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Maurice Nicoll – From ‘Living Time’: Plato’s Myth Of The Cave

‘Plato’s cave’, attributed to Michiel Coxie – In the collections of the  Leuven Museum.


With today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, we continue our selections of excerpts from the lesser known works (if not neglected) of Dr. Maurice Nicoll. Here from ‘Living Time and the Integration of Life’, Vincent Stuart Publishers, London, 1954. Reprinted by Eureka Editions in 1998. Chapter nine, ‘Two psychological systems in Man’. From page 189 to 192.


‘Perhaps we do not realise how much was taught in the known historical past concerning the connection between greater reality of being and higher states of consciousness. I will give in the following pages some further material relating to the question of levels, beginning with a full account of Plato’s myth of the Cave, which I referred to briefly in the third chapter. Let us remember that this belongs to the fourth century B.C.


And now,’ I said, ‘let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.’

-‘I see.’

-‘And do you see,’ I said, ‘men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.’

-‘You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.’

-‘Like ourselves,’ I replied; ‘and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?’

-‘True,’ he said.

-‘How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?’ ‘And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?’

-‘Yes,’ he said.

-‘And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?’

-‘Very true.’

-‘And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice :which they heard came from the passing shadow?’

-‘No question,’ he replied.

-‘To them,’ I said, ‘the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.’

-‘That is certain.’

-‘And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and dis­abused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them,-will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?’

-‘Far truer.’

-‘And if he is com­pelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him tum away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?’

-‘True,’ he said.

-‘And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.’

‘Not all in a moment,’ he said.

-‘He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects on the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?’


‘Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will con­template him as he is.’

(Dialogues of Plato, Rep. VIL 514: Jowett’s Translation. Oxford University Press.)


In his comments on this passage, Robin says: ‘ .. . Every degree in either scale is an “imitation” or “image” of the degree above. Between the absolute not-being of total ignorance and the absolute being and supreme knowledge, there is a whole ladder of intermediate stages-fictitious copies of ideal realities by sensible nature, the symbolical objects of science between these copies and their patterns and lastly the Good which rules the intelligible world and gives it life, the Good whose image in respect of the sensible world is the Sun. . . . All these relations are put in concrete form by the famous myth of the Cave. With our thought in bondage to conditions of birth and upbringing, we are the captives, unable to move since our infancy, with our eyes perforce fixed on the back of the cave. The steep, stony path rising to the entrance symbolises the difficulty of determining the nature and origin of our opinions. The great fire outside, which illuminates the cave with a vague light, is the sun, and the marionettes whose shadows are cast on the back are physical objects which are certainly artificial things. The real actors remain hidden behind the screen. The prisoners hear the echo of their voices, and take it for the language of truth, being chiefly intent on observing and remembering how the shadows on the wall appear together or in succession. When a prisoner drags himself or is dragged out of his cave, his dazzled eyes can make out nothing. To use them he has to be content with the “reflected image” of things. This symbolises the ascent of the soul towards truth.’ (Leon Robin, Greek Thought, 1928. Translated by M. R. Dobie.)

Concerning the allegory, Plato himself says: ‘The prison-house is the world of sight (of the senses), the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul, into the world intelligible to the mind, according to my poor belief, which at your desire I have expressed-whether rightly or wrongly, God knows. But whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of know­ledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort‘ (Rep. VII).’

Wynne, David; Dr Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953); The Box (Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives);


More about Maurice Nicoll:
Maurice Nicoll – From ‘Living Time’: Plato’s Myth Of The Cave

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