Why do humans produce art? What is it that has led us as a species to feel the need to exteriorise our thoughts into outer objects? Some of the earliest instances of human art that we have are the exquisite paintings made by prehistoric man on the walls of caves. The oldest are between 30 and 40 thousand years old and there is evidence of synthetic artifacts dating to around 80 thousand years ago.

According to Plato, artworks will always be confined to the walls of a cave. And maybe he was right as 2500 years later, what some consider to be the ultimate form of art, (whose status as art continues to be debated) the motion picture, would be projected onto exactly the same surface: the wall of a cave, as we sit in the dark, facing forward, with the light and the heat of the projector behind us. We become captivated by shadows, by illusions, by reproductions of the real.

To Plato, what we see when we look at a work of art is merely the outline of a real living thing; we only see it’s shadow projected onto the wall of a cave, yet we take these projections to be reality. To trace an outline around these shadows with a piece of chalk, much like our ancient ancestors did, we would have a work of art, but of course this artwork is just an outline of an outline. What we recreate onto the wall of the cave is a copy of something that is already only a shadow – a silhouette of the true object. All art for Plato would thus be a cave painting, in its most basic form.

So to Plato art only exists as something three times removed from the truth; the painting outlines the real sensuous thing which is itself merely an outline of its true, ideal Form. It is merely a copy of a copy.  This idea of ‘mimêsis’ – most commonly translated as ‘imitation’ – can be understood as depreciation, there is less truth and less reality in the painting than in the real thing which it portrays. Just as there is less truth and reality in the thing it depicts than in the essence of that thing.

Painting is the oldest form of art of which we have any evidence. The oldest known paintings made by man were drawn onto the walls of dark caves, out of the reach of sunlight, if there were paintings on other surfaces, they are unlikely to have survived. One of the most fascinating is the 30,000 year old painting of a bison on the wall of the Chauvet cave in Southern France. Plato saw that there is less in a painting than in the real living thing that it depicts because the painting does not move. Whereas the real bison are free to roam the world, the painting immobilises mobile life.

But are the paintings really so static? Werner Herzog, in his seminal film Cave of Forgotten Dreams attempts to establish that these apparently static paintings, do, in fact, move. Our ancient ancestors made these paintings in the darkest parts of the cave, away from the natural light of the sun (that Plato of course turned into a metaphor for the highest source of intelligibility – visibility to reason). They move because of their visibility through fire. The technology of the ancients (what Stiegler calls their technics) was not like ours: they did not have electric light that mimics the brightness and steadiness of the sun. There is no natural light in the cave with which to view the painting, so the cave painters and cave dwellers must use artificial light, of whatever kind they have. The first form of artificial light is fire: the gift Prometheus stole from the gods to give to man, thus creating man for the first time. It was the gift of technics, the very most primitive kind of artifice, that allowed man to survive as an animal without essence, an animal with an inherent lack in regards to the other animals.

So, it was fire that was used to illuminate the dark wall of the cave, and on this wall were paintings, static imitations of real life. But these paintings were not merely viewed by flickering torchlight; they were created by torchlight. They were given life by the ever changing light of fire, the metaphor for man’s inherent technicity. Therefore, our ancient ancestors who created these works of art would make them in such a way that their still drawings would respond to the moving light which illuminated the surface on which he inscribed his work: and that means he essentially made these pictures to move.

Notice the Bison’s multiple legs, giving the illusion of movement when illuminated by firelight

So, what we have here is an extraordinary coincidence between man and technics, and thus fire and art. Together they make up precisely the image of Plato’s cave and its contemporary avatar: the cinema understood as a cave, where a steady artificial light projects into the darkness to create moving shadows on the cave wall…

Adapted and expanded from a lecture given by Dr. Mike Lewis at the University of the West of England by Matt Bluemink

Part One: Man, The Animal Without Essence

Part Three: Brains, Hands and Tools

Part Four: The Edge of Time

17 thoughts on “Man, the Animal Without Essence, 2: Fire and the Cave

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  3. It is inconsiderate to use the word “just” to describe your sentiments referring to the literal context of the artwork in question, and does not do fair justice(lol) to the sentiment of plato regarding the metaphysical context of artwork within human perception and expression. You also used the phrase “but of course” to start this sentence. But of course you were just bullshitting.


    • Appreciate the comment but how exactly does saying ‘but of course’ in the context that I used it imply anything more than what I said? Metaphorically, we can compare the art on the wall of a cave to the Plato’s allegory of the cave no? Whereas our perception of the world of becoming is merely an impression made by the Form it is partaking in, the work of art can be seen as a recreation of this impression. What always is and never becomes and what becomes and never is. Art is a recreation of becoming which is a impression of being. Thus it is something three times removed from the true reality of the forms, hence the concept of mimêsis. This is the reading of Plato, influenced by Derrida, made by Bernard Stiegler. Care to explain how this this is unjust?


  4. What you say on art holds true for visual arts: that it’s a Form thrice removed, the Form to its physical representation to its artistic depiction. Would you say the same for music or literature?

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    • Just to be clear this isn’t necessarily my opinions, this is just using Plato’s theory as an analogy for art in relation to cave art/technics as the creation of man.

      I know Plato, although obviously a very keen writer, was definitely not a fan of writing in general. He saw it as causing hypomnesis i.e. a forgetting of the truth of being. In other words, exteriorsation of memory into writing constitutes a loss of memory and knowledge. Though I’m not really sure how he would relate that directly to literature as an art form (though he does distinguish between diegesis and mimesis in terms of poetry), I’d have to read over the Phaedrus and Republic to be sure about that!


      • “Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.”

        —Phaedrus, 275d-e

        And yet, as you point out, Plato was himself a poet. What do we make of that? Or was it just Socrates who held these beliefs (since we know he never wrote, unless we count the Aesop’s fables on his death bed that Plato mentions)? Or maybe Plato himself held these beliefs about writing, but allowed for a certain style of writing that doesn’t let itself get pinned down? A writing that moves, in other words…writing that contains paradox and forces the reader to solve the problem. A perfect example is the quote above. Here we are reading it!

        Excellent post. It’s interesting the way you’ve brought in the light of fire=techne from the first post in this series and tied it into allegory of the cave themes. Well done.

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      • I just read your article and it’s a fascinating way to look at that tension in Plato’s Phaedrus (one of my favorites, for sure). I think this is a subject Plato was very much interested in—that process of making external marks to make theorizing possible. You find this sort of thing all over the Republic and in the Meno with the slave boy example. In order for us to know mathematical realities, we must make these marks in the sand that stand in for objects that can’t truly be physically represented, and yet we need those marks, we rely on them. Our minds can’t hold all that information at once. It’s paradoxical indeed.

        I think your post does clarify things. If it’s true that writing offers a memory support such that theorizing at a certain level would not be possible, I think Plato wouldn’t have a problem with it so long as it’s taken as fallible. I don’t think he thought it was possible to fully grasp truth with words, but perhaps it’s not possible to get close to it without words.

        Writing may destroy that flexibility that speech gives us by pinning things down, and it may be dangerous in the sense that we think we’ve really nailed the truth with words. (You can draw an analogy here with other forms of art). In speech, we are prepared to accept more fluidity in simply acknowledging our own forgetfulness, we let each other backtrack and redefine things, and we don’t take ourselves quite as seriously. Yet writing presents itself as something serious and concrete. I think Plato wanted to warn us against taking it this way.

        Fiction provides us with more flexibility in a way since the Truth is not something made (falsely) concrete and permanent, but something to be made available or pointed to through interpretation and further discussion. It’s an ongoing process. Fiction doesn’t sit quite as steadily on the page as nonfiction. It’s an approximation to speech’s flexibility that simultaneously opens the door to theorizing.


      • Yeah I totally agree with those first points. I suppose Plato, using Socrates as a mouthpiece, is precisely showing us the paradoxical nature of the written word. Insofar as writing is the fabricator of illusion, as Socrates maintained, it is only through writing that we can hope to reach certain truths. I’m sure he would have followed in his masters footsteps as an orator if he hadn’t believed this to some extent!
        I’m interested in the what Plato has to say about fiction specifically in comparison to writing in general. Do you know of any particular passages I should look up?


      • Hm, I’m not sure I can think of a specific passage on fiction vs. other styles of writing.
        I tend to see more about writing in terms of muthos or poetry, which is then often times viewed as religious truth. And philosophical writing comes out in opposition to that. So really a lot can be gleaned from the context in which Plato wrote. Here’s an article on muthos vs. logos…no need to read it all unless you want to, of course! I just scanned it myself. 🙂


        Of course, everything he’s writing is fiction from our point of view, but a different sort from his myths, which he might consider even more “fictional”. So “muthos” might be a good equivalent, but not in our sense of “myth” as “false”. More like in the Timaeus when he calls the exposition “a likely story”.

        He talks about myths quite a lot. They have power, they can persuade, they are a motivating force and as such, they must be in the right hands. The funny thing is, he tends to launch into a myth just as you get into the really good point in an argument when you really want him to just clearly lay it all out. Socrates tends to back off just then and you get this feeling that something is being held back, that Socrates (as Plato’s mouthpiece perhaps) knows something, but he’s not going to tell you in the way you want. I speculate it’s because these truths cannot be told in that philosophical way that we want, or it might be that Plato doesn’t believe we’ll take it properly. Desire is an important part of education and grasping knowledge, so that may factor into his use of myth. All speculation on my part. In any case, it seems clear that Plato thinks the Good cannot be grasped with words, though words may be needed to get close. This is found in the divided line of the Republic and in the Symposium.

        Of course, I’m no Plato scholar. He’s tricky to interpret and there seems to be just about every possible interpretation under the sun out there!

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      • Yeah I definitely agree that it fits in with Plato’s philosophical goal to hold something back in his dialogues. After all what kind of philosopher king is told exactly what to do through reading symbols on a piece of paper? Anamnesis still requires the realm of reason!
        I delved briefly into the Timaus as an undergrad, it’s definitely one of Plato’s more bizarre dialogues (and my professor’s favourite!) but I might try and find a copy to examine it a bit further.
        I’ll have a look into the poetry/prose fiction distinction as well. I find it fascinating that prose writing was fairly uncommon for story telling up until relatively recently. Poetry, it seems for the Greeks, has a much closer link to ‘reality’ than we are willing to give it in this day and age.
        Will also give the stanford page a look. Thanks!

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      • The Timaeus is so wonderful. Definitely my favorite too, though I can’t say I understand it all. It’s just so beautifully bizarre. I still remember the first time I read it and thinking it was the weirdest and most interesting thing I’d come across.

        It was nice to stumble upon your blog and find a fellow Plato lover!


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  7. Actually the allegory of the cave in Plato has _moving_ shadows on the wall: there are people carrying puppets past a fire while walking along a path, making the shadows seem to move in front of the prisoners.


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