A philosopher walks into a cinema that is showing a very old soft porn movie.
“This is not reality!” he shouts, pointing at the screen.
Then he casts his fiery glance around the audience with their eyes fixed on the screen.
“You’re just sitting in the dark watching the shadows of dead people pretending to fuck,” he points out.
He starts trying to tell them about the world outside the cinema and what sunshine is like.
The audience members tell him to shut up so they can hear the movie.
He grabs one of them and tries to drag him out of the cinema. The patron puts up a hell of a fight.
Eventually the usher arrives and throws the philosopher out into the street.
This is the essence of Plato’s famous cave analogy from his dialogue The Republic. Since they didn’t have cinemas in 380 BC when Plato was writing he had to resort to talking about people being tied down in a cave while watching the shadows cast on a wall by clay figures being moved back and forth in front of a fire.
What did Plato mean by saying that what we think of as reality is not reality?
Plato believed in a world of ideal forms of which the details of the world we can perceive with our senses are a poor copy. Numbers and geometrical shapes are examples of ideal forms. And he also believed in an ethical ideal which he referred to as the Form of the Good.
So the cave analogy seems to be saying that what we take to be real blinds us to what is ideal.
We could see the cave analogy as a bit of a confidence trick. If the ideal forms exist only in the imagination, maybe we are really outside the cinema living in the real world and he is trying to persuade us to go into the cinema to watch a movie called Ideal Forms (not a bad title for a soft porn flick.)
Sometimes a symbol is so powerful that it transcends the ideology of the person who gives expression to it. I think this is true of the cave analogy.
Plato’s cave helped to inspire the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix. Here it turns out that humans are living in a simulated reality while actually being used as bioenergy batteries by parasitic machines. The hero Neo is given an choice to swallow a red pill which will enable him to see reality or a blue one which will allow him to go back to the illusory world.
This has provided a powerful metaphor to conspiracy theorists, libertarians, anarchists, and other critics of “the dominant paradigm.” The world is full of red pill pushers.
Is there a sense in which the world we take to be real is not real? Is there a reason such ideas resonate with us?
I think it may be helpful to turn Plato on his head. What keeps us from seeing reality is that we are blinded by abstract forms.
Here is an example. I love the sight of a beautiful woman. Am I really seeing the woman? She is a living organism performing a vast variety of functions. She is an ecosystem within which live a multitude of other living things. She is a conscious entity alive with emotions, memories, thoughts and desires. She was once an egg and a sperm. One day she will be dust. Her beauty blinds me to much of this. Only as I become desensitised to it somewhat do I see more. What am I seeing when I see her beauty? What we call beautiful in a woman is generally that which gives a youthful appearance. When we were young we were free of the bitterness or egotism which blocks love. So beauty is a symbol for love. So I’m blinded to the reality by an idea – the idea of love.
All the time we project and we filter. The world we see around us is a world distorted by our needs. We will see those things which serve to boost our insecure ego and we will block out those which might threaten it.
This is particularly true if we are believers in a dogma. We maintain our belief by concentrating on that which appears to support it and evading that which contradicts it. This is known as confirmation bias.
So how can we leave the cinema and live in the real world?
We need to have a secure ego. The ego is the conscious thinking self. We put down “ego” because our ego is usually insecure and thus embattled and thus a barrier to love and truth. But our conscious thinking self can become secure enough to go wide-eyed and naked in the world.
If we don’t become secure then we may take someone’s red pill only to find that they have led us from one Matrix into another. We may be woken up to how we have been a slave of capitalism only to find ourselves a slave of socialism. We are in the cinema because it makes us feel secure. Unless we learn to provide our own security, the best we will be able to do is to go from a cinema showing one kind of a movie to one showing another.
We cultivate our own security of ego by practicing unconditional self-acceptance. Our insecurity comes from being at war with our self, feeling we need to try to control our thoughts or our emotions. We don’t need to think the right thoughts or feel the right feelings. All of us are a mess of contradictions, but when we allow ourselves to be such without judgement, a deeper and truer integrity gradually forms.
The sunshine which lights the world outside the cinema is love. Love is really being with others, not just with the forms our embattled ego needed to project onto them.
This essay is from the book A Public Service Announcement to the Dark Side & Other Essays, which you can download for free from Smashwords or iBooks.