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platoI am not someone who should ever review music, my tastes being without pattern when they exist at all. But, my students and an old friend have recently introduced me to a very intriguing band who released their second album to great fanfare in late 2012. Mumford & Sons, a quartet from west London who play a version of American folk rock music, have travelled the U.S. in their “Gentlemen of the Road” tour. Last evening a friend who has gone to their concerts described them to me as full of “20-somethings who love the music and 40-60 year olds who are there pondering the deep meaning of the lyrics.” Since I am in the latter age category, I’ve got a few thoughts about some of their lyrics which I find full of Platonic imagery and deep meaning.

This week the students in my political leadership course at the University of Louisville and I discussed Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave and, though I don’t assume to know what the song writer meant, the parallels between the Mumford & Sons song The Cave, and the Platonic story are impossible to miss. (As are illusions to Homer and other ancient texts, but I won’t confuse things too much today).

Plato invites us to imagine a society as a dark cave (Book VII about 514B-520D) the average person being shackled to a post staring at the back wall. Those people spend their lives looking at the shadows on the wall and assuming they are reality. Though they don’t understand it, the voices and sounds they heard were mere echoes off the wall of shadows. Ignorance reigns in the human condition.

Beyond the objects creating the shadows, however, is the half-truth of the firelight and beyond that is the truth that exists in the world of the sun outside the cave. The role of education is to help students (and us all) to turn away from the shadows toward the light of truth. Coming to understand that our lives have been lived with lies and that truth lives beyond our comfort zone is painful and requires a great struggle to accept.

But for Plato the great goal has not fully been achieved when enlightenment is found outside the cave. Rather, Plato then lays a responsibility on the enlightened one to re-enter the cave (again a painful process, now reversing the trek by leaving the light for the confusing darkness of the cave) in order to encourage and serve those left in ignorance. Mumford & Sons capture this situation brilliantly in their lyrics.

Mumford & Sons seems to sing to a fellow human being, perhaps a lover, who is still shackled to the stake of ignorance in the cave:

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

They capture the pain of enlightenment and the need to embrace the discipline and discomfort that comes with the journey from the shadowlands toward the light where truth is found–including the truth of knowing who one really is. It is surely the truth that will “refresh my broken mind.”

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
Know my name as it’s called again

Because I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours and I’ll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind

Plato tells of the plight of the political leader or educator (an allegory of the trial and execution of Socrates?) who returns to share his knowledge with the people still comfortably playing games with the shadows. These servants would be mocked, dismissed, and perhaps even forcibly reeducated or killed. Mumford & Sons captures this situation with defiant lyrics:

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

And issues the challenge to come out of the cave of ignorance and see the great Truth that lies beyond the shadows the politicians and corporations and movie makers and teachers and public relations people tell us is reality. The maker’s hand is waiting to be known:

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s hand

Plato knows the power of the siren’s call to “fit in” with your peers and love interests and become “well-adjusted” to society. It takes a defiance and strength to get free of the culture and to be what we were intended to be: “To live my life as its meant to be”

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

Because I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

“To live my life as its meant to be.” What a life-changing goal for us all. . . to strive to know what it is to be human, what it is to live a life worthy and humane, to be what we are meant to be. And, what a great excuse to re-read Plato, ponder Mumford & Sons’ outstanding songs, and wonder what might someday call us out of the cave.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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6 replies to this post
  1. It’s undeniably true that Truth-seeking/finding “servants” have sometimes been “mocked, dismissed, and perhaps even forcibly reeducated or killed”: the name “Socrates” comes to mind. It’s also true, though, that individuals who claim to have discerned the higher Truth which eludes the rest of us–those of us who choose to “fit in” and remain in our “cave of ignorance”–have done more than their share of mocking, dismissing, forcibly reeducating and killing. The Platonic/Gnostic presumption of enlightenment poses dangers of its own; not that I think Mumford & Sons poses any threat, but I’d be cautious about constructing a political/social platform on the basis of Truth.

  2. Wonderful reflection on this moving song! It was a very exciting moment when I listened closely to the lyrics and realized the connections to the Allegory of the Cave. I now play this song for students in my Intro. to Philosophy class when we discuss Plato…it’s fun to watch the light bulbs turn on, since many of the 20 somethings are fans of the band, but hadn’t reflected on the philosophical, literary, and biblical references made in many of the songs (Marcus Mumford studied Classics at Edinburgh and his parents are Vineyard church missionaries). If we are truly in the “age of sentiments,” at least Mumford and Sons is one of the few popular bands out there giving young people meaningful ideas to consider.

  3. While I’m more than a little skeptical of Munford and Sons’ musical merit, to each his own. Where can I find that marvelous mug?

  4. Really glad I stumbled on this. I always knew the this Mumford and Sons song alluded to Plato’s allegory, but I had never bothered to find out in what way. Until I saw an episode of the West Wing, when Josh Lyman pointed out the Cave as it pertains to some guys phone book repackaging famous philosophers as a hack job. But this article was a wonderful light and thoughtful reflection. Thank you!

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