Sometimes one finds after trials that what one wants isn’t really what one needs. The unknown need is often what should be desired. So it is with both the lesson behind The Allegory of the Cave and in my method of discovering it.
Long ago I wandered aimlessly but unintrepidly into the University of Georgia. I was convinced I was destined to study business and become a real life Gordon Gekko or something similar. I have yet to make millions or be investigated by the SEC. I have experienced some very attractive women and sunrise on the beach, so it has not been a total loss. Whatever.
Back in Athens, entering my senior year, I found myself faced with a host of required elective classes. I had essentially finished my business education which did turn out to mostly be a total loss. Hoping to get out into the “real world” as fast and as easily as possible I signed up for what I thought would be the easiest classes offered. I loaded up on philosophy and classical studies.
These I did find easy and I earned above average grades. However, my ease of completion, my excellence, derived from my immense enjoyment of the subject matter. Only at the end of my tenure did I discover the misdirection of my education.
Plato, being one of the greatest minds of all history, was required reading in one or more classics courses. Plato’s thoughts and methodology have influenced scholars since, to include Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, More and Kant.
Deep inside Plato’s Republic one will find The Allegory of the Cave. It is a metaphorical conversation between Socrates (Plato’s mentor) and Glaucon (Plato’s brother). Ancient philosophy frequently featured dialectic parables to stimulate thought about the conveyed concepts. The Cave is such a story about human experience and education.
Socrates and Glaucon discussed a cave where were chained a group of people. The prisoners sat in a row facing a smooth black wall at the back of the cave. None had ever lived outside; their imprisoned condition was all they ever known. However, they were not without entertainment.
Behind the chained men burned a fire. Someone would regularly hold in front of the fire but behind the prisoners a series of shapes and models. These forms were representations of real things from the outside world. The shapes cast shadows on the wall. These were viewed by the captive audience. The shadow figures were the only substance ever viewed by the captives. As they viewed the apparitions the men would murmur sounds. Over time they came to assume these sounds came from the images and, thus, emanated from them. This spectacle provided a multi-dimensional element to life in the cave.
Still it was a false life, a fantasy. None had ever experienced reality. What they knew were only representative approximations of actual reality. Immersed in this setting the men assumed the shadow forms to be all of existence.
Suppose one of the captive viewers broke free and ventured back to where the models resided. Suppose he escaped the cave entirely and saw, for the first time, the real world. Given his shadow education he would eventually correlate those images to their real forms. Given a little longer he might come to appreciate his whole world view had been a mere theatrical production, a myth.
Initially, such a man would experience confusion and perhaps fear. Then what? Depending on his disposition, intelligence, and fortitude he would either become ecstatic in his newfound freedom or else he would shun reality in favor of his former imaginary life.
Suppose this escapee went back to the cave to teach the other prisoners about the truth. How would they receive his message? If history is a guide, then the reception would be cool at best. Intelligent people are frequently seen as crazed by their simple contemporaries. The ignorant are generally suspicious of the enlightened. Sometimes they persecute them. See the examples of Socrates, Archimedes, Galileo, and Jesus.
Art imitates life. The Matrix movie is the space age telling of Plato’s Cave. Neo barely overcomes his desire to remain in fantastic perfection over entering the more sober real world. He needed convincing too.
Life imitates art. Today many live out the allegory, not in a cave but in the comfort of their homes. The chains are mental rather than physical. Modern electronics have replaced the fire and shadow show. The allegory of the television.
In a way, by taking those elective classes I stumbled out of my own cave. What’s that? The allegory of the allegory? Years have passed and I still battle to convince myself of reality. It’s not always the most pleasant of places. I imagine you, dear reader, face similar dilemmas. Realization does not, by itself, breed happiness. It is however close kin with freedom. I’ll take that over being chained in the cave.