The Philosophic Roots of Modern Ideology
Chapter One: The Origins of Political Ideologies
Plato's cave: (from book 7 of The Republic)
Perhaps the most powerful and frightening of all metaphors in the history of
Insightful allegory about the dangers of domination and oppression, as well
as the equally perilous (hazardous) potentials of education and
Plato compares the effect of a certain kind of education, and the lack of it,
upon people who only know a life in a cave, shackled at the legs and
neck so they remain in place. A fire is lit behind and above them and
all they can see are the shadows of the men who lit the fire and all
they can hear are the men's voices. This leads them to believe that life
is made up of talking shadows and movement is not necessary.
People wonder why anyone would believe that all there is to life is what is in
front of them, but Plato claims that is the human condition. We are all
born into a condition where the meanings of the world are made for
us. Plato believes it is comfortable slavery where people who are
unknown to us, produce what we know and believe.
This results in the belief that the limited, artificial world we know (the world
of the shadows) is the entire world. This makes it extremely difficult to
become aware of our ignorance in relation to the broader world around
us, let alone become capable of discovering the difference (assuming
there is a difference) between truth and illusion.
Plato then suggests that if the prisoners were to be released they may be
blinded by the direct light, feels disoriented or frightened, walking would be extremely painful if even possible, and once freed from the
cave the prisoner wouldn't be able to understand even the simplest
Plato believed that the philosophic contemplation of the reality of ideas was
the highest form of reflection a human being could achieve.
In conclusion, the allegory suggests that although a philosopher's education
is fraught with difficulties, it is the odyssey one must endure to
become human, to become more fully aware of the imprisoned way of
life one has led in the past. One may long for the prior comfort and
security of fool's paradise, an illusion maybe, but where each question
was answered. (Which shadow will come next? How many shadows are
Everyone is prisoner is in the cave. Anyone whom is uneducated is unaware
of their state in the cave. The cave is not a realm of darkness, nor are
the prisoners in the cave blind. The use of some in the textbook is
inconsistent with the profs. beliefs of the story. The men that hold the
artefacts are very similar to an overhead projector; their only
significance is to evoke the minds of the prisoners. They are
universally deceived and diluted; there are no privilege positions. Plato
says we would all be like this in the absence of education, including
There is an exit out of the cave, a long hard path to the sun. But they think
all of reality is explained by the shadows on the wall. The environment
(the cave itself) creates this illusion. "You do not try to escape a prison
that you don't know you're in" -prof.
There are several blinding moments for Plato's prisoners. When they look at
the fire, when they are on the dark path out of the cave, when they
are exposed to the sun.
Any prisoner who returns to the cave with be disinterested in the shadows after seeing reality. But this prisoner would be ridiculed for being
different, and believing there's more to life than the shadows. This
person will try and make his fellow prisoners come with him. Once you
are educated and unbound, you can predict what shadow will come
next because you can turn around and see! The released prisoner
could revolutionize the cave itself and change its ways.
We are not born into a neutral environment, we are born into ideologies. So
if a prisoner wanted to change the ways of the cave, he must mobilize
people to deny the original ideology and accept a new one. Ideologies
are not false, they are contested and alternative versions of reality
(half truths). Ideologies are a simplification of truth, have broad-based
mass appeal and are logically inconsistent. The more illogical they are
in terms of their core beliefs, the more powerful they can be. The more
you invest into the ideology/the higher the cost for acceptance, the
more belief you will have.
The only way you can get insight into your own belief is by comparing it to
others. We don't need tolerance, diversity of thought, freedom of
speech, exposure to other cultures, etc; to make us more
The demon of presumed knowledge must be tested out. Don't fall for its
beliefs, find out for yourself. Than you'll have a better idea of what you
know and believe, what you know and don't believe and what you
believe and do not know.
Ideologies do not carry the same burden as political theory. They are
building a philosophic vision of politics.
Cannot get learned crap out of are heads unless we are jarred by an outside
Most people do not think of themselves as invalid. We can admit that we
make mistakes, but deep down inside we want to think we are superior than others and see things more clearly.
Plato's cave relative to the philosophic roots of modern ideology:
Domination in this story manifests itself in several ways, but the most
severe form is the human condition of self-enslavement, where
individuals (mis)perceive their condition to be one in which they are
free and in possession of the truth about the world they inhabit. They
do not perceive their chains as chains, and they think that the have a
full, clear, uncontestable understanding of the nature of the world. The
prisoners actually went as far as hugging their chains, believing what
they are experiencing constitutes all there is of reality.
Another form of domination is shown when the prisoner is released. The raw,
coercive, and immediately perceptible force designed to lead the
prisoner from a condition of ignorance to awareness and knowledge of
the wider world. The liberation of the prisoner is more than just
freedom from physical bondage, it makes them understand the
difference between life in a cage and life outside of it. They also
understand that she or he had been imprisoned. Plato believes
liberation means becoming a human and being more fully conscious of
the world that one may inhabit. It takes the form of recognizing that
the world one is born into offers one, not the only, way of seeing what
appears to be reality.
The journey out of the cave is described by Plato as a process where
philosophers come to know a single, objective reality, as opposed to
simply recognizing there are the different realities of being inside and
outside the cave.
The fact that we may ask whether the allegory of the cave suggests that
there are as many truths as worlds people live in, or that there is a single truth about a single true reality, shows the literary and
philosophical brilliance of Plato's story. The concern is not to resolve
this question as much as it is to highlight Plato's provocative
suggestion that what we believe, and what we are as human beings, is
produced by forms of power about which we are perhaps unaware,
that education involves an initial process of breaking the shadowlike
chains of conventional wisdom, and that education is conceived in this
way constitutes the beginning of at least one form of liberation.
The story is about the difficult learning processes one must undertake to
recognize the limits of one's given understanding. This process is the
beginning of liberation from the belief that one knows all one can
Plato thinks that if the released prisoners went back into the cave to free the
other prisoners, they would resist leaving and even try to kill the one
who tries to free them. The allegory of the cave warns against the
inevitable attempts of some humans- armed with their vision of truth-
who feel compelled, for our own good, to drag by force their fellow
humans out of the cave and into the "light."
Plato's cave offers warnings about domination and oppression and they are
very relevant to the study of contemporary political ideologies.
Basically from the time you are born you are taught what is "best for
you" and people are committed to the proponents of each of the
ideologies examined in this book. They contend that they alone
understand the reality and know what is best for all of humanity.
Each is intensely committed to helping us- happy and comfortable prisoners
or committed students of many perspectives of reality- to see their
light. The study of philosophy roots of these competing ideologies
enables one to get a broader angle of vision, something we believe is
an important part of becoming politically literate- capable of understanding, comparing, and examining the various claims on what
is true and false in political life, of what is best and worst for
humanity, and of what is and what ought to be. Plato understood that
such reflection was an essential part of remaining unchained, and he
also knew that the process is extraordinarily difficult, exceedingly
dangerous, and impossible without having one's attention pointed in
Plato's warning is taken seriously; however appealing the role of the
philosopher, Plato's allegory of the cave warns teachers against
treating those they seek to enlighten as simply living under illusion, as
lacking any understanding of their condition. While the intention of the
textbook (in terms of the cave), can be seen as a form of domination,
we view it differently. We see our awareness of the dangers of
domination as well as the broader angle of vision we hope to promote
here as different from the manipulative position of the puppeteer who
is seeking to dominate others.
What we must attempt to learn, then is the ability to differentiate between
the various shadows and puppets and to analyze different claims to
truth and illusion. We seek to do this, not resolve the question of truth
entirely, but to be in a different position from any of those fighting it
out over the truth, a position wherein we may understand and
One of the reasons why we shouldn't just go nuts about things that offend
us, or expose ourselves to craziness is the simple reason that most
truths come into the world as something that we react to harshly.
Some of the theories about why the world was flat were amazing, but
it doesn't make them right. In order to extract we must engage in
conversation about things that are alien to us.
What we must attempt to learn is the ability to differentiate between various shadows and puppets and to analyze different claims to truth and
illusion. We seek to do this, not to resolve the question of truth
entirely, but to be in a different position from any of those fighting it
out over the truth, a position wherein we may understand and
examine the various claims to truth- the various ways people see what
is true, just beautiful, and good. We call these ideologies.
What is Ideology?
The term was coined by French enlightenment philosopher Antoine Louis
Claude Destutt, Comte de Tracy to mean the "science of ideas."
In contemporary times, it was understood as a worldview or loosely
organized folk philosophy encompassing the totality of ideals and
aspirations of people.
This association between ideology and falsehood has been ideology's main
meaning in modern political theory, especially since Karl Marx and
Fredrick Engels described what they saw as a mistaken view of
capitalism as "bourgeois ideology." Non-marxists have used this term
in this sense as well.
Hannah Arendt declared "all ideologies contain totalitarian elements." What
she meant was that ideologies distort and oversimplify reality my
mimicking logical, scientific ways of thinking. In Arendt's view,
ideologies appear to provide truths to live and act by, but in actuality
deprive their adherents of a free and dynamic interpretive relationship
with the world and others.
Similarly, the renowned exponent of modern critical theory Jurgen Habermas
defines ideologies as "illusions outfitted with the power of common
convictions." In Habermas's view, such illusions are unfortunate, but
probably inevitable, components of modern governance: the modern politician gains power by promoting such illusions through the clever
use of society's political, economic, and cultural systems of power.
What these usages of the concept of ideology have in common is that they
see ideologies as popularly accepted distortions of reality. In this
common meaning of ideology, to adhere to an ideology is to be
encaged or imprisoned to some untruth.
Some compare the illusion and falsity to the shadows in Plato's cave- in
relation to an objective truth.
This understanding of ideology also appears to imply that the user of the
term- say Marx, Arendt, or Habermas- possesses Plato's philosopher's
ability to distinguish the untruth from the truth, to see through the
illusion to an undistorted view of reality.
Why else would one describe a belief system as an ideology (illusion) if one
did not think that there was a correct truth against which such a belief
system could be judged? This question is enormously important in
relation to the subject matter of this book. In describing liberalism,
conservatism, Marxism, fascism, Nazism, and Islamism as ideologies,
are we implying that these beliefs are false belief systems and that
their adherents are benighted prisoners? Are we saying that the
leading ideologists who have formulated these ideas are Plato's
NO. We depart from the common critical view of ideology as illusion by
understanding the concept of ideology in a different way. For us,
ideologies are not necessarily untruths. They are action orienting belief
systems whose adherents take them to be true. They may indeed
contain some untruths; they may also contain some truths.
Moreover, our recognition of the many versions of ideologies leads us to
view them as contested and alternative versions of reality, not "false"
ones, and we seek to be open to the possible truths of each. Ideology and Other Forms of Political Theory
Three types of political theory: (1) Ideology, (2) Traditional [Classical
Western] political philosophy, (3) Scientific [empiricist] theories of
All three share the conviction that their task is to odder compelling
interpretations about the existing environment, but they differ in terms
of aims and scope of their activities and their ultimate goals.
Traditional political philosophy attempts to construct comprehensive
philosophic systems that explain nearly every dimension of political
Excellent examples include: Plato, St. Augustine, Hegel, Marx, and Arendt.
Such philosophical endeavours explore the standards according to which
people should live their lives. They examine and evaluate various ways
that government and other social institutions may be organized to
enable human beings to achieve their goals. Also, they frequently
render explicit moral judgements about humanity's potential.
They discuss the role and function of the state, and the meanings of central
concepts like politics, justice, authority, revolution, freedom, equality,
inequality, oppression, and liberation.
Classical political philosophy has provoked generations of international
readers to search critically for intrinsic meanings about life and political
existence, producing multiple interpretations of their importance, and
at times attempting to adapt the ideas to real world circumstances.
Traditional political philosophy bears some relation to ideology in
several of these features.
Modern scientific approaches to political analysis attempt to produce very
general theories about humanity as well, but in a different way. Their purpose is to describe and predict human behaviour based on the
accumulation of "facts" gained from scientific observation of social and
They seek to analyze the relations between these facts, hoping to discover
knowledge of the "causes" of political behaviour, both within particular
societies and across them.
Under what conditions to people vote, social movements rise or fall, or
nations make or end wars? The ultimate aim of scientific theorizing is
to understand those conditions so as to be able to predict outcomes
that might occur.
Unlike the classical political philosophers, modern empiricists purposefully
strive to restrict their endeavours to the development of theories
about the relationship between facts they identify in the world. Like
natural scientists, they explicitly desire to avoid judgements of value
and tend to leave the decisions of what outcomes to pursue to others.
While they share with traditional political philosophy the goal of
producing comprehensive accounts of reality based on observations of
existing reality, they do not attempt to create or explicitly specify
grand theories of ideal political communities. This is a very important
difference between these two traditions of political theorizing. Classical
philosophers observe the world as well, buy they do so with what the
contemporary scientist would call "values" and "biases." To the
classical philosopher, the values and biases are no hi