Sophrosune: "Knowledge of knowledge & ignorance"—how properly to leave the dark of Plato's cave

Marion Leeper ready to tell the tale of Rama and Sita to our children
As you know the local storyteller Marion Leeper is at the moment in the hall telling our children the story of Rama and Sita found in the Ramayana, a story strongly associated with the festival of Diwali, the Hindu “Festival of Lights” which was celebrated this past week. (An abbreviated version of this story was also the reading for today's service.)

J. E. Carpenter (1844-1927)
Telling this story in our church is an activity which might be said to fall under the general heading of comparative religion or philosophy. However, at least as it has often been practised by us, there is a significant problem with much comparative religion/philosophy. It centres on the quiet, often unspoken continuance of a hope held by many early comparative religious scholars some of whom were Unitarians — for example, Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1844–1927) the principal of Manchester College, Oxford and an expert in Sanskrit who was a key figure in the founding of the Cambridge church and after whom our hall was once named. Anyway, the hope was that a systematic comparison of the doctrines and practices of the world’s religions would help reveal a clearer, deeper, universal understanding of what were believed to be the fundamental concerns of religion and which would, perhaps, even reveal some kind of simple, pure, universal religion. But, as Nicholas de Lange, Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies here at Cambridge University, has perspicaciously noted:

The comparative study of religions is an academic discipline which has been developed within Christian theology faculties, and it has a tendency to force widely differing phenomena into a kind of strait-jacket cut to a Christian pattern. The problem is not only that other ‘religions’ may have little or nothing to say about questions which are of burning importance for Christianity, but that they may not even see themselves as religions in precisely the same way in which Christianity sees itself as a religion (Nicholas De Lange, Judaism, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 3).

Within the Unitarian/Universalist movement — a tradition itself inextricably rooted in Christianity — we have often failed to notice that we, too, have often continued to display a tendency to force widely differing phenomena into a kind of strait-jacket cut to a particularly Unitarian/Universalist pattern and so have fallen prey merely to appropriating and interpreting other cultures’ stories in ways that simply mirror our own, pre-existing, values and beliefs. It might look like we’ve genuinely been comparing another culture’s stories and beliefs with our own but often really we haven’t — we’ve just been retelling ourselves the same things we always did but in slightly different clothing.

To a great degree this dynamic is inevitable because, after all is said and done, humans have no choice but always-already to be hearing another culture’s story — in fact anybody else’s story — with our own pre-existing values, beliefs and patterns of thought fully in play. From this truth there is no escape but what we can most assuredly be doing is to become ever more aware that this is what we are always-already doing and then to try to find ways to mitigate against the worst results of this inevitable human, all-too human condition and this address is a preliminary attempt to do just that.

So, for what it’s worth, my own opinion is that today a primary task of a philosophically inclined religious tradition such as our own is not so much to engage in comparative religion and interfaith activity (though we should always continue to seek cross-cultural encounters), nor indeed to promote a putative set of distinctive Unitarian religious beliefs (a popular pastime at the moment) but, instead, simply find better ways to develop in ourselves (and for others) what the ancient Greeks called “sophrosune”.

There is no single English word suitable to translate this Greek word although “wisdom” has often been employed. No single word will do because sophrosune gestures towards something very complex, namely, an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind which, when combined in a single, well-balanced individual, leads to development of other important qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, self-control. The British philosopher Michael McGhee, following Wittgenstein, thought that the word could perhaps most appropriately be defined as “knowledge of knowledge and ignorance” and it’s this definition I want to run with today. It allows me to say that as a free-thinking religious tradition I think that what we should be seeking to develop, before anything else, are practices which primarily lead us to “knowledge of knowledge and ignorance”.

To help me explore with you what I mean by this I’d like, for the second week in a row, to spend some time considering Plato’s allegory of the cave (found in Book VII, 514 a, 2 to 517 a, 7 of “The Republic”, c.380 BCE) but in the modified, this-worldy form presented by the British philosopher McGhee. Let’s walk slowly through his words about it that you heard earlier.

You can read the whole of Michael McGhee’s essay at this link.

Click on the picture to enlarge it
He begins by noting that:

“One of the most striking aspects of Plato’s image of the cave is that the prisoners are not in a position to see that they are prisoners. We could put it more strongly and say that, were they to be told that they were prisoners, they would have no reason to believe what is nevertheless true.”

According to McGhee the “Platonic irony is that we know that the real claim is that our own position is that of the prisoners and that we have no reason to believe it either. The truth or reality of our situation is beyond the grasp of our concepts.” In short, whilst we are still prisoners, we fail to see that “there is something that transcends or surpasses [our current concepts].” Of course, none of this means that we know nothing at all, as McGhee wittily says “we know a lot about shadows for instance”. Instead the real problem is that “we are ignorant of the real nature of our situation, or, somewhat differently, are deluded in our estimate of it.”

This, it seems to me, accurately describes the way in which most people, most of the time, go about as if what lies within their current fixed horizon exhausts reality. Nearly everyone continues unconsciously to operate within their inherited social, moral, ethical, religious, political, financial practices without ever realising their situation in this regard is no different from that of the chained prisoners. (Heidegger calls this state of affairs “average everydayness”, something into which we are always-already “falling”).

Now, it is into this life of (unconscious, Heidegger would say “inauthentic”) average-everydayness that historically we have generally received and interpreted stories from other cultures such as the Ramayana. We have read them from within our own fixed (and often unquestioned) horizons as if from within these horizons we already have the necessary tools fully to understand what the story is most fully about.

But, as McGhee points out, what is striking about the way the metaphor of the cave unfolds is that at a certain point the liberated prisoner is brought to a position where they can now see the mechanisms that determined the scope of the limited knowledge previously available to them, which they can now see, by contrast, “was a restricted knowledge only of shadows.”

To return to the example of the Ramayana, this is precisely what happens whenever a person finally fully appreciates that their culture’s horizons are necessarily acting as a mechanism obscuring them from seeing, hearing, interpreting the story in the way someone from, for instance, a Hindu culture would receive, interpret and act upon it. They are suddenly able to see their own interpretations of it had been made with a restricted knowledge only of shadows.

It’s an incredibly simple point but once grasped, properly grasped that is, it’s truly revolutionary. It’s what has been called a “threshold concept” because once you have stepped over this threshold you can never go back to your former state of being — in this case that of an unaware prisoner. From now on you can never completely slip back on your former chains though many people make strenuous efforts to do so.    

But, the liberated prisoner, has now seen the “the bonfire and the traffic on the road whose shadows are cast onto the walls that confront the chained prisoners” and they can never un-see it. This new view-point is, as McGhee notes, precisely the enlargement and liberation that depends upon sophrosune and it is also, therefore,

“. . . a picture of the idea of ‘knowledge of knowledge and ignorance’ since the liberated prisoner at least knows this: – he knows both what the chained prisoners know and what they are ignorant of. In other words, it is the moment when the prisoner has become a stranger to the world of which he was once an inhabitant: he now speaks a foreign language.”

By using the language of “speaking a foreign language” McGhee is concentrating our attention on the fact that with our new “knowledge of knowledge and ignorance” (sophrosune) we are no longer completely in the world of our former “average everydayness” — we are in this sense strangers in the world, strangers to those who remain prisoners. It is vitally important to see here that this involves us, as McGhee says elsewhere in the essay,

“. . . in an unequal relationship, one between a teacher and a pupil, in which the teacher by various means seeks to dislodge the pupil from a condition that obscures their view of reality or of how things really are. But the inequality does not derive from the fact that one person formally holds the role of teacher and the other the role of pupil. Rather it is determined precisely by a more adequate awareness of how things are, by who has something to teach and who something to learn. The premise . . . is that one person can see the obscuring mechanisms and the other cannot. It is vitally important to realize that we are not talking [here] simply of changing someone’s beliefs.”

So, to keep close to hearing the story of Rama and Sita in the Ramayana, I believe that what we, as a free-thinking religious community should be concerned about first of all is not to gain and speak about knowledge or information concerning what the story means or could mean for us or for Hindus, nor what we should or shouldn’t believe about it but, instead, simply to help people see obscuring mechanisms they couldn’t see before and so begin to develop sophrosune themselves, becoming people having “knowledge of our knowledge and ignorance”.

Now Plato’s great mistake was to think that, by degrees (in Socratic conversation — the elenchus), we could eventually escape the cave but this is precisely what we can never do. We can never entirely escape the cave and become Plato’s ideal philosopher who believes they have reached the real, sunlit world and, in so doing, have been able to escape, for ever and ever, all obscuring mechanisms. Looked at in the way McGhee does we find that Plato seems to have made the basic mistake he’s already spoken about in relation to the prisoners, namely, that what lies within his new fixed horizon now exhausts reality.

The truth is very different, for once we get free from our initial chains, turn round and see the first wall, the traffic behind it and the fire behind that, we quickly come to find there will always be another wall behind this one, with still more traffic behind it and a fire behind that, and so on, ad infinitum. Now, on hearing this, you might be tempted to say, goodness, this is a bleak vision — to be stuck forever in a cave behind an endless series of walls — but let me now re-present McGhee’s reformed version of Plato’s cave for you in much more attractive, positive and, I think, realistic terms.

The first thing to say is that even when we are still chained-up prisoners unable to look behind us we are not in some horrible dank and dark cave but outside in the beautiful sunlight of this beautiful, wonderful world. However, initially, the sun behind us does still cast its light on the traffic passing behind the wall which, in turn, continues to project shadows on the wall in front of us. But when, thanks to the first stirrings of sophrosune, we find ourselves released and able to turn around and see the obscuring mechanism — the chains, the wall and the traffic — then we discover we are now free to begin to roam around this beautiful, extraordinary world and able to see, ponder and often enjoy more and more extraordinary things with every step. But as we roam we need to be clear that our freedom in this lovely world doesn’t ever gift us the perfect complete view from nowhere. Sophrosune is alway-already reminding us that our current horizon can never exhaust reality for there are always things beyond our current horizons we do not know, there are always certain things that are obscuring our view of this or that. In the end we realise and come to terms with the recognition that the one thing we can’t escape from is this beautiful, extraordinary world. A fully developed sophrosune helps us shed any desire to escape this world. All things being equal who would, before their natural death, want to leave such a wonderful world? (At this point I was moved to sing — badly — the opening lines of Bob Thiele’s song “What A Wonderful World” made famous by Louis Armstrong — my grandma bought it for my second birthday in 1967).

Ultimately, developing sophrosune helps a person see that there is and can be no single reading of either their own stories, the stories of other cultures, or reality itself. It helps a person see and act upon the knowledge that we always-already need to be in touch with and talking to all people everywhere and only such an endless, open and freeing conversation will ever deliver up to us the kind of inclusive, peaceful, plural and curiously inquiring world for which we yearned for millennia.