and author, there’s no possibility for mutual learning. Only the reader’s horizon can be changed. The text goes on saying the same thing eternally. So while reading Plato’s dialogues can prove useful as a sort of introduction to (or training ground for) experiencing the liberating sting of cultural diversity, they don’t provide an adequate substitute for actual engagement with real-life foreigners.
Sure at times, even as Plato’s Caves valorizes diversity’s sting, I can’t help wondering: can we hope for nothing better than this, occasionally getting stung into short-lived self-awareness? Or perhaps a bit less gloomily: if we never can fully escape some cave’s confines, if we only can hope to recognize a bit better our own (and everybody else’s) position in a world of many caves, what might the perceptual, psychological, philosophical, interpersonal, and/or civic life of the most persistently stung cave-dwellers look like? And here your account of the Athenian Stranger as a model intermediary (especially for his diversity-resistant Spartan and Cretan counterparts) stands out. So could we sketch your account of how this Athenian Stranger’s empathically calibrated, emotionally accommodating, but nonetheless intellectually challenging injection of diversity’s sting (perhaps more akin to what we might expect from a friend than from a “teacher”) might prove exemplary for engaging a wide range of interlocutors? Or instead of us thinking of the Athenian Stranger as compromising or betraying his values in the process, how might we come to appreciate this Stranger’s strategic tapping of his own personal and cultural incoherencies and contradictions? What individual and/or pedagogical benefit might this Stranger receive by embracing discordant aspects both within himself and his milieu? How might the study of diversity’s place within one’s own soul increase comfortability with diversity’s place within the polis — even if one’s conversation partners (at first, at least) do not feel the same?
Well, I don’t think Plato is suggesting that the best we can hope for is a life of momentary glimpses outside the cave. Rather, on my interpretation, Plato thinks we can leave the cave, but we must always wonder whether we really have left it or not. We can be 99.9 percent certain about a belief we hold (so certain that we’re willing to die for it), but we should never be one hundred percent certain, even if that belief is objectively true. There’s a deep awareness in Platonic philosophy of the gulf between human and divine knowledge. But to say that human beings can only attain better and better opinions doesn’t mean they are simply stuck in the cave.
I read Plato as aiming through his dialogues to build a coherent set of principles derived from reason, principles to guide our individual and collective lives — while not losing sight of the fact that he could be wrong. In this regard, Platonic philosophy is akin to modern science. Contemporary scientists operate every day, for example, on the assumption that the Earth is round, an extremely robust assumption given that it’s been demonstrably proven using a variety of methods. Yet a good scientist would admit this assumption could be mistaken (however slim that possibility may seem), and thus that it wouldn’t be entirely worthless to test it yet again. Plato is following a similar practice, I believe.
What, then, would the most persistently stung cave-dwellers be like? They would simultaneously have greater confidence in the ideas they hold as true and have a greater sense of intellectual humility than the more entrenched cave-dwellers. In my view, Plato’s Socrates serves as the exemplar of this seemingly paradoxical way of being. But I think you’re right that the Athenian Stranger in the Laws provides a good model for a situation in which we never see Socrates — as a visitor abroad. Set in Crete, the Laws depicts an unnamed Athenian in conversation with an elderly Spartan and Cretan, both of whom are from highly militaristic, xenophobic societies taught to regard their laws as divine and virtually unquestionable. As you can imagine, this is an extremely fragile context: one misstep and the Athenian risks shutting down the conversation, or worse.
While some interpreters view the Athenian Stranger as manipulative, I argue that he’s playing the role of gadfly, just like Socrates, except that, given the circumstances, the Athenian Stranger can’t be as direct in his questioning. Instead, he must show a lot of deference to his interlocutors and their traditional beliefs, even as he works to challenge them. He must really make sure he understands his interlocutors’ position, and be remarkably patient as he tries one approach after another to bring to light the contradictions within their position. Also, there’s a reason why the Laws is the longest of Plato’s dialogues. As the Athenian Stranger is keenly aware, his interlocutors aren’t going to easily change their minds. He must be in it for the long haul, and willing to accept that he might effect only a small change. What I think sustains him is that his goal is not victory, but rather friendship. Even though he disagrees fundamentally with his interlocutors, he respects them and is willing to learn from them in turn.
This is a good model not only for discussions with individuals from more traditionally “closed” societies, but also for the increasingly polarized liberal democracies in which many people today live. If you’re more liberal-leaning, it’s easy to see a more conservative person as the enemy rather than as a fellow citizen and human being — and vice versa. But this mentality isn’t productive. It discourages engagement with others and, when conversation does happen, it takes on a martial character, with the goal being to conquer and humiliate. The possibility of learning something from the other side is automatically closed off from the beginning.
The most persistently stung cave-dwellers would exhibit an entirely different attitude. Like the Athenian Stranger, they would see conversations with people from other “caves” as an opportunity both to advance the cause of Truth and to learn something — even if all these persistently stung cave-dwellers learn is something about themselves, how they treat those who disagree with them. Having repeatedly experienced the liberating sting of cultural diversity, they would be grateful for this opportunity to see the familiar through foreign eyes. They would seek out existential upheaval, ever committed to remembering the limits of their knowledge and of human knowledge as such. Their life would be devoted to philosophizing, and they would understand the value of cultural diversity to that mission.