In Plato’s Republic, we witness a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, in which Socrates presents his arguments about reality and knowledge. It is one of the most famous parts in the Republic, known as “The Allegory of the Cave.” In order to show the importance of education, Socrates tells a story about a group of people who are chained in a cavern, unable to turn around, who only see shadows that are projected on the wall by “the exhibitors of puppet shows,” who are also isolated from the prisoners in the cavern.
Since the prisoners are kept from seeing the real world, they “deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.” These prisoners are half-human at best. They are kept in the dark, as it were, and not only are unable to fulfill their potential but also have no means to communicate with one another or the world outside of the cave about the unreality they witness. The illuminating power of reality is lost to them. In order to know and be awakened, the prisoners must be able to move their bodies first, and then tend to their souls by way of education. For Socrates, a life in such darkness is no life at all, and while the masses may be content with living like this, it is a philosopher’s task to bring about his own illumination and insight by goading such confrontations with it out of others.
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” has been used quite frequently in our culture. One of the reasons is that the text is perennial and it maintains that human nature does not change, despite the passage of time. Now, Plato’s dark cave is even more appropriate because we are living in the midst of the digital shadows imposed on us. There is a never-ending repertoire of ideological “puppet shows” brought on by the corrupt media, ideologues, and their political regimes. While they keep people in the cave, they also use them as both participants in and spectators of their plans. We are part of the gladiator spectacle, where one day you are in the ring, another you are a spectator. That is, if you let life devolve into that.
We are indeed living in the shadows, and are stuck in the same pattern of unreality. The Covidian ideology may or may not be over, but for now, what’s occupying the gladiatorial ring is the strange war and crisis in Ukraine and Russia. It’s almost impossible to find reliable information, and this problem is exacerbated by the so-called discourse on the subject that runs purely on the engine of collectivism.
Just like with COVID, no one is allowed to ask questions, and all must accept what the media presents as the most valid representation of reality. Even showing compassion toward the innocent people of Ukraine is not enough. One must accept the simplistic binary of existence, which doesn’t allow for questions and discussions.
As with COVID, some are questioning nothing and accept the “reality” that’s been projected on the cave wall for them to consume. Others go to the other extreme and reject everything happening in Ukraine as completely fake. People fall into this trap because they are trying so hard to prove their point. The shadows in this cave are rather large and continue to grow.
In addition (and again, just like with COVID), we see the emergence of capitalist commodification of crisis. Fashion designers are having socially conscious fashion shows. Can you see a bigger contradiction here? It’s astounding such irony is tolerated. Is there anything further from the reality of suffering and war than the frivolity of a fashion show.
Various companies are hashtagging away with #StandwithUkraine, as people do on social media. The companies are trying to make a profit by demonstrating they are “aware” and “concerned” (this is, I should hasten to add, no less true of companies who peddle “conservative” ideology in order to sell their products). Why should we, the consumers, trust any of them, and why should we be swayed to buy a product which has nothing to do with an ethical act of actually doing something productive just because its marketers are also peddling a popular opinion about the current thing? This is an economic paradox: a collectivist society that’s basing its existence on Chinese Marxism is engaging in capitalist commodification of crisis in life. Yet, it is happening.
And finally, just like with COVID, users of social media have taken it upon themselves to change their profile pictures with appropriate signs to indicate which side they’re on. Do you have a Ukrainian flag on your Twitter account? You’d better, because if not it means that you are against us, whoever “us” may be. It reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer was participating in an AIDS walk but refused to wear a red ribbon. Despite the fact that Kramer was in full support of battling AIDS, he was beaten and kicked because he found the ribbon to be superfluous to what he was intending to do. There is nothing wrong with solidarity, especially when it comes to recognition of human suffering and a need for justice, but these kinds of hashtag politics have nothing to do with freedom of the mind. They are purely coercive in nature.
The events may change but the pattern is still the same. We are still seeing digital shadows. To add to the problem, most of the media figures are doomers. Many people join the terrible chorus of a very limited repertoire. Such songs include, “It’s Going to Get Worse,” “Are You Paying Attention Yet?,” “We Are Doomed,” and the all-time favorite, “Let That Sink In.” Discourse has devolved into a bunch of clichés driven by algorithmic clicks. Not only is this destroying the language but it’s also damaging our ability to communicate with each other. It is an impediment to man’s belonging in the world.
What Plato’s puppeteers did and what our reality manipulators are engaging in is relativism. The more chaos there is, the more ideology there is. The more crises, the more confusion and, the puppeteers hope, a complete abandonment of truth and objectivity. The ideologues are relying on one notion that people will accept, namely that there is no objective reality. It’s not only truth that is under attack, but also the Truth.
Lemming-like humans will follow what lemmings do. As Jorge Luis Borges noted (and I paraphrase), some people are happier when they are living under a totalitarian system. But what we have to pay attention to is whether the thinking person is being broken down, succumbing to the unreality that is presented before us.
Often, reality is unpleasant—and I am not talking merely about pleasure. Rather, what is at stake here is the very meaning of being human. If we do not consider knowledge and enlightenment of the spirit and mind to be significant, then how can we expect to move beyond the dark screen of unreality?
One of the things that makes us human is love. I do not mean anything saccharine by it, and I’m certainly not thinking of the “Live, Laugh, Love” variety. Love requires action and responsibility, and yes, reality itself. In his book, Love Alone is Credible, Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that “The inner reality of love can be recognized only by love.” In the midst of what appears to be relativism on steroids today, this is something we must keep remembering. What is the path that we are choosing?
The repetitive forces rely on the demolition of truth, love, goodness, beauty, and everything else that makes us human. We have to reject the form of life that has been thrust upon us by the media and the digital world. Such a form runs contrary to the living, breathing spirit that is within us and that yearns for creation and hope, even as we are cognizant of evil. We have to get out of the cave, and shatter the screen of unreality.