Plato’s Cave and the Truth of Secret History
By Jafe Arnold
“Secret history.” This term, or rather notion, evokes passionate intuitions and suspicions. For some, “secret history” immediately rings like a provocative slogan, behind which lurks a Pandora’s box of “conspiracy theories” muddying, twisting, or, as is officially, fashionably said nowadays, “disinforming” otherwise “explainable” all-too-human affairs. For others, however, “secret history” speaks precisely to “all-too-human” reality on a deeper level. On the one hand, it is affirmed that humans have agency, and that the agencies of some (or any for the matter) are never fully transparent to others. On the other hand, the agency of humans is historical, i.e., such is hardly if ever purely “individual” or “subjective”, but rather is part of and realized within long-standing states of affairs, grander pictures, and forces which are hardly explainable by the immediate agencies of any given number of humans alone at any given time.
Between these poles of the “all-too-human” reaction to “secret history”, one often finds themself faced by two most visible extremes: a blind, agency-surrendering faith in some “disclosed history”, which as a matter of course “happens” to be whatever revolves around the “official” one, or dissipation into epistemological chaos, into paranoia before unknowable forces and their actors. In both cases, something truly human and truly historical about “secret history” is lost.
One widespread, extremely telling aspect of the “Postmodern” paradigm under which much of the world now finds itself is the decline of language. Highly-charged words and named ideas become commonplace hashtags, lose their meaning in favor of their “marketing”, and become merely other units amidst a whirling kaleidoscope of commodities. The most serious and hitherto dangerous evocations become harmless labels and brands. “Secret history” is no exception. Every other bookstore shelf, video documentary, or social media thread promises and sells another “secret history.” Nothing could be further removed from how everything has always been: across times, spaces, and cultures, humans have believed in the magical power of the word and name whose utterance can summon, reveal, or effect a phenomenon itself. In the light of this contrast, one of the few meaningful orientations that remains is to return to ancient words and attempt to hear what their faint echoes tell us – and challenge us to think – now.
Like countless other words in the English language, “secret” is owed to ancient Latin. For the Romans to whom the modern world owes so many of its unconscious word-ideas, secretum was above all something hidden, something kept away, in the etymological sense literally something “separated” from that which is already open and known, from secretus, meaning “set apart”, “secluded”, or figuratively “distinguished.” The latter meaning is perhaps the most ancient, as the etymological root takes us back to what, according to linguistic reconstruction, the Proto-Indo-European pastoralists of the prehistoric steppes would have said with the root *krei-, i.e., “to sieve”, “to discriminate”, “to distinguish.” In the subtle intonations of these ancient word-roots, we are dealing not only with the sense of something “set apart” from something else, but with the very fact of recognizing this “setting apart”, this “secret-ing” as such. After all, is something that is “set apart” not “set as a-part”, “a-parted” in relation to “part” of something altogether, something greater? Is something taken or made to be “secret”, something “secret-ed”, not always in a more primordial relation to that which is original and open, i.e., like the whole going through a sieve into parts? Is something hidden, something kept away, something separated, not always such from the “rest”? The word and notion of “secret” harbors this forgotten sense that “secrets” are not always secret, but rather are in different times and places “set apart” and “distinguished.”
Far beyond merely “playing with words”, these meditations are of the utmost philosophical, existential significance. One of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, drew our attention to the fact that the original Greek word for “truth”, aletheia, is most faithfully translated and understood as “un-concealed” (a- being privative, like in many English prefixes, and lethe being that which is “concealed”, “forgotten”, “in oblivion”). For the original ancient Greek thinking that gave birth to philosophy, Heidegger argued, truth was not the modern concept of “correct” correspondence between a perception and a thing, or an object and a pronouncement, but a dynamic experience of things “un-concealing”, “un-hiding”, “dis-closing”, “dis-covering” (a-letheia). Heidegger thus interpreted a forgotten, “closed” dimension of the ancient roots of philosophy: things are not “true” in the sense of readily “seeming” or being “known” to be certainly so, but rather we live “between” truth, amidst the primordial, existential truth of being constantly concealed and un-concealed, “covered” and “dis-covered.” Every generation has the task of thinking what is – we may return to secretus – “set apart” and “secluded”, what is “dis-coverable” or “un-secreted.” While the Second World War was blaring in the background, Heidegger kept his students in Nazi Germany’s lecture halls busy meditating on how something had gone terribly wrong with philosophy, with thinking (and hence with everything else), by the point the sense of truth as aletheia was mistaken to mean “correctness” of representations, propositions, and “facts.” Following Heidegger’s train of thinking, we can say that truth as aletheia is always and everywhere a matter of facing “secrets”, as we constantly face dealing with what is and what is not “secret” to us and by us. To face truth consciously means, as Heidegger put it, to exist as humans “authentically”, to exist “truthfully”, that is “dis-coveringly.”
One of the most famous and important instances in which Heidegger intimated this ancient truth was in Plato’s famous “allegory” of the cave. In this “story” from Plato’s Republic, the condition of everyday life is presented to be like that of prisoners chained at the bottom of a cave. At a level of the cave behind and above them, there is a fire around which other people carry various objects and speak amongst themselves. The prisoners at the bottom see only the shadows cast on the walls and hear echoes – this is their entire reality, their whole truth or “un-concealed” world. But, “what if”, Socrates guides us to imagine, one prisoner escapes and finds his way up to the fire, and he realizes another dimension of reality, i.e., he experiences a different “un-concealment”, which is at first blinding, confusing, even painful. Only upon habituating to this “new” situation does he realize the “secret” above and behind the reality at the bottom that he had known as true, and this dark reality below itself seems to be some kind of “secret.” When the prisoner exits the cave altogether, he faces an even more painful, bewildering, dis-covered “secret reality”: his eyes must adjust to the light of days, between which he discovers night, he must become habituated to all the phenomena and beings of the outside world, and eventually he comes to notice the patterns, workings, and forms of the cosmos as they are un-concealed, “truthed” to him. This at first completely unknown, shocking un-concealment comes to be understandable. But, after understanding, what about interpretation and action? In Plato’s philosophical story, the liberated prisoner resolves to go back into the cave to liberate the others, but truth, aletheia, cannot simply be communicated or “laid out” to them as information or claims – they themselves must go through the whole experience of the cave. For Heidegger, Plato’s cave story is the “essence of the happening of truth”: truth is the history, the happening (in German, Geschichte harbors precisely this dual, dynamic sense) of our existing amidst and through different levels, realities, experiences, and discoveries, between which beings and things are concealed and un-concealed to us. Heidegger, whose whole thinking centered around an intimate sensitivity to language and naming, called Plato’s cave “the first essential history.” He added: “Every age and every people has its cave, and the cave dwellers to go with it.”
Our word and notion of “history”, as is well known, also claims ancient Greek provenance. For the “Father of History”, Herodotus, historia, from historeo, was an engagement: “to inquire.” However, like “truth”, our modern “history” could not be further removed from its ancient inception. For moderns, history is vulgarly understood to be everything that has passed, “the past”, the latter’s written record and systematic study. “History” becomes something gone, something more or less stable and known or knowable in contrast to the “present”, which is supposed to eventually recede for analysis, and in contrast to the “future”, whose “change” and “progress” marches forward despite whatever came before and indeed thanks to the “overcoming” of past history. On this unidirectional map, “secret history” appears as either the dark realm of what happened in the past that is not or cannot be known now (and is therefore “set apart”), or is the black hole of subversion or denial of the reality of some established History.
This sense of history has a definite birthplace, time, and, perhaps soon, death. Only in the Modern West, specifically in a few cities and essays in Western Europe, did the idea develop and become dominant that history is something paradigmatically behind us. The Western Enlightenment proclaimed everything around and before it, all of “History”, to be dark, ignorant, and backwards, slated to be overcome by the correct truth of science and progress. A massive rift was asserted between the “evolved” present geared toward the future and the “superstitious” past of all the heritages, traditions, experiences, and beings of mankind’s diverse civilizations, including Europe’s own. One of the most impactful culminations of this new movement was migration to and revolutionary statehood in the “New World”: the United States of America declared a complete break with all of the “Old World” and proclaimed itself to be the “city upon a hill” free from history and heir to the future. In the 1990s, when the US assumed the position of global hegemon following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bipolar world of the Cold War, prominent American voices were heard hailing and promising the “End of History” and a “New World Order.” Billions of people live with the consequences of this “End of History” – without a doubt, one with its own enormous “secret history” – to this day, especially as, by many accounts, it itself is now traumatically coming to its end.
Yet, it is no coincidence that it is in this Modern Western “History” that the notion of “secret history” becomes a widespread topic. It is in the Modern West, for Heidegger, that history becomes an issue, a message for deciphering, one which must be “destructured” so as to reveal its “concealed happening.” It is amidst the rise and peak of the Modern West that esoteric and occult groups arise with revelations of “secret histories”, “secret doctrines”, and “rejected (‘secret-ed’) knowledge.” And it is with the rise of the Western historical sciences and research that diverse authors, both academic and outside of institutions, come to publish revelations of “secret” and “neglected” or “rejected” histories that “solve” so many “gaps.” With the “exposure” and “rediscovery” of “secret histories”, it is as if it is only a matter of “de-secretizing”, or putting back together “real” or “full history” with the most diverse “explanations” for the raison d’être of past “secretings”, and then everything should fall into place.
The underlying motivation and intuition behind the turn to “secret histories” is clear and a right one: the “History” that has been formalized and structured out of the Western Enlightenment is not an open, but a closed one. In its origins, facilitation, and trajectory, there are many secrets, many things set apart and concealed. In its openness towards an exclusively progressive, universal future, the deep, diverse everything of its past – and the present of all others – is closed off. At the highest point of tension of Western Modernity, between the First and Second World War, not long after powerful voices such as Oswald Spengler’s already diagnosed a “decline”, a “closing down” of the West, a diverse group of thinkers now known as the “Traditionalist school” convincingly outlined how Western Modernity is an anomalous closing-off of the world, a “thickening” and “darkening” to the point that Westerners are no longer capable of understanding not only other cultures, times, and places, but themselves and their own “history” (which is now “secret”) – and everything “before” and “beyond.” For the Traditionalists, the “History” of the Modern West is a happening of concealment, wherein rediscovering “secret” or “sacred history” is the urgent imperative for the sake of the West itself and all the civilizations which perilously fall under its concealing spell. One of the essential directives of these and other thinkers who committed to such radical “un-concealment” amidst the deep “crisis of the modern world” is that the countless symbols, words, and myths of the “deep past” which have been set aside, such as Plato’s cave, hold up to us a mirror in which we may still rediscover ourselves and the meaning of our all-too-recent fumbling with “history.”
Plato’s cave is closed to Modern History. It is an old “allegory” or “myth” from a faraway, primitive time and place long since overcome. The principal allegation is that we have long since left the cave and have been wresting the rest of the world out of it into the light of day, where “History” and “Progress” truly have their horizon. It is as if what Heidegger called the “first essential history of mankind” of Plato’s cave already happened once, for good, whence we move forward. But, once again, “what if”, contrary to the recent dogma and prejudices of Progress and the pre-defined Modern Western telos of “History”, there are perennial, eternal matters which remain with us, or in which we remain? What if, as Heidegger taught, we are always moving throughout and being moved by Plato’s cave? What if Plato’s cave is an “image of our innermost Being”, the innermost truth of our history as inquiring and happening between concealment and unconcealment? What if, instead of gaining whatever ahead of us, we have lost everything whence we come and by which we are who we are? What if the real lines and meaning of our “history” have become a secret, symbolically concealed in Plato’s cave?
This “What if?” is not a hypothetical “thought-experiment” or playing with possibilities. It is a conscious, authentic, existential re-opening, an un-concealing, a dis-covering of countless millennia beyond the past few hundred turbulent years of Western (dis)order. It is the question-worthiness of the beginning and the in-between that has been briefly denied in favor of some imagined, imposed end. This “What if?” encapsulates the dynamic essence of secret history. What are now “secrets” were once open and known; what was once open and known is now “secret.” We human beings find ourselves thrown in the midst of an unfathomably long, deep folding and unfolding happening history of concealment and unconcealment. In the happening that has transpired since Plato’s cave was first philosophically formulated, we have entered into a dark concealment, one in which the most praised “openness” and “discoveries” take place in a closed-off darkness whose shadows and echoes we consider to be “past” and “behind”, rather than still dis-coverable above and worthy of inquiry and experiencing. In this dark corner, the most impressive maps and geological histories have been graphed, the most extensive experiments with its substances have been refined, the constitution of its topography has been measured with the greatest mathematical precision, all amidst the firmest conviction that there is no fire and voices behind us, no way up above, no world outside and beyond, and no other original experiences of the cave and the outside besides one corner’s measurements of the thickest, most materially dissectible hole within it. Now, in the Postmodern sub-cave, anything can be anything and nothing in the dark.
This rereading and recognition of Plato’s cave (which, of course, only touches upon some of its surfaces) is happening amidst a great unconcealing of what was until recently a “secret”: not only has “History” not ended, but consciousness is emerging that this “History” and its purported “End” were very limited and misleading, whereas the horizons of history are much deeper, much broader, and much fuller of meanings and secrets. Turning around and up, so many versions of revelations and interpretations are bound to flash and jump about in the blinding flames of the fire on the level above, but the movement itself is what is essential.
We have already noted where the concealment and “secret” of “History” had its movement: in and toward the West. It is well known that, corresponding to the movement of the Sun, in numerous ancient languages and myths “West” is the direction of descent, of decline, of the dark. It is also increasingly well known in which direction history is (re)turning after its Western “End.” Even the most staunch opponents of this (re)turn have admitted what has been variously called the “Asian” or, more broadly, “Eurasian century.” Even more broadly, numerous visions, ranging as far as from intelligence reports to philosophical visions to sensitive observations of everyday events, have beheld that this grand, world-historic shift back from the Far West to the Eastern hemisphere, to the vast, diverse Eurasian Continent, is occurring without the unilinear, unipolar, “globalizing” ambitions and hegemony that characterized the trajectory of the West. Instead of one or two poles centered roughly in or around Western extremities, the “new” era of civilizations is unfolding, un-concealing before us with multiple poles and visions – and, even more importantly, the space for the agencies of many more, i.e., a “multipolar world.” Already in the second decade of the twenty-first century, not long after the proclaimed “End of History”, it is becoming clear that there are many histories still happening and still to come. Moreover, these histories and happenings have their place and dynamics, their secrets and disclosures, their thousands of languages, cultures, and visions on an immense, trans-continental landmass whose caves bear testimonies to civilizations, histories, and secrets from long before “history.” Without a doubt, Plato’s philosophical myth of the cave was inspired by practices and thoughts happening since unfathomably deep prehistory (and still alive in ancient Greece), when the progenitors of our civilizations habitually descended into caves for rituals, visions, and works of art which have become to us – their descendants – secrets.
There is a famous anecdote about Picasso visiting the prehistoric cave art at Lascaux: emerging out of the cave, Picasso reportedly exclaimed, “We have invented nothing!” According to another version, Picasso said, “They invented everything!” Such exclamations, without a doubt disclosing important truths which are better dealt with in detail elsewhere, are also truthful in that they reveal to us something about the overwhelming shock that comes when moving in and up out of the cave. We find ourselves at a dizzying, shocking “end”, no less confronted by a dramatic, “new beginning.” It takes time and effort to become accustomed to new lights and sights, to register the old, and to understand and interpret this whole “secret history”, especially what it means for us now. This experience is undetermined, unpredictable, and full of different concealments and unconcealments. It can hardly be contained under any single “secret history”; rather, it is the truthful happening of our secret histories.
In our new millennia, beset on the one hand by the daunting prospects of being closed off at the bottom of the cave with no fire and outside light, and on the other hand faced with a re-opening of the so many other ways, caves, and worlds of “new old continents”, many “new old” secrets may come to light, while others may be plunged into concealment again. This is only one “end” in a limited sense, an “end” of one world, one cave-experience, while it is a re-beginning in every possible sense of hitherto concealed others.
An essential openness to the possible worlds and caves of history, and a commitment to moving with and in them in resolute readiness to experience and interpret their disclosures – this is the illuminating, dis-closing truth of the “new” confrontation with secret history.