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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Thomas West On The Cave, The Myth Of Er, And The Apology

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HH: My weekly end of week conversation with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, joined this week as he has for the past two by Dr. Thomas West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College. We are talking about Plato’s Republic and concluding the conversation before we take a few minutes and talking about Plato’s Apology. Dr. West, if I could ask you to summarize for people what the cave is, and why so many college students, and every college student at Hillsdale, reads about it in the Republic, and thinks about it at Hillsdale.

TW: The cave is an image that Socrates comes up with at one point, where he says I’m going to give you this image to tell you what education is like, and also lack of education. In the cave, we are, prisoners are sitting on the floor, and their heads are fastened so that they can’t turn all the way around. They can see their neighbors, but not anything else except what’s in front of them. What’s in front of them is a wall of the cave on which shadows are being projected from behind them. Now people behind them are carrying little puppets and other objects that where a fire casts a shadow on the wall. And the people who are prisoners, and that’s us, they think the wall, the shadows on the wall are reality. They can’t make a distinction between an image and the real thing. And Socrates says that’s where are, but there’s hope, because behind us, and in fact all the way along the opening of the cave, is an access to the light. And so what has to happen is there has to be a turning around of the soul, a turn to the light, and an assent out of the cave, into the sunlight, so that things can be seen as they are. The cave is taught everywhere, and everybody remembers it, because it’s such a striking image of, in a way, the gloominess of the platonic view of reality, that we are stuck in this realm of superstition, nonsense, stupidity, error, and yet there’s a the hope. There’s the ability to ascend and to escape.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, is this powerful because everyone recognizes the truth of their own condition in it?

LA: Yeah, of course. Education, when it’s done right, is a challenge. It makes you examine. I often have parents say to me are you going to reinforce what we’ve taught our children, and I always say, I always answer the same way. I say surely not. We’re probably going to tear that down. And we’re going to teach them something that you might not be able yourself to teach them. But I think you’ll like the result. I said to my father often before he died, I spent a long time learning complicated reasons why you were right. And he really liked that, but of course, that involved some turning, right? I had to think anew. I had to question. I had to see that some things he said were not sufficient. And so we all recognize, we recognize the fact that we have moments where things become clearer to us than they were before, and we must discard things. In other words, we see the light.

HH: Now Dr. West, there’s a going up. There’s also a coming back down in the cave allegory in the Republic. Why would anyone do that, and how does that happen outside of the allegory?

TW: Well, the coming back down, that means when you’ve seen things as they are, when you’ve had the insight, what do you do with it? Do you simply stay there by yourself and stare at the things as they are? Or do you go back to your fellow man? And there are a bunch of reasons why people might concern themselves with their fellow human beings. One is they’re, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all part of a political society, and if it crashes, we all crash. So there’s that. Another is just ordinary love for your fellow man. A third is that the philosopher, the man who has made the ascent, he’s going to be looking for students. He’s going to be looking for companions, people to talk to, friends. And so all those things are going to drive the person back into the shadowy realm and to try to help. Now what does it mean to help? What it means to help is in part to shape the culture. Those puppeteers I was talking about earlier, whose shadows are on the wall, that’s a metaphor for culture, for what we would call culture or you know, television, movies, the academic world, all of that. And that’s what shapes our perception of reality in terms of the things that prevail in public life, the attitudes and ideas. And so you can help that way if you come back from the light. That’s what Socrates is saying, and that’s the kind of beneficent activity that a person of real insight can share with people.

HH: Larry Arnn, how much time is spent in trying to shape the puppeteers, because that is, for example, at Hillsdale, they still have their iPods with them, they still have their iPads. They’re still going to be going to the movies, however limited their choices might be. There’s no place that’s isolated anymore for education. So how do you keep the culture from burning so bright and filling them with so many images you can’t get them up?

LA: Well, you give them a lot of work.

HH: That’s true.

LA: And that keeps them really busy. To confront, like first of all, Tom earlier made a comparison between our situation and that of Athens. The Athens of Socrates was an Athens in trouble. It was losing the most disastrous war, which was ultimately fatal to it. And it did that in a kind of arrogance and a kind of nihilism with identified strength with truth. And the only thing that mattered them was to become strong. And Socrates, with this image of the cave, and in most of the things that he did, he calls that into question, and he substitutes for it something purer and cleaner and higher, and more beautiful. The things that you see in the light are superior and more compelling to the things, the shadows you see on the wall of the cave. And there’s a confinement that you’re in from which you’re liberated. And so these things around in the culture, you know, I have lately done some things that bring me into social relations with people who think entirely differently than I do, and they’re powerful people. And I’ve noticed about them when I talk to them that they don’t seem to be as aware as I am that the things they think are controversial. And here at Hillsdale, you know, people say that we’re insular and we’re not open and we’re not diverse. The truth of the matter is we’re in a fierce argument all the time about the worth of things that the worth is denied most everywhere. And so we have to study in that atmosphere, and it’s good for us. And so we have that, this thing that you say is a problem for us, the iPod and the culture and the news, and the common opinion of man, that’s also a spur. It sharpens the mind.

HH: Dr. West, do you agree with that?

TW: You bet. That’s right. It’s true. The college offers a kind of counterculture. And if you come to the college, and if you come out of just normal America, which all of our students do, you’re going to be confronted with the necessity of thinking about what’s right. You can’t, we’re not giving answers that are unchallenged. They’re challenged everywhere in our whole society. And yes, that’s what we try to do, is open these kids up to thinking clearly A) about what are the ideological presuppositions of the kind of stuff that we are inundated with all the time, and then B) what’s another way to understand things, as Larry says, what’s a higher and a purer way of understanding things. And that would be represented by the ascent out of the cave in the Socratic image.

— – –

HH: I asked Dr. West to summarize the cave, Dr. Arnn, so I’ll ask you to summarize the Myth of Er, and why that is so significant.

LA: Well, the Republic ends with this myth, and it’s about a man who goes down to the underworld and sees things there, and he gives an account of what the underworld is like. And this account is contrasted with the account that’s in Homer. And it’s tied up with, and in the Odyssey, especially, it’s tied up with a criticism of Homer. And the account differs, because in Homer, and to the heroes led by Achilles, human life is surrounded by a kind of chaos and a kind of dimness. The underworld is a mad place to go to. I think Achilles says that he would rather be a serf in life than a king in the underworld. And so…

TW: Yes, that’s in Homer.

LA: That’s in Homer, right. And so in…and what that teaches one is that life is, in the end, meaningless. And it teaches an attachment to the things that we are naturally attached to in this world. Poets write poems about the things we love, about our loved ones, about our own things, about the joys of life. And if you think that there’s nothing but that, you can become fanatical in your attachment to that, and your life, and in other words, those loves that you have can come to seem, you grasp them with a desperation because they’re ultimately, they don’t last, and they’re replaced by something that means nothing. And so Socrates substitutes this myth in which there are worlds below with a kind of order to them, and where you go in the world below has something to do with the virtue that you exercise while you’re here on Earth. And so it’s a more coherent understanding of the afterlife, and it connects to the practice of virtue here. And so it is a kind of, a lot of, people miss this about Plato. Tom West, for example, in his introduction to his translation of the four Greek texts, the Apology being one, with his wife, Grace, they write a beautiful introduction. I mentioned it before, but you should go read it, because what we remember about Socrates and Plato is the radical questioning and the doubt. But what we forget is there’s a bracing side of that, like in the allegory of the cave. There’s a light to see. There are things to know. And those things are participations with us in the eternal. And in the light of those things, then, are attachments on Earth, our families and our loves. Their beauty is highlighted and strengthened even as they’re cast in a larger world beyond them. And so the Myth of Er helps to substitute an understanding of the afterlife that is bracing and encouraging. And that means giving courage to one.

HH: And Dr. West, why is Odysseus a figure in this? What’s the, you know, he comes into this myth, and what’s role here for the listener as they go off and read it for themselves? What’s the short take on why he’s there?

TW: Well, there are two stages that are described in the afterlife. First is you get punished for anything you did when you were alive. And so Socrates makes that clear. If you were really bad, you get really badly punished. You might have your skin stripped off, you might be dragged and beaten, whatever. Then there’s the second half, which is all these souls, now after they’ve been beaten in some cases, or left alone if they were okay, then they have to choose their next life. There’s going to be a reincarnation. But they’re going to forget that they were ever alive. And in the reincarnation scene, that’s when we see Odysseus. And Odysseus, says Socrates, has learned his lesson. When he was alive in the world of Homer, he was animated by a love of honor and a love of domination. He’s realizing that’s really empty. And so what Odysseus chooses as his next life is a way of life that is quiet and unassuming and decent, and whereas other people who maybe were living relatively decent lives while they were live, end up choosing these terrible lives, the life of a tyrant, for example, in which they end up eating their friends, or cannibalism, or who knows what. So the point Socrates is making is you have, this is a world in which you get punished for what you are, or rewarded for what you were, and it’s a world in which you choose your own fate. That fate is not imposed on you by some mysterious divine agency. You make it yourself. You built that.

HH: Free will. We’ll come back with the Apology, America.

— – – –

HH: Last segment in this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue, and it’s not very fair to the Apology, one of the greatest dialogues ever written, or pieces of literature ever produced. But Dr. Thomas West and Dr. Larry Arnn will take a swing at it in our eight minutes. Dr. West, why read the Apology today, and explain to people what it is if they haven’t heard of it before.

TW: Well, the Apology is Plato’s version of the defense speech that Socrates made at his trial when he was put on trial for refusing to believe in the Athenian gods, bringing in his own new gods, and corrupting the young. And what happens in the trial is, of course, famously, Socrates is convicted, and he’s told he will be given the death penalty, which is then fulfilled in another dialogue later. The reason why it’s important is because in this speech is Socrates’ first response to the charges against him, and then gives a kind of overview of his whole way of life, which turns out to be the deepest level of his own defense of himself. What I really am, says Socrates, I’m a man who is devoted to the good of my fellow citizens and to my own good through the pursuit of virtue using my mind, and not submitting to any authority outside of myself. And it’s that intransigence, that intransigent pursuit of excellence of virtue that is the very thing that gets him in trouble with Athens. And Socrates turns it around on Athens and says wait a minute, you’re guilty. You’re the ones who need to do what I’m doing. You need to do what I’m doing. You need to aspire in the same way I do to genuine human excellence, and don’t remain contented with the stories you happened to be told when you were growing up.

HH: Larry Arnn, why are people mad at him to the point of putting him on trial for his life and eventually convicting him?

LA: Well, the people who are mad at him are the drones. They’re the people who have authority. He says that there are three accusers, and one of them, he says, they’re angry on behalf of the rhetoricians, and that’s people like these sophists who educate the young into how to be powerful. And some are mad on behalf of the poets, and some are mad on behalf of the third thing that I can’t remember. But they are established interests, and sure enough, Socrates…

TW: Politicians are the third thing. How could you forget?

LA: Yeah, the third. The real drones, the drones is power. And they are people who are thriving in this decaying society. And it’s decay, we studied in Thucydides, and we saw some of the reasons in Thucydides why they were deserving of losing this war in some respect. And Socrates is opposing them, and he’s calling into question the pillars of their authority. And so they’re very angry with them. And it’s a very interesting thing. Tom and Grace do a good job in their introduction to their book explaining this. Socrates really confirms the charges against himself, and hurls them back them, which is one reason why he loses and gets the death penalty, and he is simply uncompromising in…even when he’s been condemned, there’s a section of the trial when he can appeal for his sentence, and he mocks them in that section, too.

HH: Now Dr. West, there were two votes in the trial, and he lost both of them. But it’s unclear how much he lost them by. Did he ever expect to win? Did he want to win?

TW: No. What it looks like is that he had made up his mind that he was going to use the trial as an occasion to create the most stark confrontation between his way of life and that of the Athenian, the average Athenian citizen, exaggerating, really, the difference between them in order to make a point about the importance of what his way of life was in a way that would be so memorable that that way of life would continue on into the future. And indeed, that is exactly what happened.

HH: Now there are other accounts of this by other writers, Larry Arnn. Why is this one the one that everyone repairs to, not Xenophon?

LA: Well, Plato was the man, and you know, Xenophon was the man, too, but he was a littler man. And this account is more, it contains a more powerful presentation of Socrates’ account of himself. And that’s what’s interesting here, because Socrates names himself the gadfly. He’s helping to wake up Athens. And that image is the heart of what’s going on in this, in Greek philosophy. We think of, by the way, of platonic, of the whole classical school arising now as somehow a product of the greatness of Athens, and that’s true. But it’s also partly a product of the decline of Athens. They have something to argue with. They rise up to a very great height because they have a case to make against overwhelming prestige and force.

HH: And what is that case, Dr. West?

TW: Sorry, the case against Athens?

LA: Yeah.

HH: Yes.

TW: The case against Athens, as Socrates says, Athens is like a big and noble horse that is sleepy, that’s drowsy. And if you’re going to be wide awake, somebody needs to bite you. And he compares himself to a gadfly, or what we call a horsefly, really nasty stinging. But the stinging is only stinging from the point of view of the horse who wants to stay asleep. Socrates is saying look, if you’re wide awake, you won’t need to be stung. You’ll be happy to be awake, and that’s what I’m here to help you do. So he was really trying to say this is a way of life. This orientation towards genuine human excellence, not submitting blind to blind tradition and custom. That’s what makes a society finally, and ultimately, worthy.

HH: So was he successful, because it didn’t work with Athens, Larry Arnn, but it may have worked in a longer time frame.

LA: Well, it’s like that question you asked at the beginning of the thing, is there a chance for America. The answer is it is successful if people read it and learn it, and are ennobled by it, and learn to look at the light. And that has happened in ages since, and is happening in our time, perhaps to a sufficient degree. But whether, remember this about the question can we save America. The great question is are we ourselves in a position to live well, including amidst adversity? And the answer is we are in that position. And so to that respect, and that’s a decisive respect, yes, we are. It is successful.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, president at Hillsdale College, and Dr. Thomas West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College, thanks both for a bracing, a wonderful walk through some of the introduction to Plato. And to all those who are prodded by this, go and get your own copies of the dialogues and of the books. And if you are young, or if you are not so young, go to and think about applying and going forth and doing that. Every Hillsdale Dialogue that we have covered is available at

End of interview.


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