Plato’s cave

Or Plato’s Multiplex. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is about how we can know the world around us, and, if you buy into Plato’s metaphysics, how we can know the ideal world of forms that is not around us. Essentially, Plato believed that all that we see in the real world is nothing more than a shadow or crude approximation of the true forms of things in a world beyond our ken.

The allegory goes something like this. Imagine a group of men who have been chained together inside a cave since they were born. They cannot see outside. Behind them is a large fire that casts light on the wall before them, and between them and the fire is a sort of puppet show. All the men know of the world is based on the moving shadows of the puppets they see on the wall before them. To relieve their boredom, the men play a game of trying to name the objects they see before them.

Plato’s point in all of this is that in our world we can only see shadows of the true reality of things. Put another way, we are limited to what we can know and understand based on the crude approximations of reality that we can see. We shouldn’t feel sorry for the men in the cave because that is essentially where we are too, at least according to Plato’s metaphysics.

Many people bemoan philosophy, saying it has no real-world application. Not so in this case, at least if you buy into my comparison.

We have a modern equivalent of Plato’s cave. It’s called the movie theater. Consider the similarities. We are in the dark, usually with others. Light from a source behind us is projected onto a wall before us. We see flickering images that purport to show us what the real world is like.

And many people think those images are true examples of what the world is like.

Jose Saramago wrote a novel called The Cave that takes a different but similarly jaundiced view of human society. In that novel, the world is moving, apparently irrevocably, toward complete commercial submission, even to the point of living within a giant shopping mall. Excavations to expand the mall uncover the original cave that Plato describes in his allegory, and the marketing applications of the discovery are about to be exploited as the story ends.

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One Comment on “Plato’s cave”

  1. Thomas Says:

    I would argue that most movies, at least the commercial films that we see at the multiplex, make absolutely no pretense whatsoever of being representative of reality. That’s part of why we go and see them.


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