Orwell and Plato – sensible +/knowable

21 Jan

In Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, he describes the way we use long words too much and the effect this is having on our thought. He explains at some length – and with an admission of personal guilt – what it is people do when they write, and why this is bad.

Orwell says we can simplify language and get back to saying things with meaning. This will be the point that starts the circle[1] which will allow us to think things with meaning. Orwell says we can do this by imagining what we want to say without words – with pictures and sensations – for as long as we can. This will help us steer away from abstracted and generalised ideas, stale metaphors and vague explanations. If we have a picture in our mind, we can find the right words. Meaning should dictate language, not language meaning.

I don’t pretend to have fully understood all the facets of Orwell’s argument, but I think what he is saying is that we will continue to have boring and stale thoughts while we allow ourselves to be bound by the limits of our language (incidentally, this is a similar point to the one made in my favourite scholarly idea with which to show off, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). Making that language flowery, classically-derivative and pretentious doesn’t make our thoughts better; it just provides an easily-reached-for cartel of set collocations that have lost both their immediate meaning and their metaphorical one. Who really knows why we say ‘nose to the grindstone’ any more? And yet we still use the phrase, because it’s right there on the tip of our tongue when we want to say ‘working very hard’ and think that is insufficient.

This is all very interesting and I am sure we can agree that it would be nice to lose some of the more hackneyed turns of phrase we hear trotted out left, right and centre today [IRONY ALERT]. Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words (sorry, Orwell). Maybe we can be far more imaginative and original with the things around us.

Example: there’s a small pot of Vaseline (or petroleum jelly, if you prefer) on my desk. A moment’s thought leads me to the conclusion that it could also sort of be described as ‘coal butter’. Well, it could! Or fossil jam, if you like, though fossil jam to me sounds more like a band name dreamed up by a bunch of cynical oldies. I bet Orwell didn’t foresee that problem. Anyway, the point is surely this: application of imagination generates originality. Or as Orwell might prefer it, thinking about things makes new stuff.

This is all fascinating stuff, but I have to admit that what I’m principally interested in here is the idea that the sensory experience of something is a prior experience to the linguistic one. And why am I interested in this? Well, it’s because I love Plato. Love him. Well, love talking about him. And Plato would probably be very interested in having a chat with Orwell about his ideas.

Plato is consistently characterised by people who don’t know much about Plato as a chap who had some ideas about things called ‘Forms’ and made an allegory about a cave and some shadows. Happily, this is basically all you need for me to explain this. Here we go.

Plato’s Forms start to emerge as a philosophical idea in his early dialogues, when he has his speakers try and understand the true essence of a particular abstract concept, eg holiness or virtue (these words don’t make sense as such in English; in Greek they carry far more weight). To get to what is meant by these ideas, the speakers effectively play word games – Socrates catches people out by saying ‘well, if holiness is doing what is pleasing to the gods, then all the gods must agree what holiness is – and yet you say that Zeus would condemn patricide, even though he is himself a patricide of his own divine father!’[2]. Basically, Socrates gets off on tying his interlocutors in knots of verbal reasoning. But in his defence – Socrates was trying to get at the reality that underpins abstract ideas by stripping away the ambivalent mists surrounding them. Socrates asks ‘what is holiness?’ and he is not satisfied to be told that holiness is what is pleasing to the gods. Which gods? For how much of the time? Is a holy act the same as holiness? How? What colour is holy? Etc.

Plato’s early dialogues usually end in what is called ‘aporia’ by people who like to sound knowledgeable about this kind of thing. It literally means ‘pathlessness’ or ‘resourcelessness’. The idea is that the interlocutors are so confused by the lexical argument that they can’t follow through with the logic. It isn’t until Plato’s middle and later dialogues that Socrates takes a more commanding role and behaves like a teacher rather than an irritating (and incorrigible) child. In the Republic, Socrates and his mates are searching for ‘justice’. Straight away they run into difficulties when a particularly argumentative chap called Thrasymachus says the opposite of what they’re all used to hearing – he comes right out and says that justice is actually bad for the individual. Shock and horror abound. So Socrates says he will attempt to show that justice, in and of itself, is intrinsically good – not for what it brings in the form of material rewards, but for the simple wholesomeness of its existence as a concept.

You might be thinking I’ve lost sight of Orwell in all this Plato-loving. Bear with me, I’m getting there. On the face of it, it might sound like Orwell and Plato are on pretty much the same sort of lines – peeling back difficult language to get to true meaning, etc. Well, yes and no. Orwell has this idea that if we look at something – whether in real life or in our mind’s eye – we can see it for what it actually is, and describe it as such, without resorting to tired, prefabricated phrases. But Plato argues (through Socrates[3]) that all of our words – as we know how to use them – are insufficient to capture the true meaning of something. We haven’t been trained properly. And what sort of training does Plato recommend? It’s a pretty exhausting curriculum, but top on his list – the final qualification – is ‘dialectic’. If you can construct an argument worthy of foxing even Socrates’ logical powers, you have the brainpower to tease out the essence of abstract concepts using only words.

So to simplify slightly – Orwell says we can understand something in a new way by not relying on words. Plato says we can only understand things through our power to use words. Plato is highly suspicious of sensory experiences. And this is where the cave comes in. Here we go, guys. Deep breaths.

Socrates introduces the cave allegory with two other allegories referred to as the ‘line’ and the ‘sun’. They are all intended to make clear the point that he expands on in great detail in the cave allegory. In the line allegory, he divides the world up into two ‘realms’ (scholars argue about whether this means there are two worlds, two realities, etc etc). One of these realms is the sensory realm. The other is the intelligible realm. Each of these is also divided into two. The sensory realm is composed of shadows of images and images. The intelligible realm is composed of thoughts about things and things themselves. The first two parts of the line correspond to the second two parts of the line. Confused? Don’t worry. All will soon become clear. But you notice, I hope, that seeing things – the sensory realm – is considered to be less ‘real’ than forming things with words in the intelligible realm.

The sun allegory relates to what Plato thinks of as the ultimate Form – the form of the ‘good’. This is rather tricky but it’ll come in handy when we put the line and the cave together. Basically, in the same way that the sun nourishes everything and everything can trace its life back to the sun, thus do all forms and all things related to forms derive from the good [this is the subject of some serious argument about consistency and opposites of forms, but let’s not tangle with that today].

Socrates says: imagine there is a cave, with people bound hand and foot, looking at a wall. They have a fire behind them which casts its light on the wall. From time to time, unnamed, unknown others pass between their backs and the fire, carrying objects. The shadows of these objects are reflected onto the wall and the prisoners in the cave name them, assuming these shadows are the ultimate reality of those objects, because they don’t know any different. Now imagine one of these prisoners somehow breaks free. The first thing he does is turn around and realise that what he thought was a pot was in fact only a shadow of a pot, and so on. He is curious. He leaves the cave, past the fire, and emerges into the daylight beyond the cave. At first he is blinded by the light and can hardly make out anything around him, but soon he comes to see trees and mountains and the sky and one day, he will be able to see the sun (nb – don’t try this at home. Remember, kids, it’s an allegory). The former prisoner realises how far he has come from seeing shadows of objects on the wall of a cave, since he can now see the source of all things – the sun creates the light that illuminates all the things that truly are, just as the fire created the light that illuminated the things that aren’t. The prisoner goes back down to the cave to try and teach the others. We can leave the allegory here, because it turns into an allegory for why philosophers are misunderstood.

Hopefully you can see how these three allegories tie together. The cave is the big story that the line neatly describes, but with the added bonus that it draws on the explanation provided by the sun allegory. The ‘cave’ is the sensory realm, where we rely on shadows and material things. The world outside the cave is the intelligible realm, where we come to know forms and ultimately, the form of the good. A very simple way to imagine all these stages is this: you can have a reflection of a tree (shadow). You can have a tree (image/object). You can have true beliefs about what constitutes a tree (idea). And finally, you can have the form of the tree, the tree itself. The ultimate tree from which all our understanding of what a ‘tree’ is derives.

So, as I said, Plato is suspicious of the sensory realm. He goes on to complain in the Republic that senses can be misleading, that relying on them dulls the understanding and drive to solve problems and can be downright morally dangerous. A big chunk of the final book of the Republic is dedicated to an attack on painting and poetry. Pictures don’t show the world as it truly is, says Plato. They show you what the artist thinks the world ought to look like. And if the artist knew what a bed or a bow or a table or a beautiful woman really looked like, he would spend his time using that knowledge in a useful way. If Homer was such a great military tactician, Plato argues, why isn’t he remembered for being a really awesome general? Because, Plato says, Homer knew what the uneducated multitude expect of a military tactician, and that’s how he wrote his battle scenes in the Iliad. If he was a top general, he could not, by definition, be a poet too. Fazam. Homer is shot down. A little apologetically, it’s true. Nevertheless, Plato only wants instructive and morally upright stories in his ideal city. None of this ‘shadows of images’ stuff that Homer and the tragic poets peddle. Don’t trust your senses, folks! The reality of forms is the only reality there is.

So. Back to Orwell. Our phrases are old and tired and this is stunting our originality. How do we change this? By going back to the visual experience and redefining the language. Can we trust our visual experience? Plato says no – we can only arrive at truth through discussion. So where does all this leave us?

Well, we could just forget Plato. He’s pretty old, after all. Orwell is far more recent, and if they don’t seem to agree, we could just jettison the bits we don’t like. There is that option. But I think there’s a better one. I think they reconcile rather nicely. Here’s how.

I reckon what Orwell and Plato are both driving at is that there is a fundamental essence to everything that defies immediate definition. In Plato’s time, the way to deal with this was to talk about it. In our time, we have become desensitised to it because everyone else already did the talking. Orwell isn’t asking us to question our ontological understanding of the world, he just wants us to look at it – to really look at it – and think of the best way to use the words we have at our disposal, every time. Plato goes deeper, showing us that there is more to life than the shadows and images to which we cling, and if we talk about it – really talk about it – we can work out what it is. Orwell is trying to drive us away from abstracts and generalisations, while Plato is trying to prove the existence of the most abstract and generalised things we can encounter – but both are demanding our attention to detail. Perhaps the best way to think of Orwell and Plato is in terms of the cave and the line allegories I described. Orwell is our man in the cave, telling us to look at the shadows. Don’t they remind you of anything? Is that really a pot you are seeing? Can’t you think of a better way to describe it? Plato is the one loitering outside the cave, saying look at that tree! See how its leaves face the sun! Smell it, touch it, experience the reality of the tree![4]. We need people of both sorts in our lives, driving us to the essence of things – be they intelligible or merely sensible. And the great proof of this? Why, it’s Plato’s own allegories. If you can explain your understanding of the universe and everything in it via a short narrative about a man in a cave, you know how important both words and images are.

So – See! Think! And better yet, combine them and write beautiful, compelling, intelligent prose. Good night and good luck.


[1] I know that’s probably not allowed by the laws of maths or physics or something, but we all know that the law of drawing says you have to start a circle somehow

[2] He doesn’t quite say it like this but it’s a reasonable approximation. See the Euthyphro for the whole argument

[3] It’s not clear that Socrates’ ideas ever progressed to this stage in his lifetime; Plato has a lot to answer for in terms of putting words in his mouth…

[4] Ok, so my characterisation makes him sound a bit of a hippy. Deal with it).

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