The Tenth Amendment among the Shadows: On Reading the Constitution in Plato's Cave

By Bybee, Jay S. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Tenth Amendment among the Shadows: On Reading the Constitution in Plato's Cave


Bybee, Jay S., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, he describes a cavernous chamber in which men are imprisoned. Although a large fire lights the cave, the prisoners cannot see the light source. Instead, they can only make out figures that dance and parade in front of them illuminated by the fire. The prisoners cannot even see the figures directly, only their shadows. Everything that the prisoners know about reality they have learned from the distorted shapes of the shadows dancing about the cave's walls. Socrates wonders, if a prisoner were suddenly freed and could see the objects themselves and not merely their shadows, whether he would know them from their two-dimensional shapes or whether he would be perplexed and find the objects less real than their images.(1)

For Socrates, the final burst of light represents "the essential Form of Goodness[,] ... the parent of intelligence and truth," a dazzling, bewildering display for which only some men will be prepared.(2) Upon their return to the cave, these select "king bees in a hive" will see "a thousand times better than those who live there always [and] will recognize every image for what it is."(3) For our freed prisoner, the sudden illumination reveals a whole new world previously hidden from his view, a world whose ultimate reality may seem unreal to one whose vision had been obscured for so long. Our prisoner may not recognize the new shapes that appear before him, although their general contours are familiar. Once exposed to three-dimensional objects having depth and color, our enlightened prisoner will never be satisfied with the limited images of his former existence.

For the rest of our prisoners, however, for whom escape will never come, the shadows on the wall are the only evidence of those objects that they will know. They may suspect that there is something behind those limited shapes, but their understanding of the world must be based on the shadows that they actually know, rather than a reality that they cannot see and have no means of accessing. From our perspective, the prisoners of the cave live a visually--and sensorially--impoverished existence; for them, their life is as rich as their circumstances will permit.

In one sense, the shadows the prisoners have viewed for so long are no less real than the objects they represent, but they are only two-dimensional representations of much more complex and variegated forms. The shadows are, nonetheless, real in the shadowy world in which they exist. The shadows themselves do not obscure the objects they represent. Instead, the shadows are the confluence of light and the perspective of the viewer, whose vantage point is blocked from full view of the ultimate objects. The shadows may distort the true shape of those objects, but sometimes the shadows are themselves the best evidence of the reality behind them. The prisoners may be deceived by the shadows; but more often than not, the shadows prove that at least something is there. Once the prisoners know of the existence of some ultimate reality beyond the shadows, they will not mistake the shadows for the thing itself, but the shadows may nonetheless prove reliable and serve as the best evidence of a reality whose access has been denied them.

In this essay, I argue that we more closely resemble the prisoners left in the cave than Socrates's enlightened prisoner and that the Constitution is full of shadows that demand our careful scrutiny. These shadows are evidence of state power and are the only evidence the Constitution will provide us. Owing to its origins, the Constitution creates a federal government and confers power to its branches. Those powers that are not so conferred--either expressly or implicitly--are reserved to the states that ceded their own powers under the Constitution, or to the people, who are the ultimate source of all governmental power. Because the Constitution does not define the powers of the states in the same way that it defines the powers of Congress, for example, we must seek vestiges of state power.

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