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Did Plato invent the cinema?

In his Cave Allegory (Republic, c.360 BCE), Plato presents a strikingly visual account of the distinction between knowledge and belief and, in doing so, provides us with what may be considered the earliest cinema.


Bertolucci’s Cave: a Platonic reading of The Conformist (1970) from jamesmooney on Vimeo.

Plato (514a-517a) invites us to imagine humanity as prisoners who have been captive since birth in an underground chamber. There they sit, facing the back wall of the cave, unable even to turn their heads. Behind them, and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners runs a road, along which a wall has been built. Along the road there are men carrying artefacts and the fire projects shadows of these artefacts onto the back wall of the cave. The prisoners, “would believe that the shadows of the objects …were the whole truth” (515c). In what follows, we are asked to consider what would happen were one of the prisoners to be compelled to stand and turn to face the fire, and then again, what if he were “forcibly dragged up the steep and rugged ascent and not let go till he had been dragged out into the sunlight” (516a). Eventually, the released prisoner would come to realise that what he used to take for reality was nothing but shadow and illusion, and he was now seeing things more clearly. Eventually, however, he must return to the cave and attempt to convince his former fellow prisoners of their illusory state despite Plato’s warning that, “if anyone tried to release them and lead them up, they would kill him if they could lay hands on him” (517a).

Plato’s Cave may strike us as very familiar to the modern cinema – we sit in the dark watching projected images play out the drama on the screen before us. There is, however,  a very important distinction between the prisoners in the cave and modern cinema goers, in that Plato’s prisoners are unaware of the fact that what they see is mere shadow and illusion – they take this to be reality.  We, on the other hand, are able to distinguish what we see on the screen from ‘the real world’. So, unlike Plato’s prisoners, who are deceived into taking the shadows for reality itself, it may be possible for us to use film to gain an insight into the world outside the cinema.

Plato’s allegory of the cave can be found in many films: A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore 1998), The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers 1999), Pi (Aronofsky 1998). Perhaps the most explicit illustration of Plato’s allegory is in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista 1970). This film-essay combines images from The Conformist, along with an Orson Welles reading of Plato’s text.

The Conformist will be the first screening of the Filmosophy summer school. Through this and other screenings we will learn what film can contribute to philosophy, and how philosophy can contribute to our enjoyment and understanding of film.

James Mooney, Course Organiser and Lecturer in Film and Philosophy