This image, created by the Dutch artist Jan Saenredam (1565–1607), depicts a reenactment of a famous philosophical scenario that was imagined long ago by the Greek philosopher, Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), in his book called the Republic. The 16th-century artist took creative liberties in his depiction of Plato’s allegory, such as transforming the setting of the tale into something that hints of a social experiment conducted by a club or university, as well as updating the wardrobe of his subjects to attire that more closely matched his own times. Plato’s original, darker, portrayal of the scenario was as follows:
“Imagine people living in a cavernous cell down under the ground; at the far end of the cave, a long way off, there’s an entrance open to the outside world. They’ve been there since childhood, with their legs and necks tied up in a way which keeps them in one place and allows them to look only straight ahead, but not to turn their heads. There’s firelight burning a long way further up the cave behind them, and up the slope between the fire and the prisoners there’s a road, beside which you should imagine a low wall has been built…Imagine also that there are people on the other side of this wall who are carrying all sorts of artefacts. These artefacts, human statuettes, and animal models carved in stone and wood and all kinds of material stick out over the wall….the shadows of artefacts would constitute the only reality people in this situation would recognize” (Plato, Republic, 514a-515c).
Such is the scene that Jan Saenredam re-envisioned and re-created above. His image, thankfully for the characters within it, did away with the neck restraints and the leg shackles, and similarly spared the participants from years of physical and mental torture.
Written by C. Keith Hansely
- Republic by Plato, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 2008.