Book Talk

(Please not this is a reblogged post as part of the series on Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now following the earlier ones on the Tower of Babel and Plato’s Cave).

I made the claim a few week’s ago that Plato’s cave, along with the Tower of Babel, are two ancient stories that help to tell us where we are in the modern world. (I also included Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but it is hardly ancient.)

What is the state of modern knowledge? How advanced is our human consciousness?

Plato considered that knowledge based totally on sense experience-what we might learnedly call empiricism- shows only images and reflections of reality, not the real thing. The real thing is consciousness of ideal forms in the eternal world that lead us to understanding of what, for instance, true beauty and goodness and justice are. Only the…

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Look carefully at the above image ( with thanks for this to WikkiMedia) which presents a picture illustrating Plato’s allegory of the cave. Note the hunched figures bound so they look in one direction. They see, point to and talk about reflections on the back wall of a cave. The light reflected is caused by a fire behind a wall. Actors bearing images of, say, animals, a soldier pass in front of the fire but behind the wall so that only the artefacts they are holding are seen. Nearer the front of the cave a prisoner who has escaped from the back of the cave has difficulty adjusting his eyesight to the brighter light of the sun and to the outside world. However, an escaped prisoner further advanced into the sunlight is taking in the reality of the world unfolded to him.

In the allegory the prisoners are presented with shadowy pictures they assume must represent reality. It is of course a false impression; but even if one escapes it is difficult for him to adjust his seeing to the new reality. However, if he is able to advance beyond this stage the possibility of full awareness is open to him. The light of the fire has been replaced by the sun. The surrounding world is seen in its animated fullness.

Were the two escapees to return to the cave to their former colleagues, they would have difficulty with the lack of light and appear to the prisoners confused. Therefore should they claim a superior reality lies beyond if only the prisoners could escape their word might well be doubted.

What do you make of this story? Does it accord with anything in your life or in our world that makes it an allegory of continuing significance for our time?

Note. Allegory: “A story or visual image with a distinct second meaning behind its literal or visible meaning. An allegory may be conceived of as a metaphor that is extended into a structure system. In written narrative, allegory involves a continuous parallel between two (or more) levels of meaning in a story, so that its persons or events correspond to their equivalents in a system of ideas or a chain of events external to the tale.” (From The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms Chris Baldick. OUP 1990)


(According to Wikipedia the Millenium Dome was designed by Richard Rogers and constructed to celebrate that date. It was described by Prime Minister Tony Blair as “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. It is fair to say that the response given in the Conservative Manifesto- “banal, anonymous and rootless” and “lacking a sense of Britain’s history and culture” seems more in accordance with the general public and educated reaction at the time. The satire I here reproduced written nearer the time reflects a similar feeling.)

And the most powerful rulers on earth gathered together and said: let us now speak one language. For now that we know the laws of Science and the power of Technology we shall defer to neither God nor Nature. And we shall make the poor peoples of the world give up their traditional agriculture and make them grow what we want them to grow and make what we want them to make. We shall teach all peoples to worship money and we shall be guided by economic experts who inform us how to control economies to our best advantage. And within these guidelines we shall pretend to allow people freedom, equality and democracy. And we shall teach people to mock the past, to despise tradition and to regard as superstition religious beliefs. And we shall educate them to believe only in progress and we shall encourage them always to want more than they can buy and we shall devise great entertainment industries using the resources of technology to keep them permanently amused, or at least distracted, when they are not working. And people the world over will forget religion and glorify Man. So let us build a great Dome where we can celebrate the progress and lordship of Man where the people will rejoice in our great secular and materialistic society.

And the Lord came down to the city and looked at the Dome which the children of men built. And the Lord said: Behold the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.

And the Lord continued: They worship their own productions and defer neither to Nature nor to me. They have despoiled and ravaged Nature and made growing places deserts. They have proclaimed freedom and they have created docility. They have promoted democracy and get themselves elected as sharp practitioners or media stars who care for the interests of their people when they have neither wisdom derived from the past nor concern for the future. They have claimed to grant equality but only when people have been taught to say “Materialism is all” .

They have advanced education but only an education designed towards the service of Mammon. This is a generation that does not know the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.

And because of this, Nature will rebel because it can no longer sustain Man in his greed and arrogance. And because they do not regard the poor of the earth, those from traditional cultures and religions will resist the powerful and there will be war and rumours of war and there will be terror and rumours of terror. And there will be anarchy and to deal with anarchy more dictatorial rule and in reaction to dictatorial rule there will be rebellion and then to repress rebellion there will be more cruel dictatorships and Man and his works will be confounded.

Then came the Son unto the Father as he watched the building of the Dome and said: All that you say is just and yet there is still the Church which can still do good and there are still those who sing the old songs and dance the old dances and learn from poetry, who read the Scriptures and glorify Thee and seek to advance Thy Kingdom. Before you completely condemn Man give those who love and tend and nurture that which is good within their traditions yet another opportunity to recreate the Garden you designed for humanity where different traditions and cultures and languages might flourish on the good soil you have laid for them ; then these may yet grow to honour Thee as the creative source of all that is good.

And the Lord said: What you say is still my desire.


Picture: Millenium_Dome_zakgollop


Book Talk

I here use the King James ( or Authorised) version of the story:

And the whole earth was of one language and one speech.And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all…

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I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

Gospel of St. John 10.10

Last October I began a new series of blog “Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now” . The chosen stories were The Tower of Babel myth in Genesis, Plato’s well-known story of the Cave and Coleridge’s long poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Unfortunately going through the Coleridge poem the series lost its initial thrust , meandering rather as I found other subjects to take on at the same time. As a result many new followers will be unaware of the original design as will more occasional blog readers. I have therefore decided to re-run the series over a short period so that readers can follow the developing idea from beginning to end with the original posts being re-edited and re-blogged. This post can act either as a postscript to the series or an introduction as suits the reader.


To what extent can we survive without a proper relationship with creation. Science has given us the power to exceed limits of what was long thought possible. Explainers of science have suggested that science alone shows us true knowledge and tells us who we are.

An ancient story from early on in the Bible challenges this idea. It shows us there are limits to what we can do and there should be limits. God as Creator is not to be mocked.

God’s creation is to be respected and indeed loved. Does it not come from God? But humanity is wilful, seeking over-weeningly to impose his power on the Nature. As a consequence the balance of our relationship with the Nature on which we are dependent is distorted. Coleridge’s poem tells a tale in which a mariner loses his connection

Retired from the action of the world as it were comfortably seated in my study-chair as I write this, it is nevertheless easy to be dismayed by what the screen unfolds of the world around me. A recent Climate Change report by the United Nations paints a dire picture of our future based on humanity’s insufficient awareness of the interdependence of our lives with that of Nature. Humanity does not simply belong to itself. Both Coleridge’s poem and the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel remind us of this.

But the human world also clamours for our attention. Is our hold on life, on life in its fullness reduced? T.S. Eliot reminded us “Humankind cannot bear too much reality”. The Plato story, with its mythic dimension, seems to confirm this. For the dwellers in the cave, conditioned to a type of life they think normal, reject the urgings of one escaped from their midst who tells them of a better life elsewhere in the open sunlight.

Meantime those who live in the open sunlight know life is beautiful. We need to get our thinking right and join them.

(Tomorrow see “The Tower of Babel”)


Isaiah’s “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” could well be applied to William Wordsworth in 1812 . For that year saw the death of two of William’s children: Catherine aged three and three quarters in June and Tommy of measles in December at the tender age of six. He wrote this poem as an epitaph.

 Surprised by joy-impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport-Oh! with whom 
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no vicissitude can find? 
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind- 
But how could I forget thee? Through what power, 
Even for the least division of an hour, 
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind 
To my most grievous loss!-That thought's return 
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 
Save one-one only, when I stood forlorn, 
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn 
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore. 

With Dorothy, grief perhaps was moderated by her frailty. She had never been a well child” (Bate J. Radical Wordsworth P363). Suffering convulsions when she was eighteen months, she was paralysed on the left side and at three and three-quarters she developed the brain fever that finished her.

With Tommy a great future was hoped for. “His sixth birthday came a few days after Dorothy’s death.” He was everyone’s comfort. The other children quarelled with each other but never with him. He was beginning to show a love of books and learning. His father loved him with what Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) called a “peculiar tenderness”. Wordsworth was hoping that this would be the son who would follow in his poetic footsteps. He would describe his boy of ” heavenly disposition,……… passionately fond of knowledge, ardent in the discharge of his duty but in everything else mild and peaceful.”(ibid. P. 365).

While not naming Tommy the poem seems suited to the child but its lack of specificity means that for every reader who has experienced grief a particular force of shared feeling.


Transported by delight you turn to share the emotion and the actuality of separation comes back to you with renewed force. The one with whom you are accustomed to share is no longer there. The renewal of the shock brings guilt-how could you ever forget?- and a vivid re-living of the first realisation of the death and the reconfirmed sense of the unalterability of what has happened.

The poem is a looking within at the emotions. We do not see out there. Until the final lines there is only the one central image of the tomb. We are not drawn to what looks striking about the scene that brings the joy; we are not invited to distinguish the one now dead, until with a summing-up epithet in the last line. And also we are not expected to commiserate with the poet, one William Wordsworth- he is not looking for our sympathy: he is too concentrated on attending to the grief working within him .

The poem is packed with a range of feelings which the poet has to work to understand. We as readers undistracted by images follow the confused to and fro of the poet’s emotions as they are worked into a fuller kind of understanding: and then, later, going over the poem in our minds we are given the freedom to relate these to ourselves and our own experience.

On first reading the last thing we expect on reading the first line and a half is a poem of mourning. The first phrase appears to promise a scene of wonder. When this is broken into by the next phrase “Impatient as the wind” we are probably confused. Then “I turned to share the transport” possibly more for us than Wordsworth’s contemporary readership puzzles us with “transport” until we recognise the appropriate meaning:

“the state of being affected by strong (now esp. pleasurable) emotion; exaltation, rapture, ecstasy. M17”. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The external scene that has conjured up that “transport” ,that has roused the poet is brought down to the central reality of loss:

                                    Oh with whom 
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no viccisitude can find? 
Love, faithful love recalled thee to my mind-
But how could I forget thee?


“Vicissitude” is another surprising word. Checking the S.O.E.D. the meaning that seems most fitting is “change or mutability regarded as a natural process or tendency in human affairs”. Note how the poet, changeable “impatient as the wind” with that word negated, is brought to the recognition of the unalterable, against himself ,as it were. The power of the poem-the emotion driving the series of broken phrases brings the poet to this point of self- accusation: “But how could I forget thee?”

The rhetorical question leads to an expression of guilt- common in the grieving-a feeling that one has let the mourned one down.

The reflection takes the poet back to the original feeling; here, alone, the poet pictures himself “when I stood forlorn”. The phrase “heart’s best treasure” inevitably in a Bible-steeped culture reminds the reader of the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is there will be your heart also”(St Matthew 6:21). This passage from the gospel also connects with the phrase “heavenly face” in the poem. Notably Wordsworth has also, in the letter telling of the child’s death quoted above used the epithet “heavenly” there. In the gospel passage Jesus speaks of the need to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”(Matthew 6.20).

This consolation is not however in Wordsworth’s poem

That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

While the implication of “heavenly” is potentially one of reconciliation with the grief that is a stage which has not yet been reached. The fact of separation is too brutal and something which the poet has to continue to face stoically.

What the poem encourages then is not so much transcending grief but facing it with stoical courage. What is notable about the poem is the rhythmic power that carries the poem through its sequence of intense feelings to its final agonised recognition.


Jonathan Bate Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who changed the World. William Collins 2020