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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013
The way in which humanity and humans are built does indeed make it significantly more challenging for us to perceive reality how it is in truth. This statement is the main message of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. There, people are imprisoned inside a cave. They are chained in a way that all they can see is the shadows on a wall. These shadows are operated by unseen men who are apparently the authority in the cave. Because the prisoners cannot see anything else, they think that these shadows are all that is real and that nothing else exists in reality. Such perception prevents them from realizing the overall situation in which they are trapped. One of the prisoners gets dragged outside of the cave by an unexplained force. When this prisoner initially gets to see the overall situation from the outside, s/he opposes realizing the state of events – s/he is in denial and expresses the desire to get back to the “comfort” of the cave.
Stepping out of this comfort is a shocking and painful experience. The prisoner’s eyes are not used to sunshine, so s/he needs to take some time to accommodate. This process is both painful and life-changing. As the prisoner’s eyes begin to see in the sunlight, they can make out the situation as it is. This new, actual reality becomes deeper, more genuine and reasonable. After that, the protagonist gets transported back to the cave, and the transition is painful and shocking once again. As if this were not enough, the enlightened prisoner’s attempts to share his or her experience outside of the cave with the other prisoners get treated with mistrust and aggression down to the point where they threaten his/her life! Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is more than just a metaphor. It is a quite straightforward depiction of the way in which human beings are built and exist: perceiving what we can grasp with our senses through the lenses of our beliefs and other frameworks and insisting that this is indeed the objective reality.
In this way, the Allegory is pretty accurate in describing the present-day state of events. To make this description so specific, Plato employs several essential elements. For one, the imagery of Plato’s work draws direct parallels to what I observe in my life every day. Upon reading the Allegory, I saw the benefits of reason and tried to apply it to my perception of everything around me, my approach to these objects and events, and my judgments about them in an attempt to achieve the ideal form. The Allegory’s prisoners who only deem truthful the things that they see directly in front of them are all the people in the world including myself. The more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that every person is a prisoner in a cave of their lives and only seeing what their senses allow them to see.
We are all imprisoned by our beliefs and standpoints, outside of which we not only cannot see but also refuse to see. For example, we can look at how many people are obsessed with their looks. They often don’t have enough money for clothes that they deem proper, as well as for other beauty procedures, such as hairstyling, manicure, pedicure, etc. Yet, they firmly believe that looking better makes them into better people. Often, this belief is not even genuinely theirs but is rather imposed by the society’s cultural norms and traditional modes of conduct. Nevertheless, it does motivate them to spend unjustified amounts of money on all these products and services, even if they cannot really afford it. They are afraid of not adhering to the society’s and/or their own standards which are essentially shadows on the wall.
The only way out from this prison is to apply reason to everything you perceive – from particular objects, people, and events to the general processes and the world as a whole. It is vital to stop relying solely on the immediate sensations that particular objects of reality give you because this way one can never understand their nature. If one keeps relying on one’s senses exclusively, s/he is no better than those prisoners failing and refusing to apply reason to see anything other than the shadows on the wall. What makes the situation even less optimistic is the fact that not only everyday people act as Allegory’s prisoners, – one can say the same about the powerful people who make the decisions upon which the fate of the whole world depends: the political and religious leaders, the CEOs, etc. Arguably the most colorful example of such tendency is the current President Donald J. Trump. He is in position to make decisions on behalf of the great nation, the decisions that affect the whole world, based on his judgments that come from his impulsive and unreasonable reactions.
For example, after the recent tragic events in Florida, he makes an impulsive suggestion to arm all the teachers, based on his belief that abrupt violence can only be confronted with more violence. While debunking this popular belief is a topic for a separate essay, the particular suggestion to arm teachers is obviously unreasonable. Luckily, many people do not blindly share the views of the one in charge on this particular question. Still, there are also many people who see the images that someone else projects on the wall for them to see. They see only what they are shown, and thus, based purely on their emotion, they jump to conclusions that are expected of them, without giving them any thought.
It has often been discussed how the Internet liberates the flow of information because users get the access to all sorts of information online, as opposed to only a few controlled channels that were available before the Internet. Yet, it proves to be a misconception because next to every given person will refuse to pay attention to any information that effectively debunks their existing beliefs. Instead, they will discard this information as unreliable just because it comes from the Internet, simultaneously deeming the information from the Internet that confirms their existing beliefs quite credible. Like Allegory’s prisoners, they are chained in the way so as they cannot even turn their heads to see something other than what they are shown, and when someone tries to share the truth (or just a different standpoint) with them, they treat it with mistrust and aggression.
Another aspect of interest is that casting the shadows that the prisoners see on the wall is a controlled process. In the Allegory, this process is controlled by someone unnamed and unseen, but in reality, this process is controlled by other people who are also prisoners by nature, and they use this shadow-casting only to control what other prisoners see and how they immediately react to it. The suggested arming of teachers is an example of a shadow that a prisoner in power is casting on the wall for other prisoners to see in an attempt to achieve the desired reaction. Can armed teachers confront armed students? Should they? Is responding to violence with violence a justified and effective solution today?
In his other works, Plato defines the absolute Good as empowerment to be free and the energy to exercise this freedom. The latter, in turn, involves courage and strength. Since we inevitably live in a world of shadows on the wall, even the Good that we may see, experience or commit – is also but a projection of the true and absolute Good. This way, Plato’s cave is the world we live in, and it is up to us to make an effort and break free. We are bound to perceive the world around us through our imperfect and subjective senses. So, we choose either to go on being prisoners or to break free and start using reason. According to Plato, this is the way out of the cave into which our civilization puts us.