Anthony Kennedy in Plato’s Cave

And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?
          (Socrates, Plato’s Republic, Book VII, 517d)

On the web page for the United States Courts for the Ninth Circuit there appears, with links, a list

of books, literary works, films and songs “prepared for young people by
 Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, [that] includes some acknowledged classics 
and some idiosyncratic choices.” Entitled “Understanding Freedom’s Heritage:
 How to Keep and Defend Liberty,” Justice Kennedy’s list includes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.


In that famous parable, Plato, through the character of Socrates, asks Glaucon to imagine a group of people held prisoners in a cave. Unable to move their heads, they are forced to remain stationery while looking straight at the cave’s illuminated wall as they observe a variety of shadowy images pass by. They are convinced that these images are real, for they do not know any better, since they have lived their entire existence in the cave. 

What they don’t understand is that the light on the wall is from a fire, and that the shadows and their movements are the consequence of statues manipulated by another group of people behind a wall that lies behind the prisoners.

But when one of the prisoners is freed and is forced to directly look at the fire and the statues, he realizes that the shadowy images he had encountered throughout his entire life are just imperfect reflections of concrete objects. He is then dragged out of the cave and forced into the light of day. Once there, though initially stunned by the sun’s brightness, he now understands that there are things more real than even the fire and the statues, that they are just imperfect replicas of the real sun and real trees, men, flowers, dogs, etc.

Granted, the flawed copies point toward the realities that they only partially reflect, but short of being forced to ascend from the cave and directly apprehend the originals, the prisoner, to use a Christian metaphor, can only “see through a glass darkly.”

The lesson is this: in assessing the true nature of anything, appearances, though an important starting point, can be deceiving. The apprehension of elusive shadows should not be confused with the reality to which they point. That is why a man of reflection and serious inquiry does not infer from the ubiquity of disease, death, ignorance, and betrayal that the human person is not ordered toward the goods of health, life, wisdom, and fidelity.

            Photo (AP/Evan Vucci) from the Slate article, Anthony Kennedy: The First Gay Justice

Although he recommends Plato’s allegory to our young people, Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion in Windsor v. the United States, reveals that he has yet to grasp the lesson of this ancient parable.  

In overturning section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman for the purposes of federal law – Kennedy maintains that it is borne of its advocates’ “animus” and that section 3’s purpose is to “injure,” “demean,” and “impose inequality” and “stigma” on same-sex couples.

As proof of this animus Kennedy procures from the 45-page House Report on DOMA a mere four sentences, each of which is lifted out of its context in such a way that they collectively give the reader the impression that the Report contains no actual arguments or substantive reasons for the law. Although the arguments of many scholars, including our very own Hadley Arkes, are cited, quoted and employed generously throughout the Report, Kennedy makes no mention of them in his opinion. 

In one place Kennedy’s quotation-mining is so egregious that he literally changes the meaning of what the Report is trying to communicate. He writes: “The House concluded that DOMA expresses `both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexu­ality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.’”

The Report actually states: “Civil laws that permit only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.” This portion of the Report is not even discussing DOMA. Rather, it is discussing civil marriage laws and what Congress thinks they tell us about society’s moral judgments on human sexuality.

Although more has been, and will be said, about this opinion, it is difficult to reconcile with its author’s apparent love of Plato’s allegory.  After all, as Justice Samuel Alito correctly and persuasively points out in his dissent, the debate over marriage is really a dispute between two contrary accounts of that sacred union: “the conjugal” view and “the consent-based” view. 

For a government to embrace one requires that it believe the other to be mistaken, with all the limitations on its detractors that would follow, as I have noted elsewhere. A true lover of wisdom would have recognized that as the question for which Congress provided an answer in the federal code when it passed DOMA in 1996.  By contrast, someone determined to remain a prisoner transfixed on shadows in Plato’s cave will be content with impugning the motives of his fellow citizens.  


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).