“Could you run down to my class and get the students settled while I grab a few things,” my coworker Katie asked this morning?
Katie teaches an elective in philosophy, she’s a dynamic instructor, and the students love her.
Since I’m free this block I jump at the opportunity, “I’m on it.”
I take a seat in the front of the class on a rickety stool and since I have no idea what they are studying I ask the students to tell me what they are currently working on aside from updating their Instagram. Still holding onto their phones they rush to tell me of Plato’s tent and that which chains us from reality. Ironic!
I’m intrigued, “tell me more.”
I asked them to teach me what they have learned about Plato’s tent and this is what they shared.
Their teacher actually rented a real tent from the Sports Basement in the Pruneyard Shopping Center and set it up in a way for them to not only experience the concept Plato’s cave but to enter into it.
In this myth, there are men who have been chained in a cave (she represents this cave with the rented tent) throughout their entire lives. The only thing they can see is a the cave’s wall. They have never been able to exit the cave. They also have never been able to turn around and see the origin of the chains which bind them.
However, behind them there is a wall and a little farther still there is a bonfire. Between the wall and the bonfire there are men who carry objects (I’m wondering what kind of objects but do not want to stop them mid story). Thanks to the bonfire, the shadows of the objects are projected onto the wall. Thus, the chained men can view them.
Does this remind anyone else of the man-caves currently popular in our modern day homes?
Plato believed there was a relationship between physical things and the world of ideas. The shadows are their only basis of reality, but it’s a false reality because they refuse, or are unable to turn, and see beyond the shadows.
So frickin metaphoric and as you know I love this stuff.
In Plato’s theory, the cave represents people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world – empirical evidence. The cave shows that believers of empirical knowledge are trapped in a ‘cave’ of misunderstanding (the idea is to drop the mis in
misunderstanding – not to be confused with the mrs – and expose your ignorance to the light)
For example if you have only seen the shadow of a mirror and not a real mirror you would have no idea how it reflects images, or how a book holds the contents of a story, or the sound a guitar makes when played. Right?
Katie entered the class just as they were sharing their metaphoric tents! I know, I wanted to stay, but there is a coffee maker at my desk and I’m sort of chained to that whole arrangement.
So I leave and google the shit out of Plato and caves.
The idea is that we all understand life from a chained perspective so to speak because we often refuse to turn and see the fullness of reality. If we take the idea of happiness for example, in Plato’s cave, we are blind to the reality of joy. So blind we revolt in righteous indignation against any data that suggests shadows and echoes are just that.
“I have a stiff neck, I like my views, I’m very comfortable with my self-imposed chains.” We’ve heard it all before especially in long term relationships.
What happens is we create a fictional reality where our beliefs and illusions take on a main role. This comes in the form of assumptions, rewrites of reality, or views that persistently divide instead of bridging our connection with each other.
I could see images that were lies and false realities. But, how could I consider it as such? If, from the time I was a young boy, it was the only thing I had seen that was real. Plato
These men had only seen the same images since they were born. This dampened their curiosity and they lacked incentive to turn around to see how a reflection does not present an accurate picture. This shadowed reality is artificial. It distracts them from the truth which encourages questions, communication, and contact.
However, one of them, dared to turn around and see beyond these images.
This proved to be a confusing but courageous move, being ripped from your reality, exposed to a harsh light, one you never considered possible, and this is a frightening experience to say the least. He longed to return to his shadowed reality but alas, “the truth shall set you free.”
He continued to explore this new reality and when he went back to share the “good news” with his partners, you guessed it, they refused to believe him.
“It is the task of the enlightened not only to ascend to learning and to see the good but to be willing to descend again to those prisoners and to share their troubles and their honors, whether they are worth having or not. And this they must do, even with the prospect of death.” Plato
Katie has asked her students to write a paper about their tent and the things that chains them to a false reality. In this life, due to our experience, or way of processing our experience, we accept false realities as our “truth” without question. We hold on so tight to our version of “truth” that it falsifies the present with shadows from the past.
For example, if you are an athlete and you think winning is everything, coming in second is failure, this influences everything you do. You might abandon a project or contest if you don’t think you can come in first. This becomes your reality at work, in your relationships, during conversations, while playing games, or taking on new skills, even driving a car become a competition.
Can you imagine? Something as simple as a change in perspective can remove the fear of coming in second and an entire new reality becomes possible.
Leaving the cave is a difficult process because it requires courage, resilience, and an openness to that which you have never encountered. It’s a lonely journey often viewed by others as an act of rebellion. There will be a space in time where you will not understand what is real and what isn’t. It will be disorienting.
“Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light”
Breaking away from beliefs that we have carried for a long time is almost impossible, especially as we age, but when you consider our entire foundation rests on these false realities, then maybe it’s time we turn and face the truth.
How do we exit the tent and break the things that chain us to a false reality?
How do we untangle the memories we have reconstructed to suit our own purposes.
Is it possible that you don’t have a monopoly on truth, that there might be another version that is less shadowed, closer to the truth, more developed?
Eventually you’ll want to come out of the tent because it is uncomfortable to live bound up in chains of ignorance.
It is part of the human condition that we accept the reality of which we have been presented. We see this most clearly in the movie The Truman Show. The main character was adopted by a production company and grows up on a movie set that he believes is the only reality. Slowly it dawns on him that there is something beyond that which he has experienced and he breaks out of the movie set, a bubble, and away from the chains that have held him.
Maybe due to our human condition we find it extremely difficult to put aside our shadowed world?
What we can do is make an effort to see things from a different perspective, maybe one that is not familiar, or of our own creation. To see things clearly with a new lens. The cave is thought to be closely related to the symbolic heart, and is often a place where the self and ego unite, resulting in things undivided such as love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Is this how Eve eventually understood the garden, taking the chance to gain a new perspective, she did the very thing that was forbidden, she reached for the fullness of truth, took a bite, got relocated, came out of the shadows.
I’m Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, we’ll go glamping.
What are the things that add clarity to your life? What is blinding you to the past? How can we remove the blindfolds, move out of the shadows, and experience a new reality.
- “Life” Plato
- A man’s deepest fear is that he is not good enough or that he is incompetent. He compensates for this fear by focusing on increasing his power and competence. Success, achievement, and efficiency are foremost in his life … A man appears most uncaring when he is afraid. John Gray
- “Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.” Plato