Exiting Plato’s Cave: Reflections on Nigeria’s Predicament

Tunji Olaopa
Tunji Olaopa

By Tunji Olaopa

Alfred North Whitehead, the American philosopher, once wrote that all of Western philosophy is but just a footnote to Plato. Outside of its patent exaggeration, we can take this statement to be a compliment to Plato’s humongous influence on the development of the western philosophical tradition. Plato was instrumental to many of the features that makes philosophy a fundamental discipline anywhere today. From epistemology as the theory of knowledge to social and political philosophy, Plato’s imprints are so broad and so deep. Most often than not, contemporary philosophers have found themselves revisiting and revising his philosophical formulations in an attempt to keep understanding complex human societies. Take, as a significant example, his understanding of the Republic as a political community founded on justice. This generates a picture of social harmony that appeals to many political theorists and politicians all across the world. Apart from this, there are so many fundamental philosophical thoughts that came from his fecund mind which have crossed the Greek national and intellectual boundaries to influence the flowering of thoughts in other sociocultural contexts across the globe. One of these is the allegory of the cave.

This allegory is perhaps Plato’s most famous thought experiment that is meant to bring alive specific and deep philosophical truths about human beings and their attempts to live a good life. In this allegory, Plato asks us to imagine a set of human beings locked down in a cave for decades, without any benefits of any other outside-the-cave experience. The cave is a dark and large place where the entire reality is defined by shadows passing in front of a large wall in front of which they are all chained. The shadows are what they named and relate with. However, and unknown to them, the shadows passing on the wall is a manufactured reality. The shadows are made by people behind the chained prisoners who are passing in front of a large fire with various objects in their hands, it is these objects that are the contents of the “reality” of the prisoners.

Plato then asks us further to imagine that one of the prisoners is somehow miraculously freed from this prison condition, and managed to escape outside of the dark cave. Upon his escape, several things will become obvious. First, the prisoner sees immediately the source of all the shadows cast on the wall, and the function of the fire as the creator of the shadows. Second, the prisoner will note that reality is not the shadows on the wall; the shadows are mere impressions of the objects being passed in front of the fire. Third, and most fundamental, the prisoner will step out of the cave and be literally blinded by the glare of the sun as the ultimate realization of enlightenment. The prisoner, whom Plato sees as the philosopher, could not make a distinction, based on his enlightenment, between what is real and what is mere appearance.

Even a mere layman is able to draw inference from Plato’s allegory, no matter at what level of intellectual sophistication. There is a deep way in which Plato’s cave depict the development condition of an average African country like Nigeria. There are so many diagnoses of the Nigerian and even African predicament in social science literature. I doubt if there is any that has explored the place of ignorance as an epistemic factor in the citizens’ understanding of their collective situation and what to do about it. Plato’s allegory speaks to the role of enlightenment and education in the understanding of reality and how to transform such a reality for the advancement of one’s well-being. That is the implication of the dark cave. It contained people who have resigned themselves to fate. This is because they have taken it for granted that what they are seeing, and what they have experienced for many decades, could not be different. It is the reality and it is what it is meant to be.

What is the implication of somnolent resignation for the project of national development in Nigeria? The answer is a simple one: it facilitates the emergence of citizens who have no interest whatsoever in transforming their collective predicament for the better. It takes little reflection to see the sets of factors that has made this so in a country like Nigeria. We need only take one of such factors—religion. This is the classic context that bears out Karl Marx’s dictum that religion is the opium of the people. We can easily imagine those in Plato’s cave as a set of highly religious people who are satisfied with their lots in life, as written by God. They give birth, and teach their children about contentment and hard work. They go to church and hear sermons about their realities and how that is the best they can ever hope for in a degenerate world modulated by sin. This situation was replicated during the opening moments of capitalism in the 19th century. The proletariat were kept under a serious leash not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the religious leaders and other elites who are in cahoots with one another to keep the workers back bent in misery and their spirit bent in submission. And even though the workers felt their socioeconomic oppression, their minds are kept away from enlightenment by a social structure that was bent on perpetuating their exploitation.

The postcolonial situation in Nigeria is one Plato and Karl Marx would have been familiar with, even though it is so far removed from the context they had to deal with. On the one hand, Plato would have immediately discerned the epistemic condition of a people that have resigned themselves to fate or to God. By moving from Lagos to Maiduguri, and from Sokoto to Sapele, Plato would have seen why our postcolonial reality would not change because Nigerians prefer to resign to going to churches and the mosques to pray and fast than reflect on why postcolonial Nigeria is the way it is and what could be done actively to transform it. Resignation is an epistemic condition that divert attention away from substantive matters of leadership, development, progress, and existence to seek solace in otherworldly concerns. These are the various issues that make postcolonial Nigeria a tough place for anyone to survive. On the other hand, Karl Marx would have seen an elite structure in the economy, politics and society, from the politicians to the clergy, that benefits from the suffering of Nigerians rather than their well-being and empowerment.

The escape of the philosopher from the dark cave is both revolutionary and transformatory in equal dimension. When the philosopher saw the sun, he began to put things in proper perspectives. He knew what he had to do to correct the ills of the past and the present. For instance, he knew he had to return to the cave to broadcast the enlightenment. But liberation does not come easy, as the philosopher was soon to realize. By returning into the cave, he became blinded by the gloom and this convinced the others still in the dark that his journey was not so successful. This reinforced their resolve not to ever leave the cave. This situation would be clear to any radical civil organization with the objective of challenging the basis of the exploitation of the people. Two things have often happened to civil society organizations in Africa. It is either they would be coopted into the same power and exploitation dynamics they set out to fight against, or they would get discouraged because the citizens on whose behalf they are fighting are too resigned to understand what transformation demands.

Yet, transformation demands the active courage of both these organizations and the intellectuals. These are the prisoners who have escaped from the dark cave of ignorance, and who are saddled with the onerous task of convincing the populace why acute consciousness is the first condition in their own liberation. We only need to call to mind the political history of Nigeria to know that most intellectuals and civil society organizations have not fared well with regard to the government on the one hand, and Nigerians on the other hand. I have in mind here, for example, the strenuous campaigns, in the mid-90s, of Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti and the Campaign for Democracy (CD). We also had so many intellectuals, from Tai Solarin to Ken Saro-Wiwa, who struggled to bring enlightenment to the dark gloom of Nigeria’s postcolonial reality but who lost their lives in the process. But while the Nigerian state would persist in its antagonism towards any challenge to its rule, the intellectuals and the civil society organizations cannot afford to relent.

Enlightenment comes at a cost, as Plato’s escaped philosopher discovered; and as we also could verify from the tragic experience of those who have lost their lives in the service of Nigerians. But then, enlightenment and education are key to liberating the minds of the people in order for them to be able to put in right perspectives the dynamics of their lives and what could be done to achieve national development, and ultimately the empowerment of the citizens. Democratic governance would remain a mirage if we remain perpetually in the dark cave of ignorance about our own condition. And it is here that the intelligentsia becomes the barometer that determine whether we stay in the postcolonial darkness forever or we achieve enlightenment by stepping right into the glare of development.

*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is the Executive Vice-Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (tolaopa2003@gmail.com ; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)