In the past two and a half thousand years since he adopted it as a metaphor for a place where people live under illusions that must be shattered, Plato’s cave has been crowded with would-be guides offering words of enlightenment to its inhabitants. What fresh guidance can the Weston Professor of Philosophy at Buckingham University give us?
The particular form of the cave under discussion here is contemporary Britain. As anyone who can remember the controversy over O’Hear’s criticism of the Diana cult back in 1998 might imagine, he regards it more as a septic tank than a sceptered isle. The illusions that he attacks - such as the vacuity of celebrity culture, the dominating power of emotional correctness, and the idea that current educational standards are an ever-increasing improvement on those of the past - are familiar targets, but they’re still in need of a sound drubbing.
O’Hear ses to work more in sorrow that in anger at the change and decay that all around he sees. Sensibly, he avoids any ‘why, oh why?’ whinging that could turn his attacks into a mere catalogue of nostalgic lamentations. He just makes his points soberly, without ever overstating his case or worrying about whether people will find them upsetting. He points out that celebrity icons depends for their status more on their appearance than what they’ve achieved in their shosen fields, and that many performers now regard their art simply as a means of self-expression rather than as an end in itself. O’Hear returns to his former target, Diana, by reminding us that, despite her seeming embrace of informality, she could ‘pull rank and bully subordinates when it suited her’. Her form of ‘caring’ could lead to an element of moral imperialism.
Education has been dumbed down by child-centredness and it’s good that he reminds of that way that - under a Conservative government - polytechnics were unashamedly renamed as universities in order to bump up the number of ‘students’ (some act of penance will surely be necessary by the Conservatives for this before they can be taken seriously on anything to do with education). Football is ‘marred by cheating, violence and all manner of spitefulness’, whilst rugby is ‘a far more honest game’. Any politician brave enough to state these self-evident truths about the ‘beautiful game’ today would be exiled to the political wilderness without hope of parole. These are not the comments of a knee-jerk reactionary, however. He suggests that pornography may have its uses within genuine relationships - a comment that may surprise of shock some of his readers - but points out that it can have long-term harmful consequences by preventing its users accepting the imperfections in real people.
O’Hear’s list of complaints is not flawless, though. In speaking of the Spice Girls and the ‘flaunting of a frenetic, but trivialised sexuality, combined with a high degree of cheek’, he forgets that this ‘girl power’ band was the creation of various male svengalis. Indeed, rock music is not the setting for some sort of Apollonian/Dionysian power struggle, but a series of entertainment fashions which also serve a a collective marketing technique for CDs and clothes. British education hasn’t been without major flaws in its past - despite Britain having produced some world-class scientists, scientific education in this country has lagged woefully behind that in Germany and the United States. And even in the days when high culture ruled, didn’t plenty of artists have more than their fair share of egocentricity which they exercised within the creative field of their choice?
O’Hear offers no quick-fix solutions or programmes by which we can escape the cave. We have to reject ‘the illusion that freedom consists in mastery by rather than of one’s instincts’. Illusions, however well-intentioned the must be, have to be rejected. Some basic truths need to be refocussed upon, and they must not simply be loved, but adhered to with fidelity. This is not easy. And if this seems not only heard but somewhat indecisive, O’Hear brings us down to Earth by reinforcing his message. ‘It is only against reality, and its adamantine hardness and incisiveness, that we fulfil anything of our true nature.’ Living by illusions offers momentary pleasure but is ultimately futile. But, if this seems tough, we should be encouraged by the fact that, unlike some other commentators, O’Hear doesn’t feel that escaping from the cave that is modern Britain is an instrinsically hopeless task. That itself is a welcome message which can reverberate around the cave, and lead us to search for the light outside.