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Arthur C. Clarke Plato Platon
Arthur C. Clarke "History Lesson": A Modern Allegory of the Cave
Ein Vergleich mit erstaunlichen Übereinstimmungen
Throughout the centuries students have labored at Greek and Latin texts. Plato's dialogues in particular have never ceased to arouse debates and controversial opinions. In a well-known exaggeration the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: "The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (9). If one knows a bit of Plato's work it is either the praise of love in The Symposium or the Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of The Republic. This allegory is one of the most debated philosophical stories and one which is disputed anew among every generation.
In contrast to the centuries' old philosophy of Plato, science fiction is a comparatively new literary form. It is not always in great esteem within academic circles. However, some science fiction authors do not overwhelm their stories with amazing technical developments but tell stories to ponder on. Often they pick up one of the eternal dreams and give it a modern scientific treatment. In Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction story "History Lesson," one looks at a specific problem, already dealt with in the Allegory of the Cave, from a different point of view. A thorough comparison of "History Lesson" with Plato's famous allegory shows astonishing parallels. Besides its comic twist the story also supports Plato's idea of the deception of evidence.
The author of this short story, Arthur Charles Clarke, was born in Minehead, England, on December 16, 1917 and attended King's College, University of London. While working as an editor of a science magazine he began writing science fiction. He soon acquired a vast reputation among science fiction readers and has been compared with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Together with the film director Stanley Kubrick he wrote the screenplay for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, based on his story "The Sentinel." Arthur C. Clarke now lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Clarke's short story "History Lesson" was first published in 1949. It tells the extinction of mankind on Earth and the rediscovery by people from Venus. A human tribe had to flee, because in a new ice-age the glaciers had come down from the Poles, had covered the valleys, and were now climbing the mountains. People still alive stowed their treasures from the past away in a lonely cairn, a mound of stones erected as a memorial. When the glaciers finally came to a stand-still it was too late for mankind. Five thousand years later a crew from Venus landed on icy Earth and soon the Venusian scientists gathered all the information about the third planet in the solar system. Then many years of research by the creatures of Venus followed during which they found out about the extinct inhabitans of Earth and tried to figure out what they looked like and how they lived. But it wasn't until they found a tiny metal box in a cairn, covered with ice and stones, that knowledge about the history of this planet and its former inhabitants really improved. Thousands of copies of the document within the box were made and distributed. Thousands of scientists learnt all they could about this wonderful, remote race by looking at this document again and again. "But all this labour, all this research, would be utterly in vain. ... Millions of times in the ages to come those last few words would flash across the screen, and none could ever guess their meaning: A Walt Disney Production" (Clarke 59).
In contrast, the author of the Allegory of the Cave lived at the beginning of Western civilization. Plato was born in Athens (427 - 347) and was a scholar and admirerer of the philosopher Socrates. He founded a school, known as the Academy, which is reputedly the first university and which remained active over eight centuries. Most of Plato's works is in dialogue form with Socrates being the main protagonist.
One of Plato's most famous dialogue The Republic is a discussion on justice and the ideal type of state. As a fictional description of a future state it can be called the first science fiction story of history. The Allegory of the Cave described in Book VII of this major work is told by Socrates. In a cavern some people experience a strange confinement, for they are chained so they can look forward only at the wall of the cave. At their back a fire burns which they never are able to see. Between their bodies and the fire runs a path with a low wall, along which people carry pictures, puppets, and statues. All the prisoners can see are the shadows on the wall, all they can hear is the echo of the people walking and talking behind them. One of the prisoners is unchained, stands up, and for the first time sees the puppets carried to-and-fro. Somebody urges him to the entrance of the cavern which is high above their heads. His eyes hurt because of the sudden light to which he is unaccustomed. He doesn't want to leave the cave but is forced to. After adapting to sunlight he looks at the real world. During the following months outside the cave he grasps the laws of nature and why there are four seasons. If this man were to descend into the cave again and explain the real things to his friends, he would be laughed at. The prisoners would think he became crazy. And if this man should dare to unleash his fellows and bring them outside too, they would kill him.
The Allegory of the Cave starts with a pessimistic situation. The prisoners in the cave have a very pitiful life indeed, for they are confined to their location and thus live a very passive life. The cave is an allegory for the human condition. Glaucon, one of Socrates' conversation partners, wonders: "You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners" (Plato 515a). Socrates replies: "Like ourselves..." (Plato 515a). Concerning knowledge and wisdom all people start, metaphorically speaking, captivated in the cave. Plato conveys the idea that perception and all knowledge can be-even is-faulty. It cannot be trusted. This corresponds amazingly with Sir Karl Popper's opinion-otherwise one of Plato's fiercest critics in modern times-that all knowlegde is subject to falsification only. Never do men know anything for sure. Plato also shows that people telling the truth live very dangerously.
Yet, Plato's Cave is an optimistic picture of the power of thought and the human mind. The prisoners look at the shadows of figures. But they do not have to stay in the cave. In an ideally just society some have the opportunity to journey upwards to achieve knowledge and wisdom-a journey from darkness to light. If they start to think, they are able to leave the visible world of shadows and gain the realm of the true world. Abstract thinking leads to insight and liberates the prisoners in the cave.
The comparison of these two stories reveals many parallel features, but also reverse motives. In both stories people think to look at the real world but are betrayed. They perceive reality only through a double deception. In the cave the prisoners look at shadows, not of real things but of puppets and they do not hear real voices, only echoes. They take over second-hand opinions and beliefs. In "History Lesson" the Venusian scientists watch a movie, normally an image of people acting. But here they do not even look at actors who create a pretended reality; instead, they look at comic figures who only resemble reality. Yet, in both stories the images are taken for pure reality.
Similarly, at first look there is obviously no chance for improving knowledge. There is no clue for both the prisoners and the scientists to imagine anything beyond their perception. In the Allegory of the Cave Plato concedes the possibility of improvement. He does not tell how exactly this could happen: By some mysterious help a prisoner is released. The help must come from a man already free, one who already knows. By accepting this help there is literally a small silver lining of the visible world within the cave. Most prisoners do not accept this help, because they do not want to change their situation. Solution is possible if one follows this silver lining up to the sun. There is the empire of the only reality in Plato's cosmos: The ideas. This conception dominated philosophy for two-thousand years.
Like the Allegory of the Cave the "History Lesson" has a pessimistic attitude. It even ends in this pessimistic situation. Mankind is extinguished for good and almost everything on Earth is covered with ice; accordingly, there is no chance for the Venusians to learn the truth about mankind. In science fiction typically evil aliens invade and menace mankind. Here it is the other way around. True, the Venusians are five thousand years too late for mankind, but they promise hope. Rational life goes on within the universe.
Besides these paralleling features there are some significant reverse motives which correlate remarkably with each other. The kind of people struck by deception in the two stories is different. In the Allegory of the Cave the betrayed persons are described no further, thus, the reader will take them as common people. In "History Lesson" the betrayed persons who have to be aware of fallacy are scientists. Today and in the future this lack of awareness accompanies science. An ironical note is that the Venusians are reptiles, mere animals in the tree of life on Earth. They watch Mickey Mouse, cartoon animals acting with human behaviors, and take them as representatives of mankind.
The second reverse motive concerns the desire for knowledge. In the Allegory of the Cave the prisoners do not want to know even when they are told they could know. They prefer to live forever with their false beliefs. The Venusian scientists, on the other hand, would like to know. They make every effort to know the truth. Compared to the prisoners they are a new type of humanity: not believing in entelechy but willing to learn.
The third reverse motive shared between the stories is the contrast of sun and ice. In the "History Lesson" truth lies within the ice, in the Allegory of the Cave truth is in the realm of the heat, the sun. The Venusians come from a hot planet, the planet of light. In "History Lesson" cognition never will be possible if not for another change of climate: The sun has to melt the ice. The ice-opposite to the sun-is the reason of ignorance.
Finally, both stories deal with an eternal dream of mankind. In the Allegory of the Cave Plato describes a philosopher's eternal dream: the desire to know the truth. The final end is the coalition with truth in the empire of ideas. Conversely, a more tangible dream is to leave Earth and to conquer the universe. In the science fiction version, the Earthlings obviously could not perform their dream: they died before achieving this. The Venusian learned to travel within the universe, but it was too late for mankind.
Besides these static situations there is another reverse motive in the contrary movement within the two stories. To gain real knowledge in the Allegory of the Cave people have to ascend. The motion for knowledge is towards the sun. "The ascent out of the Cave is the ascent from the world of the senses and what they tell us to the world of thought" (Annas 255). If the prisoner climbs towards the sun he will know reality. In "History Lesson," however, the Venusians come from the morning star-identical with the evening star-which is very close to the sun and descend within Earth's system. The motion is from the sun down to the cave covered with ice. The sun must come to Earth to bring cognition.
With all them parallels and similarities the two stories have basically different intentions. The myth of the Cave is Plato's metaphoric introduction to his theory of knowledge and ideas. It assures the reader that cognition is possible if one comes to the sun, to the realm of philosophy and ideas. The sun exists, is above the cave, beyond ignorance.
Peter Brigg, on the other hand, notes that Arthur C. Clarke is interested in the limits of human knowledge and that he offers precise scientific extrapolation. His stories often have comic twists and funny characters such as in "History Lesson" reptiles representing the Venusian scientists. He attempts to go beyond the limits and reach out for mythical dreams of mankind like space-travel (15). But first of all he wants to tell a tense and funny story, excellently done in "History Lesson." Clarke carefully prepares the reader: Not until one reads the last sentence is the surprise complete.
In summary, the Allegory of the Cave and "History Lesson" are about deception of evidence. Their own perception is all men have to conclude from reality and the laws of nature. As the great Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, men realize an action and an effect. Then they infer the action is the cause, the effect is the result. Hume said that nobody can be sure of this relationship. It is important that in both stories the reader knows better than the protagonists, otherwise the reader would be misled as well. But the reader has to realize that it can happen in normal life too. Julia Annas notes "...the whole tenor of the Cave is to downgrade our ordinary beliefs, to urge us to regard them as being no better than looking at shadows" (255). In showing that knowledge is confined, Clarke also assures that there is enough to find in the coming millenium.
Do not believe your senses-think! Do not believe mistakes are beyond us. Scientists try to derive a whole era from the famous "Oetzi" found within the ice of the Alps. It is neither easy to doubt their methods and conclusions, nor to convince everybody always to be alert for amazing solutions. Therefore difficult problems, also stories with an educating message, have to presented in an allegorical mold. Some themes have to be brought up every generation and have to be told with another metaphor. The Venusians will contemplate for ages over the slogan, the Earthlings will forever read Plato's myth of the Cave and cite it according to the everlasting Stephanus numbers: 514-517.
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Works Cited
• Annas, Julia. An Introduction to Plato's Republic. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
• Brigg, Peter. "Three Styles of Arthur C. Clarke: The Projector, the Wit and the Mystic." Arthur C. Clarke, ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, Edinburgh: Harris, 1977. 15-51.
• Clarke, Arthur. "History Lesson." Startling Stories 1949. Rpt. in The Best of Arthur Clarke. Volume I 1937-1955. Ed. Angus Wells. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1977. 49-59.
• Plato. The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. Online. Internet. 30 Dec 1998. Available:
• Whitehead, Alfred North. Motto. The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy. Studies in the History of Idealism in England and America. By John H. Muirhead. 1931. Bristol: Thoemmes, 1992.
Es gibt noch eine erstaunliche Parallele zwischen Clarkes "History Lesson" und Horst Wolfram Geissler: "Blick in die Zukunft", in: Mein fliegender Teppich. Nachdenkliches Tagebuch. Geissler erzählt von der nächsten Eiszeit. Zuwandernde Menschen finden unter dem Eis die Gartenzwerge und schließen aufgrund dieser Figuren auf die früheren menschlichen Bewohner. Siehe platon Geisslers Werke.
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© by Herbert Huber, Am Fröschlanger 15, 83512 Wasserburg, Germany, 12.2.2005