Robert Tressell's Platonic Cave of false ideology

This chapter has moved between regions of Ireland, but concludes with an exceptionally significant Irish author who, from his teens, never visited the land where he had been born just three years before Henry, in 1870; poor health and grinding poverty led him to a much earlier death and a pauper’s grave, in 1911. In Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (Figure 10.4) the Irish tradition of political satire, informed by ancient literature and inaugurated by Jonathan Swift in the early 18th century, reached its most influential culmination prior to Independence. A short retrospective of Swift’s satire is needed here, since Swift was overwhelmingly Tressell’s favourite author.

Swift’s usual satirical models were Lucian and Juvenal, but his relationship with Dr. Thomas Sheridan, pioneer in the performance of ancient plays,120 and his personal library, reveal an intense interest in classical drama, especially the Roman comedy of Plautus.121 Swift was a member of the Anglican Church, who was appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin; as a young man, he had been a member of the Whig party. He feared the restoration of the Catholic monarchy. But he feared Dissenters just as much, and his political views began to tend in a Tory direction. It is remarkable that later in life he became the most eloquent of spokesmen on the plight of the Irish poor, who regarded him as a heroic patriot.

Cover of first edition of Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

FIGURE 10.4 Cover of first edition of Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914), reproduced from Hall’s personal collection. Curiously, his name is given a slightly different spelling from that used in later editions.

There is no doubt about the raw class consciousness underlying Swift’s masterpiece of sustained polemical irony, written during the crisis caused by series of disastrous harvests,122 A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick (1729). Its opening sentence describes ‘the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors’ of Ireland, ‘crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms’.123 He suggests that the problems of the poor in Ireland might be solved if they sold their children, who could be eaten by the rich. He is reliably informed that a one-year-old provides ‘a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust’.124 Swift targets the new rationalist economics of his era, but he also exposes callous treatment of the poor and British policies in Ireland. The chief classical model for A Modest Proposal was long assumed to have been Juvenal,12’ but the Carthaginian Church Father Tertullian’s Apologeticus, a defence of Christianity composed around 197 ce, is more important.126 Tertullian sends up the popular pagan allegation that Christians eat babies, pretending to argue that it is an excellent idea (2.5; 8.7 and 8.1-.2).

Swift’s perhaps most outrageous use of a classical author was his libellous literary tour of the foul-smelling, corrupt Irish Parliament in A Character, Panegyric, and Description of the Legion Club (1736), which subverts Aeneas’ visit to the Underworld in Aeneid VI. Yet of all ancient authors, it was Plato whom Swift most admired. He owned two editions of Plato, and chose the head of Socrates as the image on his personal seal.127 The Republic is central to his political philosophy and use of allegory.128 Although Socratic ideas permeate his work, especially when he is puncturing pompous Christian dogmas, it is in Book I V.8 of Gulliver’s Travels that the influence of Platonic epistemology is best revealed. It is difficult for the Houyhnhnm master, a commonsensical spokesman of Socratic belief in the distinction between true knowledge and opinion, to comprehend

the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either.129

Nearly two centuries later, an Irish admirer of Plato and Swift named Robert Noonan wrote a satire dissecting the false opinions about reality which allowed the oppressive British class system to perpetuate itself. The central trope of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, published posthumously in 1914 under the pseudonym Robert Tressell, is the famous Platonic allegory of the cave.130

The novel narrates a dark, cold winter in the lives of a group of Edwardian workmen renovating a mansion near Hastings known as ‘The Cave’, and their oppression by capitalist overlords. It analyses their sedation by alcohol and unthinking reproduction of false ideas required to perpetuate their oppression.

These ideas are disseminated by the Church, the Judiciary, Parliamentarians and the press, in particular by three newspapers known as The Obscurer, the Weekly Chloroform and the Ananias (the name of the disciple Jesus sent to cure Paul of blindness and offer him theological instruction).131 Just one worker, a painter and decorator named Frank Owen, has studied socialism and Marxism, and ‘has seen the light’—the truth about the economic system. He is as angry with his colleagues for their uncritical regurgitation of the lies they are fed as with their evil exploiters. Tressell uses the Platonic allegory of the Cave to explore the notion of false consciousness. The novel begins thus:

The house was named “The Cave”. It was a large old-fashioned threestoried building standing in about an acre of ground, and situated about a mile outside the town of Mugsborough. It stood back nearly two hundred yards from the main road and was reached by means of a by-road or lane, on each side of which was a hedge formed of hawthorn trees and blackberry bushes.132

Attention is soon drawn to the strange name of the house. One of the workers comments, when things have unexpected names, ‘There’s generally some sort of meaning to it, though’.133 ‘In the semi-darkness’ of this Cave, ‘the room appeared to be of even greater proportions than it really was’.134

Nobody acquainted with philosophy can fail to be reminded of Republic VII, where Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a group of men living in an underground cave, approached by a long passage leading to the daylight. The men have been chained there from infancy, with their necks bound so they can only see in front of them. A fire burns at some distance behind and above them; between the men and the fire a wall resembling the screen set up by puppet masters. Other men carry objects which show above the wall—statues and model animals. The prisoners, naturally, infer that the shadows of these objects case upon the back wall of the cave which they must face are the only realities. But Socrates argues that if one of them were set free and led towards the fire, and then the sunlight, he would eventually accept that the sun is the real cause of everything in the visible world, and that the shadows down in the cave were unreal.

Plato’s Socrates, of course, does not believe that the empirically discernible world lit by the sun is real, either: it is just a second-rate imitation of the real world of the ideal forms, which are invisible to the naked eye and only apprehensible by those trained in philosophy. But Noonan, in a brilliant transposition of the allegory, reminiscent of Swift’s use of Plato, employs the Cave to expose how people living under an oppressive class system accept the ideology used to maintain it, which is in reality as false as the shadows the Platonic prisoners think are existent objects.135

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was based on Noonan’s own experiences as politically conscious underpaid painter/decorator and single father trying to survive in Hastings in the early 1900s.136 His suspicion of religion and sensitivity to class hierarchies resulted from his Dublin childhood, when he must have felt as though he belonged fully to neither the Protestant Ascendancy nor the Catholic underclass. His father, who was old when Robert was born, was Samuel Croker, a retired Royal Ulster Constabulary officer who could read New Testament Greek.137 Croker was a bigamist and may not have been married to Robert’s mother, a poor Catholic named Mary Noonan. Croker died in 1875, but left money for his son to be educated (it is not known how or where he learned either his several languages—French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Gaelic, Latin and probably ancient Greek131*—or his manual skills); his mother married a man named John O’Reilly who resented his stepchildren, and Robert ran away by the age of 16. He changed his name to Noonan, and by 1890 was working as a sign writer living in Liverpool. Charged with housebreaking and larceny, he served six months in Walton Gaol before emigrating to South Africa.139 Eleven years later, he was back in England with a daughter but no wife, as a member of the International Independent Labour Party and of the Painters’ Union.14" He settled in Hastings, where unemployment was driving many to Poor Law relief, the workhouse and soup kitchens.141

From September 1903 to June 1904 he worked for Burton & Co. Building Contractors on the Vai Mascal, a villa built in 1891 for the wealthy elite and owned by John Upson, who lived by private investment. It is the primary template for the Cave.142 Noonan had conceived the idea for the book by 1907. His daughter and co-workers recalled that he retained an Irish accent, was a voracious reader and constantly copying extracts out. He often quoted Shakespeare, Fielding, Shelley, Byron, William Morris, Walter Crane and especially Swift. He scoured second-hand bookshops; according to a young workmate much influenced by him called William Gower, he organised an informal reading list/personal lending library for his workmates, which included Plutarch’s Lives, Aristotle’s Poetics, Pliny, Gibbon and of course Plato. He was close friends with one Father O’Callaghan, with whom he talked for hours.143

He took the pseudonym Tressell from the prop tables used by decorators, which appear in the novel (with that spelling, rather than trestle), where they support a coffin.144 The title was inspired by the Republican journal which the youthful Wordsworth had planned to edit, The Philanthropist, and by the hypocritical use of this noun by exploitative civic ‘benefactors’;14’ Noonan originally intended calling the novel The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists.'41" But he died of lung disease in Liverpool, intending to emigrate once again, in 1911; it was his daughter who succeeded in getting it published.

In Chapter I, Owen insists that the workers should have access to what

we call civilisation—the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers—is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all.147

His book collection sits beside his household fire, like the first signpost to true knowledge marked by the fire in Plato’s cave;148 there are extended sequences in the novel concerning a fire in the cave and also the installation of blinds to make it impossible to see daylight through the windows. The Platonic dimension is also revealed in the form, which, beginning with the ‘Philosophical Discussion’ at the ‘Imperial Banquet’ (recalling Plato’s Symposium) in Chapter I, where the booze-loving labourer with the apt name of Philpot is described as ‘philosophic’, often takes the form of dialogue. Owen lays out propositions, leading his interlocutors on by question and answer to infer what he regards as the truths about the economic system. Sometimes he even uses diagrams drawn with decorating materials on the floor, like Socrates in Plato’s Meno.149 He is at his most Socratic in Chapter XV, where the men debate the existence of God:

“If Gord didn’t create the world, ‘ow did it come ‘ere?” demanded Slyme.

“I know no more about that than you do,” replied Owen. “That is—I know nothing. The only difference between us is that you THINK you know. You think you know that God made the universe; how long it took Him to do it; why He made it; how long it’s been in existence and how it will finally pass away. You also imagine you know that we shall live after we’re dead; where we shall go, and the kind of existence we shall have ... But really you know no more of these things than any other human being does; that is, you know NOTHING.”150

Over the last century, the novel has helped hundreds of thousands of Trade Unionists and workers to understand the workings of capitalism, as its frequent reprintings, dramatisations and film adaptations demonstrate. Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of Unite union, remembers his father saying that it was passed around the soldiers during World War II and helped the Labour Party to win their landslide victory in the 1945 election.151 In 2009, after a BBC Radio 4 serialisation, it reached number 6 on the Amazon ‘Movers and Shakers’ list.12 Through fusing Plato with the tradition of Irish political satire, Robert Noonan had put Classics to one of its most influential class-conscious uses in history.

This chapter has discussed Irish working-class Catholics who became classically skilled, some of whom supported Irish rebellion, such as O Suilleabhain and O’Raifteiri, and some of whom ardently opposed it, such as Toland, Grierson and Murphy. It includes classically educated working-class Catholic authors, like Moore, whose writings are informed by varying degrees of class consciousness, and Protestants unremittingly loyal to the English government. But two of the most radical Irish classicists campaigning in the interests of the Irish working classes were also Protestants—Thomas Russell and Robert Mitchell Henry, who were Church of Ireland and Nonconformist respectively; inspired by classical authors, they risked their lives in the uprisings of 1798 and 1916 on behalf of their poorest compatriots and the ideal of a free, united, non-sectarian Ireland. But the discussion has concluded with a novel by an expatriate Irishman who was both working- and middle-class, Catholic and Protestant. Perhaps it took Robert Noonan’s hybrid identity to produce a work of such penetrating insight into the structures which have always kept down the working class, in Ireland and everywhere else.

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