I was fourteen years-old and in Form Four when I first encountered the Greek philosopher, Plato. No, I did not encounter him in the classrooms of Titcombe College, Egbe. I encountered him through Baba Adesanmi’s disciplinary regime: a hybrid of Roman Catholic, African-traditional, and Spartan colonial disciplinary methods.
Depending on the gravity of your offense, if he spared the rod in favor of a long-winding sermon (pure torture for us at the time), then you were in for two hours of philosophies, wisdom nuggets, and anecdotes drawn from a vast arsenal of Yagba, Yoruba, Christian, and Greco-Roman resources.
Your rebuke was delivered in an admixture of Yagba, Yoruba, and Queen’s English interlaced with a lot of Latinisms. As appropriate, Baba would pull out books from his vast library to support a point.
Baba Adesanmi was a bibliophile who built a vast family library spanning many fields of knowledge, notably literature, history and philosophy. He had supreme contempt for the unread mind.
Bola, you were not born to disgrace me.
(Silence for effect)
Bola, se o gbo mi ye? You were not born not to be able to stand out from the pack if your conscience and broader knowledge convince you of the rectitude of your position.
(More silence for effect)
Bola, have I ever told you about Plato? Then he broke Plato down for me like an alo – a Yoruba folk tale. Baba Adesanmi taught me about the Greeks and the Romans by breaking down material from their history, philosophy, and literature into abridged forms and then narrated them to me like my usual Ijapa folk tales.
What did I do to deserve the punishment of Itan Plato (Plato’s story) for nearly two hours as a teenager who would rather have spent that time playing football set with his peers in Form Four?
There was some disagreement between me and some of my peers (the boys) over some issue in R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Mr. Medaiyedu, our literature teacher’s test, was coming up. In the ways of stupid teenage boys, we agreed that if question X ever came up, we would answer it in a particular way. I had read and studied Treasure Island under Papa Adesanmi’s supervision at home long before it came up in Mr. Medaiyedu’s syllabus so I knew that the group answer was wrong.
Question X did come up. I answered it in solidarity with the group. I did not have the courage to shine the light, to dare to be different and right, because I had been to other spaces of that book and seen things they hadn’t seen courtesy of my father.
Obviously, Baba Adesanmi was scandalized that I nearly failed a literature test. Stupidly, I confessed to him that I knew the right answer but was afraid to go against the group, to open the eyes of the group to a superior reality, to take them beyond the limitations of their circumstances.
Instead of getting a few strokes of Baba Adesanmi’s dreaded pankere, I got a long talk about Plato and his allegory of the cave. And I was made to read an abridged version of it.
A lifetime of extensive readings and studies in literature, philosophy, classics, and other fields would, of course, later take me deeper, much deeper, into Plato and other philosophers.
As I gained awareness of the fact that Plato’s allegory of the cave is one of the most significant metaphors of all times in the history of Western philosophy and thought, as I discovered, during my undergraduate and graduate years, that many of the canonical figures of African liberation and thought such as Frantz Fanon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ousmane Sembene, Amilcar Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane, Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara saw their own theory and praxis in the light of Plato’s allegory, I would wonder what in the heck was going on in Baba Adesanmi’s mind that he would expose a 14-year-old boy to such philosophical depths.
So, what exactly is this allegory of the cave? It is the most famous segment of Plato’s most famous book, The Republic. I will only offer an elementary sketch of it here for our purposes. I will omit details that are not central to our didactic purposes for Fatherland.
Plato imagines a group of prisoners chained to a wall inside a deep, dark cave. They have been chained to this wall their entire lives. Chains and darkness – that is the sum total of their experience. The only reality they know. They have been in the cave and in chains since birth. Behind them is a fire and before them is a raised walkway. Outside, people pass by the mouth of the cave, carrying things on their head. The prisoners can only see shadows of that reality. The shadows they see also become part of their reality of darkness and chains.
Eventually, one of the prisoners escapes and goes outside of the cave. He is absolutely shocked to discover the world outside of the cave. He cannot believe his eyes. So, he has been living in ignorance his whole life? So, all the things that he and his fellow cave dwellers believed and thought about the world was wrong? So there is even a sun? And there are trees and animals? And there is civilization? And there are ways, much better ways of doing things ‘outside there’ than the only reality that he and his fellow cave dwellers have ever known?
His discovery of the sun is the most significant. Think of everything that Plato dumps into that metaphor of the sun. This man is coming from a cave where nobody has ever been aware of the existence of the sun – of light!
This painful discovery of the world beyond the limitations of his entire life leads to a resolve: he will go back “home” to the cave and take the truth he has seen and discovered to his people.
When he gets back to the cave and informs the other prisoners of his discoveries, letting them know that there are other possibilities to life, other realities outside of chains and darkness, when he tells them stories of reality and tells them that all they have believed their entire lives is false because it has been limited by their chains and life inside the cave, they do not believe him.
They abuse him. They call him names. They threaten to kill him if he attempts to set them free. They accuse him of insulting their world. They tell him they like it just like that. Did they complain to him? What is all this talk about a better life and a much better way of life he has seen elsewhere. It is not his fault. Shebi they are the one even listening to him after he has betrayed them by going out.
Plato surmises that the cave dwellers will try to kill anyone who tries to free them from their ignorance.
What Plato’s allegory teaches us is that there is no alternative to education and enlightenment. He who acquires education and enlightenment is also a danger to the body politic of ignorance.
If ignorance is the only world somebody knows, you have no right to bring light into that world and expect not to be insulted, abused, scorned and excoriated. There is a reason that the said ignorance is framed as a world in Plato’s allegory. It means you are saying that the only world that Plato’s cave dwellers have ever known is false, wrong, etc. You are “insulting” their world.
That is why you must have the patience to bear the insults and the force of conviction to persuade with the empirical and superior evidence of the alternative worlds and truths you have seen.
Plato’s says the cave dwellers will attempt to kill anyone who tries to free them.
Plato says education is the only superior force that can free them. If you are privileged to be a medium of public education and enlightenment, fate and destiny have chosen you for a solemn duty to your fatherland. You have lost the right to such statements as:
I’ve given up.
They rain insults on me any time I write to enlighten them.
They are in love with their chains.
It is Stockholm syndrome.
This is precisely the sort of fatalism that those who turned your Fatherland to a cave and stole money to buy the chains to imprison the people want to achieve in you. If they cannot buy your voice and your conscience, they know that they cannot allow the risk of your enlightenment to radiate through the land and connect with the people. The next best option for them is to get you to point of existential fatalism where you give up. Once you give up because of the daily insults you get from their victims, you clear a conceptual space for them to store up dollars in every apartment in Ikoyi and Victoria Island.
Over the years, Plato’s allegory of the cave has also lost geographic relevance for me in terms of the physical distinction between in and out, home and the diaspora. It has come to represent for me the chains and prison of the mind and the escape from it.
Gani Fawehinmi is also Plato’s escapee but he never left the cave physically. He just left the cave of the mind. Tai Solarin, Bala Usman, Eskor Toyo, Chima Ubani, etc, never left the cave physically but they left the cave of the mind and tried to bring the sun back into it. Oby Ezekwesili, Ayo Obe, Ayisha Osori, Joe-Okei Odumakin have never left physically but they left the cave of the mind.
I am saying in essence that being physically outside is not a precondition for gaining the elevated consciousness and enlightenment acquired by Plato’s allegorical character just as being physically inside is not a basis of exclusion from that consciousness.
Whether you are inside or outside, the acquisition of that consciousness in the context of the Nigerian tragedy is a privilege that should be deployed in the service of the people without question.
It is important to remember that those insulting you are not the enemy.
Our only enemies are the owners of the cave and the financiers of the chains.
We must remain committed to their total destruction.