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Who plays the puppeteers?
> The dance of life, the whole story of our wanderings; in a labyrinth of error, the labyrinth of this world. We wandering in the wilderness.
Behold, men live in a sort of cavernous underground chamber, with a long passage stretching towards the light all down the cave. Here they have lived from childhood, chained by the leg and the neck, so that they cannot move and can look only straight forwards, the chains preventing them from turning their heads. At some distance higher up there is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised track, with a parapet built along it, like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the men who work the puppets.
We all know this tale, mine as early as a school class in which a form akin to this was made from Lego. Yet of the aspects ordinarily emphasised, we might ask now: who are these men who work the puppets? The aspect of the shadow and its relation to the true image is well-known and far thought through, as are many others, but these strange assistants seem all too often forgotten.
What, for instance, is their intent? Were they the ones that bound us thus? They seem on a first reading to need have some malicious intent. These are those that arrange the scene by which we prisoners are misled. We might think these the sophists that mislead men by rhetorical trickery, those whose words—a puppet-play of sort, a spoken script for which our minds are as actors—have no relation to the truth which lies beyond. These are those whose light is even false, man-made and flickering; that which stands apart and artificial as compared to the light above. The scene thus described is that in which we are misled by second-hand images, in which we must then seek escapes our bondage and navigate alone unto the true light. Here we may glimpse the truth of which we had been rendered ignorant; though we are warned as regards the prospects of returning with this.
The argument in this sense can also be turned, however; that it not only warns against the resistance from those in the cave but further serves to justify the words of one that thus returns. This can be seen as directed doubly to the individual and those that hear him. We find thus in this narrative a justification for a higher sort of knowledge, but subsequently it is surely apparent that this basis is open to almost any that might will to deploy it. What is established in this way is not necessarily the truth of any specific doctrine but rather the existence of a higher truth, a realm which supersedes that of the masses. Yet when all claim that this is theirs, then the whole does nothing much for any in particular. The tool has been neutered by its popularity.
Supposing that these men with the puppets intend thus to deceive us, why then are we allowed ever to escape? I would place another with a sword that they may slay any that undo their bonds. The people trapped will hardly notice one less puppet in each rotation, meanwhile that man may be put to better use. Of course, we may suppose that these that seek deceive us are simply not concerned; they have seen men escape before, they have seen the way these few were treated. There seems to them no risk that those returning will be believed by the masses that yet remain below. The only threat, perhaps, is that one returning will seek forcefully to free all the others. We may see this as the solution sought by Plato, that by warning all below of the structure that deceives them then they may be prompted to overcome this each themselves.
There are many in history that have thus offered to all an epistemological prison break, that all could free themselves en masse and dance together in the light. Those returning have tended to justify this on moral grounds, that they owed this to those left behind; it is the duty of the sage to return to the people. They cannot simply sit rapt beneath the true sun and forget about the fellows left below. There are, of course, other reasons one might seek such a manouevre. Some that make this play offer a movement en masse that, as with Lenin’s use of Marxism, derives from this first quantity a vanguard seeking power for the new picture thereby derived.1 This is further justified by the same line, that those who remain behind may be ignorant; hence violence against them may be justifiable; it is a truth which they cannot be told but rather must be shown.
We may see historical examples of this, and in particular, that the prison break often leads into a prison further up the tunnel. This seems to be the way for so many that seek escape, and we might thus wonder whether the tunnel to the light is not far longer than those before have promised. There are those that say instead such a thing as true light cannot be reached, or that one must crawl nigh forever unto this if that is their desire. This seems alter entirely the structure of the lesson imparted by this tale of the cave.
We must imagine an individual that escapes each time and voluntarily enchains themselves at the next station, each in essence identical to the first. They sit and stare at new shadows thinking these a truth entirely unlike that to which they were thus far exposed. There they sit a while before returning with this to those that were below; perhaps it is no wonder then that the others do not believe them. They may have been here a while, have heard all sorts of such talk; some might even have ventured a while thus themselves. Here they have simply chosen to sat for seeing that the venture which they sought in youth seems destined ever to be fruitless. One may as well sit in this cave as much as any other—so what of your taste, these are my shadows.
There is against all these discussed thus far, though following from their line, a final read which we might raise. We began at the outset by asking who played the puppeteers, throughout the assumption has been that these were some other that sought deceive us; yet here at the end we have found one who accepts their own deceit, that is thus in some sense complicit. Here we may leap a small distance and ask: what if we have played the puppeteer all along?
This rendering of the tale has it that there are no bonds but those tied by ourselves; alike there is no puppeteer but for us. We think ourselves caught up in the machinations of some malicious demiurge, then pulling back the curtain—find only ourselves. This is the perspective upheld by certain traditions, that it is the self or nafs which seek entrap us. These are the aspects of illusion which lie in ambush, which obscure the actuality of our condition. We like the Lady of Shalott are cursed to weave always without ever seeing actuality:
No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
“If I am successfully understood, my listener will have acquired the benefit that his life will have been made significantly more difficult for him than ever before, and therefore I will not urge anyone to accept this invitation.”
Livy: “To expand the population, Romulus followed the model of other founders of cities: he opened an asylum for fugitives. The mob that came in was the first step to the city’s future greatness.”