“One of the most profound stories in the world is really no more than an elaborate image: Plato’s Parable of the Cave (The Republic, Book VII). He conjures up the picture of a row of men, imprisoned in a cave, their gaze forcibly fixed in only one direction. Here on the wall in front of them they see a constant play of shadows as figures and objects pass in front of a fire behind them; and, since this is all they ever see, they take it for the reality of the world in which they live.
One of them finds himself free to look around and move from his place. He dimly sees above and behind him what appears to be a purer, stronger light than that of the flickering fire. He makes the rough and steep ascent up to its source, to discover that it is coming from the mouth of the cave. He steps out into the daylight, where he sees the sun. At first its light is so bright that he is blinded. But as he gradually becomes accustomed to it, he can for the first time gaze on the real world that is outside the cave and all that is in it.
Dazzled by what he has seen, he makes his way back down into the darkness to where his old companions are still transfixed, like a modern television audience, by the play of shadows on the wall. He tries to explain to them the wonder of what he has witnessed, but there is no way they can understand what he is talking about. The dancing shadows on the wall are the only reality they know. They laugh at him, imagine that he is making up his story about what he has seen, and call him mad. He, on the other hand, can now see the shapes on the wall clearly for what they are, as no more than shadows and illusions. He can no longer share his companions’ commendation of each other for all their clever observations about the shadows and what they represent, because he has glimpsed ‘reality’.” (From The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, Continuum, New York 2004.)
Do you sit in a corner, scribbling your secret like Winston in 1984? Or run armed with nothing but the truth into the mouth of the ring, like Simon in Lord of the Flies? Having wandered outside, do you rush back in to tell your friends, like Plato’s dazzled cave dweller?
All three of these stories are about the border between reality and illusion, but all three works assert quite clearly that there is such a thing as objective reality; it is not relative. Human beings have to interpret it, and do so in many different ways, but an objective reality exists. The light is real, the shadow-play an illusion, the ‘beast’ is merely a rotting corpse on a hill, and two plus two does and always will make four. An objective reality exists, which is not sustained or confined by human perception. A tree falling in the forest makes a sound, regardless of whether some student of philosophy is wandering in the vicinity.
Within the Cave, however, strong forces bind the false reality in place. Certain individuals gain credit through their clever commentaries on the shadow reality. Perhaps they manipulate the false consciousness of their companions to their own benefit – to increase their own status. The prisoners’ unconscious state of bewilderment, deprivation and terror makes them vulnerable to suggestion; peer pressure perpetuates acceptance of the interpretations of these more dominant and creative individuals, who are experiencing the only form of power available to them. So the whole community becomes emotionally and socially invested in its manufactured reality.
The point of conflict comes when one member of the community tries to challenge the orthodox perception of reality, unaware of quite how much is invested in the power structures that have grown up around a particular version of the truth. All this individual wants is to tell his friends the momentous news. How can he then understand the way the others react to his excitement?
Simon, the only one with the courage to go up the mountain, returns after dark to the beach, expecting, surely, to be greeted as a hero. He has slain the monster, by discovering that it never existed. He must be a little surprised, then, to be beaten to death for his trouble. The escapee from the Cave goes through a similar experience; perhaps, if his companions weren’t physically manacled, they would have beaten him to death, too. Winston, on the other hand, doesn’t have any way to communicate with his peers in the much larger society he belongs to, and falls immediately into the hands of Cave’s guardians – the Inner Party, which exists above the illusions it creates. Interestingly, they do not kill him immediately, and in this they differ from the masses, the mobs that kill Simon or howl down the escaper. We are not dealing with the mob here, we’re dealing with the ruling elite, and the mindset is different. No – they won’t kill him, not even if he begs them to, not until they have first destroyed his mind, and made him not just submit to, but love, Big Brother. They want him not just to say but to know that two plus two equals five. They want to prove their ultimate power: their power over reality. They never get tired of proving this. They only really get off on this, the ultimate domination. Before they’ve finished with you, you’ll wish they’d killed you straight away. You’ll wish you’d fallen into the hands of the mob, like Simon – because the mob only wants you to shut up, and it’s a quicker death at their hands.
There’s no question that the societies described in all three works – the societies represented by the guardians of the Cave, the Inner Party in 1984 and Jack and Roger’s dark theocracy in Lord of the Flies – are pretty hostile environments in which to try to retain a vestige of humanity. They are also, all three of them, recognisably normal.
Plato’s story seems, in its way, as prophetic as Orwell’s. As Booker says, the people resemble ‘a modern television audience.’ Plato doesn’t tell us why the people in the cave are kept like that, from birth, or why the surreal show of shadows is laid on for them. It seems quite a lot of trouble to go to, after all. The cave’s keepers have to feed the fire, and prance around in front of it carrying all those objects. Why keep the people like that, manacled from birth, heads clamped so that they can see nothing but the shadows on the wall for their entire lives? What’s the point? If they’re prisoners, why isn’t it enough to just chain them up? Plato doesn’t answer these questions. This is not a fully-fledged fiction; it’s a parable, as implausible in its terms as a high school maths problem. And yet, there’s something about it that’s so naggingly familiar and yet so strange, that it takes on a riddling allegorical power.
The motif of a paradigm shift induced in a character who has been living in a completely false state of consciousness seems a peculiarly modern idea. We find it in contemporary cinema from the 80s onwards, spanning all genres. Examples that spring immediately to mind include The Matrix, Blade Runner, The Truman Show, The Game, The Others, The Island, Vanilla Sky, Adaptation, Shutter Island. It’s a big theme in the work of Philip K Dick, the sci-fi writer active in the 60s and 70s, on whose stories a flock of films have been based recently: Total Recall, Minority Report, Next, A Scanner Darkly. Dick was particularly interested in the erasure and implantation of memory.
The Wachowski brothers must surely have based The Matrix on Plato’s parable. Again, the people are immobilised, and again, they are watching and experiencing a shadow-play: their nervous systems are hooked into a digital simulation of an out-of-date reality. In this variation of the metaphor, the people are being farmed as an energy source. And since they cannot live or produce without some cerebral activity, they are fed this virtual reality. They sleep and dream.
Are the people in Plato’s Cave being farmed? Fatted for slaughter, perhaps, like modern farm-animals kept in tiny artificially lit cubicles for their whole lives, a slatted floor opening periodically to let their excrement through? That might explain their captivity, but the real question about the Cave is not why these people are being kept prisoner. Plato doesn’t need to go into this, because the spectacle of enslaved human beings is familiar enough – it is, after all, the primary and omnipresent theme of history. His focus is purely on the experience of the one who escapes from the cave, and the reactions of the others towards him. Plato’s point is about education – the escaper is the philosopher who has ‘seen the forms’, and accepts the role of educator. What tends to interest modern readers is what the story tells us about reality: the ease with which human beings accept the appearances they are presented with; their construction of a consensus reality policed by convention; their difficulty in abandoning false paradigms once they are habituated to them and have invested in them; and the attitudes they immediately resort to in order to defend themselves against others who challenge their reality: mockery, denigration, insults, and accusations of mendacity or madness. The simple furniture of the parable strips away ephemera and exposes the bones of the situation: in certain circumstances, people will ruthlessly defend themselves against truth. They will use mockery, scorn, rejection – they will break friendships and relationships to defend their precious shadows.
Why will they not accept the testimony of the escapee? One reason is simple cognitive inertia. These people have been trapped in this bizarre ‘normality’ since birth. They are born in chains. The shadows are all they see. And since the shadows do not in themselves make any kind of sense, an intelligentsia or priest class has grown up to interpret their meaning. Devoted to talking nonsense about nothing, they are admired and followed because they offer some kind of reassurance. They have a lot to lose if they are exposed as fools.
The Cave’s guardians must derive endless amusement by listening to the ramblings and disputes of these people. But that’s an enjoyable side effect, and can hardly be the reason for the deception.
Let’s say the people are being farmed, for some reason. They are like animals in slatted-floor cages. They’re being fatted, or bled. However, these are not animals, but human beings, which are always dangerous – the most dangerous predator on the planet, intelligent, resourceful, violent. Even if you have them in chains, you must fear their restless, ingenious minds. You can subdue them by force for a time, but you can’t do it forever. For that, you have to control their minds.