Plato’s cave as a metaphor for modern life
"We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality."
Iris Murdoch (15 July 1919 - 8 February 1999)
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Marcus Aurelius , Meditations (26 April 121 AD - 17 March 180 AD)
Everyone’s heard of Plato, but few people have read any of his works and even fewer have considered their application to the problems of modernity. Let’s assume that contemporary life—for most of us—throws up a range of challenges including a busy existence characterized by a multitude of fleeting relationships in a society where we have to earn a living to pay for all the active consumerism needed to keep the bubble we call the economy afloat.
We—the humans living in this fast-moving, shape-shifting world—encounter myriad fleeting media and other messages in a constant torrent generated by social media, TV, and internet web sites all popping up on our iPads, smart phones, and screens of all kinds, continuously. That data, mediated or amplified by the many others we encounter across all our complex relationships, conspires to bring on the persistent headache we call information overload.
Indeed, it is the self-appointed task of many people in society, including newsreaders, marketeers, influencers, manipulators, political strategists, companies, not-for-profits, government departments and the like who are all tacitly or actively giving us their opinion in a typical day. What to wear, what stocks and shares to buy, who to vote for, how to decorate your house of flat, which cause to donate to, what hairstyle to emulate, which soap, toothpaste or shampoo that If you buy it will keep you clean, attractive and pleasant-smelling … the list is endless. To say that we are overly stimulated is to substantially underplay the extent of this.
That’s them, the harbingers of the cacophony. Then there’s us. We each occupy many roles simultaneously, giving, receiving and magnifying all these announcements, bulletins, messages, gossip-snippets, news items, good and bad tidings, lowdowns, scoops, 411s, and advice (e.g., as a parent, child, sibling, cousin, friend, enemy, boss, subordinate, consumer, taxpayer, customer, sports fan, and confidant). We face this multitude of competing interests while we are on the move: we travel (when not sheltering-in-place) here, there and everywhere by train, car, plane, and on foot, exposing ourselves to even more forms of brash, noisy, unrelenting discord. The lot of modernity is not just to suffer the occasional awful coffee, have our laptop give a 400 Bad File Request message or Siri tell us Sorry Something Went Wrong Try Again but to regularly experience reverberating flows of too, too much intel. It brings on for many, genuine stress, and way too much angst. And everyone else has learned to tune in, multi-task and grin and bear it just to get by.
Alvin Tofler’s Future Shock? Forget it. That was published in 1970. The pace and complexity of life is far greater than even he envisaged.
Plato’s allegory of the cave, told in his masterpiece The Republic [written circa 380 BC), is an extended metaphor illuminating how people apprehend and survive in the world. It has lessons for any individual seeking to figure out the true nature of things then, and today.
Plato tells the story, as is his wont, from the perspective of his teacher, Socrates. Socrates pictures a cave with chained prisoners who have been there since childhood, facing a wall. They cannot turn because of their chains; they can only look at that wall. Behind them there is a walkway with a lower wall and above that is a fire pit. As people walk past behind the wall they hold the objects they carry above their heads like puppeteers and it is only those objects which are projected by the fire onto the far wall that are in the prisoners’ line of sight. They include figures of animals, people, and other items we see in the everyday.
The prisoners, who cannot look behind them, can only see the shadows cast before them. They hear noises and echoes of the footsteps of the people walking behind them, and attribute these to the shadow-figures on the far wall. Their entire reality is all that they see and hear projected on the far wall. This is the sum of their world—the truth for them. They do not, and cannot, know that the figures are representations of real animals and humans brought by the parading people behind them from outside the cave.
Plato then ponders: what if a prisoner was freed, and can turn and walk toward the fire? He would be blinded at first, and when he returned to his original place he would not be able to accommodate readily to the darkness. He would be, at best, confused. If, later, he was to be dragged out of the cave into the bright sunshine, and was to return to his place again, he would struggle to see in the darkness. The other prisoners would laugh at him, and they would not want to take the risk themselves of trying to get out of the cave. They would even kill someone, Socrates says, who tried to drag them out, for fear of sustaining damaged eyesight.
The moral of the story? Everyday people are chained to their perspective, and see only a glimpse of – indeed, a very poor, degraded representation of – the richly endowed real world outside. Plato is, through Socrates, arguing that it is the duty of the philosopher—the enlightened citizen who sees the world beyond the cave—to return to those unenlightened in the cave and to share knowledge with them, even at the risk of death.
So, a question: living almost 2,400 years after the time of Plato’s writing, what relevance can we find in the allegory of the cave to our contemporary lives?
This tale speaks to our constructed reality. It forces us to ask: what is real and what is behind reality? In this busy, fragmentary life, we interpret and analyze information presented to us in a constant flickering stream, in a unique way, each to ourselves. We are stuck, prisoners, in the world as it presents to us through our senses. It is a world constrained by our own thinking and by the societal influences and manipulations bearing down on us. Each of us has an ideology, perspectives, experiences and personality differing from others. In truth, we—every one of us—sees the world differently, uniquely. There may be a “real” world outside our own cave, standing outside of our experience, but we cannot know this world, at least not first hand. We can only ever know the world we encounter—our own bewildering, fast-paced, slippery, ephemeral version, like the backlit far wall in the cave of Plato’s prisoners.
Yet our version of reality feels concrete and we talk as if it is. We believe from our sensory input that we know how the world works. But then we get surprised if we are mistaken, or if we hear a view from someone else which makes us realize there are vastly different interpretations made of the same presenting information.
And what of the nature of all that fast-paced, mesmerizing, never-ending barrage of cacophonous stimuli that hits us, virtually every moment of every day? Is it real or merely a representation of reality? Put another way: we imagine that we know what Donald Trump, or Hillary Rodham Clinton; or Andre Agassi, or Boris Johnson, or Taylor Swift, are like. Yet we have never met them, and everything most of us know about them is mediated through what we have been told, or read, or fed by gossip columns, or via TV, or other forms of media.
Beyond this, many of us “know” there is a God, or hold to believing in some form of spirituality, without absolute—or even any—convincing proof. We “know” what we like and what we want. We deny that marketing plays any role in our consumption choices, for example, yet it does, profoundly; in all sorts of hidden ways.
We have confidence that we are independent thinkers determining our own course in life, yet corporations, government agencies, Media Barons, commentators on the economy, political parties, and a range of other obscure, and even completely unseen forces affect our lives and exert great power over us. Influence is everywhere shaping or manipulating our views, our attitudes, our choices, our lives. How do you know for example, whether to have the Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, or Moderna vaccine? Or which course to take for self-improvement at work? Or which school to choose for your kids’ education?
As uncomfortable as it might be, we are each prisoners of our own limited capacity and the demands of others, and subject to the social and power structures they operationalize. This is not a conspiracy theory. It’s just the way the world works beneath the obvious, the mask of the apparent, our illusion of being in control.
It sounds like those of us who have sufficient desire might try to break free of the chains and leave the cave. But the light of the sun can be blinding and many of us will not want to be exposed to what lies beyond—assuming we can work out what it is. The unknown is scary. The truth – that we are subject to enormous biased, self-interested forces which manipulate us from morning to evening and at every point in between – is unsettling. Unpalatable. Worrying. And if it doesn’t concern you, it should.
Each of us will have to hatch our own escape plan if we want to get off the treadmill of modernity, I dare say. One way is to turn off the smart phone, unplug the computer, resist watching the news, and tune out for a while. A day, or evening.
Read a good book. Maybe even do some philosophy. Sit in quiet contemplation. Practice meditation. Watch the sunset – all the way. If not locked down, go for a walk in the park or better still, a forest. If it helps, talk to yourself while doing it (but be careful no-one overhears you). Think your own thoughts. Not theirs.
Because in contemporary society, as sad as it sounds, I’m not sure if there’s anyone else stopping to help or showing us what’s outside the cavern of our own experience, muddied (or even poisoned) by the exploitation of all those others.
In short, slow down. Step outside the modern world for a bit. Let go the world, to increase understanding.
You’ll feel a lot better. Even if only for a while. But you’ll get better at it over time.
Plato (380 BC). Allegory of the Cave. In Book VII of The Republic. New York: The Modern Library.