(Please not this is a reblogged post as part of the series on Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now following the earlier ones on the Tower of Babel and Plato’s Cave).
I made the claim a few week’s ago that Plato’s cave, along with the Tower of Babel, are two ancient stories that help to tell us where we are in the modern world. (I also included Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but it is hardly ancient.)
What is the state of modern knowledge? How advanced is our human consciousness?
Plato considered that knowledge based totally on sense experience-what we might learnedly call empiricism- shows only images and reflections of reality, not the real thing. The real thing is consciousness of ideal forms in the eternal world that lead us to understanding of what, for instance, true beauty and goodness and justice are. Only the clear- minded who have escaped the imitation world of shadows and reflections can attain this knowledge. They draw on the light of the sun, the source of all true seeing and representing the Good. He tells the allegory of the Cave to reveal the process.
That summary is my very simple reading of the philosophy behind the allegory. But the significance of the allegory seems to spread far beyond Plato’s world-picture to challenge ours.
For the cave still exists. Indeed it is ubiquitous; it cannot be escaped. Plato’s prisoners were only to understand reality through media that distorts, from reflections thrown by a fire, of things-artefacts- supposedly making up the real world. In the modern cave there need be no such obvious prisoners. People are free to inhabit the cave and are apparently happy to do so. The media of the fire, with its images, has been replaced by the vastly more efficient and powerful media of modern technology. Imagine not a cave stretching back some little way but a great underground cavern, that stretches interminably on all sides, full of screens. Some of these are great public screens for mass viewing-you might see there important political happenings or speeches or sporting events, as on television screens ; others are huge banks of small screens like you see in the background of a news studio with people able to choose their own chosen programme. But apart from these public areas there are built into the sides of the cavern masses of tiny cells for private viewing. Almost magically everyone has access to this world of screen by their own route-from home, from work. So people might gather in crowds before the big screens; or else they retire to private viewing screens. People inter-relate with the screens. In their hands they hold a mobile which enables them to connect with any of a forest of screens. They connect with others through screens: “Friends” they know only by media. “Enemies” they engage with and condemn through media. A world that is all social media. A place of distractions, a place where you can be assured your illusions are real and you can meet with others to confirm the illusions. A place where there is factual news reporting and a place which claims the factual is fake. A place where you can feed your mind on fantasy sex, on aggression, on revenge, on hate and where you can express your own outraged feelings on a screen held before you.
You will say I am missing the good stuff, the beneficial information, the positive interactions between people far apart, the beauty of places you cannot see nor will ever see in person. There is very much of course that is good, that provides us with information that is useful to us. There are interactions with family and friends who live far away; opportunities for sending and receiving positive messages are available. If it were not so I’d be a hypocrite typing this blog post from my little private cell to you in yours!
But the good stuff is dependent on another world. It is dependent on people knowing the reality of the world beyond, and the beauty of the world beyond and communicating that to others within the cave who recognise the same or want to recognise the same.
But if people fail to draw on sources of life and strength in the world beyond then the world of screens has the power to dominate and diminish their consciousness and limit them to a world of images and reflections that lead them away from reality rather than towards it. You see people “distracted from distraction by distraction, Filled with fancies and empty of meaning” (T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”). You see people with short attention spans, looking for the image that will excite attention and switching rather desperately from picture to picture. You see children particularly adept and smart in their handling of the technology. This is the world they have grown up with. You fear for them, that their very proficiency makes it difficult for them to understand other sources of knowledge. They think they have it all here.
To revert to questions asked earlier you have probably forgotten What is the state of modern knowledge and consciousness? In so far as knowledge is information it is, most of it, there in our metaphorical cavern. But information does not “form” the inner -me. It does not inwardly form my mind and character. It merely gives us facts to possess. Only through being inwardly formed, mind and spirit is our consciousness-our knowledge of the good, the beautiful , the true developed. Only then do we see clearly, not in the cave, but in the sunshine of the upper world. It is there reality is to be known and lived.