Plato’s Cave and the Seven Sleepers

Recall Plato’s allegory of the cave. I shall provide a summary from Wikipedia:

Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from things passing in front of a fire behind them, and they begin to give names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

I would like to provide a counter-point and then return to compare the two allegories from the standpoint of ideology critique.

In the Quran, Surah 18, there is a story of the sleepers who were forced to leave the city because of their religious beliefs and take refuge in a cave. The Quran adds an important additional element to the Christian narrative: there is a dog who accompanies the cave sleepers. Wikipedia summarizes:

Unlike the Christian story, the Islamic version includes mention of a dog who accompanied the youths into the cave, and was also asleep, but when people passed by the cave it looked as if the dog was just keeping watch at the entrance, making them afraid of seeing what is in the cave once they saw the dog. In Islam, these youths are referred to as “The People of the Cave”.

Finally, in the Quran, there is the additional clarification:

And you would have thought them awake, while they were asleep. And We turned them on their right and on their left sides, and their dog stretching forth his two forelegs at the entrance [of the Cave or in the space near to the entrance of the Cave (as a guard at the gate)]. Had you looked at them, you would certainly have turned back from them in flight, and would certainly have been filled with awe of them.

There are many variations on Plato’s allegory of the cave. McKenzie Wark, for example, once implemented Jean Baudrillard’s theory so that when the people inside the cave go outside they realize that they are inside of another cave, and so on and so on. However, the Quranic version is much more interesting.

In the Platonic version we are expected to believe that the people inside the cave are imprisoned by ideology. When one of them steps outside of the cave they have stepped outside of ideology – they become good Marxists. But then there is the impossible task of having to return to the cave to show other people that there is something better outside. This pure place of freedom outside of the cave has been criticized by many contemporary theorists and philosophers. For them there is no uncontaminated point of departure for ideology critique or politics or power or whatever. This is precisely what led McKenzie Wark, no doubt, to state, basically, that there is no outside to ideology, no outside to the cave.

From this point on I am making an interpretation and it is not to be read as dogmatic or as the only correct reading.

The Quranic version begins in the city. In other words, it begins in the space of absolute freedom: the king uses this freedom to force his people to worship false idols, images of gods, etc. It is from this terrible abyss of freedom that the sleepers flee into the cave of ideology. The Quran narrates a flight from the jouissance of freedom into the cave of ideology – the people who retreated into the cave sleep there for a very, very long time. They literally turn to their dreams against the asphyxiating freedom of reality. Ideology here is precisely what rescues the sleepers from the terrible freedom of imaginary servitude.

What about the dog?

Whereas the Platonic allegory uses shadows and images to captivate the slaves and keep them from leaving the cave, the Quranic allegory uses a dog to keep free people away from the cave of slavery.

The lesson is clear: if the so called Western vision is one of absolute freedom from the prison house of ideology then the Islamic vision is one of burrowing within ideology to escape the terrifying abyss of absolute freedom.

The Islamic version offers a nice corrective to contemporary ideology critique.


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