Plato’s Cave

Everyone’s heard of Plato, to some extent anyway; ‘Greek bloke, lived quite a while ago, had a beard’ is probably the limit of what could be considered universal knowledge. This he most certainly was, but what made him famous was his work, for Plato was taught by Socrates and was one of the finest philosophers and thinkers to grace human history. His greatest work was ‘The Republic’, a ten book piece exploring the nature of justice and government through a series of imagined conversations, hypothetical situations, metaphors and allegories.  One of these allegories has become especially linked to Plato’s name, which is somewhat surprising given how little the actual allegory is known to the world in general, so I thought I might explore it today; the allegory of the cave.

Plato believed in a separate level of reality, more fundamental than the physical world we encounter and interact with using our body and senses, that he called The Forms. To summarise briefly, a Form is the philosophical essence of an object; in the real world, a shelf is three bits of wood and some nails all joined together, but the Form of this is the ability to store some books within easy reach, for example.  Without the essence of shelf-ness, the shelf literally is nothing more than some wood, and ceases to be a shelf on a fundamental level any more. Similarly, when we turn a piece of plastic into a toy, we have fundamentally changed the Form of that plastic, even though the material is exactly the same.

Plato based most of his philosophical work around his Theory of Forms, and took the concept to great extremes; to him, the sole objective scale against which to measure intelligence was one’s ability to grasp the concept of the Form of something, and he also held that understanding the Form of a situation was the key to its correct management. However, he found his opinions on Forms hard to communicate to many people (and it can’t have helped that he was born to a rich family, where he was given plenty of opportunity to be intelligent, whilst many of the poor were uneducated), and some considered him to be talking rubbish, and so he came up with the allegory of the cave to explain what he was on about.

Imagine a large group of prisoners, chained to the wall of a cave for some unspecified reason. They are fixed in position, unable to move at all, and their necks are also fixed in position so they cannot look around. Worst of all, however, they have absolutely no memory of the world or how anything in it works; in many ways, their minds are like that of a newborn toddler trying to grasp the concept of the world around him. Everything they are to know must be learnt from experience and experimentation. But in front of them, they can see nothing but bare rock.

However, there are a few features of this cave that make it interesting. It is very deep and comprises multiple levels, with the prisoners at the bottom. On the level above the prisoners, and directly behind them, is an enormous fire, stoked and fed day and night (although being at the bottom of a cave, the prisoners don’t have any concept of day and night), brightly illuminating the wall that the prisoner’s see. Also on the level above, but in front of the fire, is a walkway, across which people walk along with their children, animals and whatever items they happen to be carrying. As they cross in front of the fire, their shadows are cast onto the wall the prisoners can see, and the sounds they make echo down to the prisoners too. Over time (and we’re presuming years here) the prisoners get used to the shadows they see on the wall in front of them; they learn to recognise the minute details of the shadows, to differentiate and identify them. They learn to call one figure a man, another a woman, and call others cat, dog, box, pot or whatever. They learn that sometimes it gets cold, and then hot again some time later, before reverting back to cold (thanks to the seasons). And then, they begin to make connections between the echoes they hear and the shadows. They learn that man shadows and woman shadows talk differently from one another and from dog shadows, and that basket shadows make hardly any noise.

Now remember, we’re presuming here that the prisoners have no memory/knowledge of the ‘real world’, so the shadows become, to them, a reality. They think it is the shadows of a dog that make the barking sound, and that when the shadow of a clay pot is dropped and breaks, then it is the shadow that has broken. Winter and summer are not caused by anything, they merely happen. What is to us merely an image of reality becomes their reality.

Now, Plato has us imagine we take one of our prisoners away; free him, show him the real world. As he says, if we suppose “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real?” Wouldn’t he be simultaneously amazed and terrified by the world he found around him, to see a fully-fledged person causing the shadow he had once thought of as a fundamental reality? Perhaps he would be totally unable to even see, much less comprehend, this strange, horrifying new world, unable to recognise it as real.

However, humans are nothing if not adaptable creatures, and after some time ‘up top’ our freed prisoner would surely grow accustomed to his surroundings. He would see a person, rather than their shadow, think of putting something in a box, rather than seeing a black square on a wall, and would eventually feel confident enough to venture out of the cave, look at and comprehend the sun, and eventually even recognise it as “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing”. (Plato often used the sun as a metaphor for enlightenment or illumination from knowledge, so here it represents the prisoner’s final understanding of the nature of reality).

Now, our prisoner could be said to be educated in the ways of the world, and after a time he would surely think back to those long days he spent chained to that wall. He would think of his fellow prisoners, how piteous their lives and their recognition of reality was when compared to him, and how much he could teach them to aid their understanding and make them happier. “And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honours, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which?”. So, Plato has our man return to his cave, to his old spot, and try to teach his fellow prisoners what reality really is.

And it is here where Plato’s analogy gets really interesting; for, rather than accepting this knowledge, the fellow prisoners would be far more likely to reject them. What are these colour things? What do you mean, stuff goes ‘inside’ other things- there are only two dimensions. What is this big fiery ball in this ‘sky’ thing? And, after all, why should they listen to him; after so long away, he’s going to be pretty bad at the whole ‘guessing what each shadow is’ business, so they would probably think him stupid; insane, even, going on about all these concepts that are, to the prisoners, quite obviously not real. He would be unable to educate them without showing them what he means, because he can’t express his thought in terms of the shadows they see in front of them. If anything, his presence would only scare them, convince them that this strange ‘other world’ he talks about is but a feat of madness causing one’s eyes to become corrupted, scaring them away from attempting to access anything beyond their limited view of ‘shadow-reality’. As Plato says, “if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?”

To Plato, the world of his Forms was akin to the real world; true, enlightened, the root cause of the physical reality we see and encounter. And the real, material world; that was the shadows, mere imprints of The Forms that we experienced as physical phenomena. We as people have the ability to, unlike the prisoners, elevate ourselves beyond the physical world and try to understand the philosophical world, the level of reality where we can comprehend what causes things, what things mean, what their consequences are; where we can explore with an analytical mind and understand our world better on a fundamental level. Or, we can choose not to, and stay looking at shadows and dismissing those willing to think higher.

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Other Politicky Stuff

OK, I know I talked about politics last time, and no I don’t want to start another series on this, but I actually found when writing my last post that I got very rapidly sidetracked when I tried to use voter turnout as a way of demonstrating the fact that everyone hates their politicians, and I thought I might dedicate a post to this particular train of thought as well.

You see, across the world, but predominantly in the developed west where the right to choose our leaders has been around for ages, less and less people are turning out each time to vote.  By way of an example, Ronald Reagan famously won a ‘landslide’ victory when coming to power in 1980- but only actually attracted the vote of 29% of all eligible voters. In some countries, such as Australia, voting is mandatory, but thoughts about introducing such a system elsewhere have frequently met with opposition and claims that it goes against people’s democratic right to abstain from doing so (this argument is largely rubbish, but no time for that now).

A lot of reasons have been suggested for this trend, among them a sense of political apathy, laziness, and the idea that we having the right to choose our leaders for so long has meant we no longer find such an idea special or worth exercising. For example, the presidential election in Venezuela – a country that underwent something of a political revolution just over a decade ago and has a history of military dictatorships, corruption and general political chaos – a little while ago saw a voter turnout of nearly 90% (incumbent president Hugo Chavez winning with 54% of the vote to win his fourth term of office in case you were interested) making Reagan look boring by comparison.

However, another, more interesting (hence why I’m talking about it) argument has also been proposed, and one that makes an awful lot of sense. In Britain there are 3 major parties competing for every seat, and perhaps 1 or two others who may be standing in your local area. In the USA, your choice is pretty limited to either Obama or Romney, especially if you’re trying to avoid the ire of the rabidly aggressive ‘NO VOTE IS A VOTE FOR ROMNEY AND HITLER AND SLAUGHTERING KITTENS’ brigade. Basically, the point is that your choice of who to vote for is limited to usually less than 5 people, and given the number of different issues they have views on that mean something to you the chance of any one of them following your precise political philosophy is pretty close to zero.

This has wide reaching implications extending to every corner of democracy, and is indicative of one simple fact; that when the US Declaration of Independence was first drafted some 250 years ago and the founding fathers drew up what would become the template for modern democracy, it was not designed for a state, or indeed a world, as big and multifaceted as ours. That template was founded on the basis of the idea that one vote was all that was needed to keep a government in line and following the will of the masses, but in our modern society (and quite possibly also in the one they were designing for) that is simply not the case. Once in power, a government can do almost what it likes (I said ALMOST) and still be confident that they will get a significant proportion of the country voting for them; not only that, but that their unpopular decisions can often be ‘balanced out’ by more popular, mass-appeal ones, rather than their every decision being the direct will of the people.

One solution would be to have a system more akin to Greek democracy, where every issue is answered by referendum which the government must obey. However, this presents just as many problems as it answers; referendums are very expensive and time-consuming to set up and perform, and if they became commonplace it could further enhance the existing issue of voter apathy. Only the most actively political would vote in every one, returning the real power to the hands of a relative few who, unlike previously, haven’t been voted in. However, perhaps the most pressing issue with this solution is that it rather renders the role of MPs, representatives, senators and even Prime Ministers & Presidents rather pointless. What is the point of our society choosing those who really care about the good of their country, have worked hard to slowly rise up the ranks and giving them a chance to determine how their country is governed, if we are merely going to reduce their role to ones of administrators and form fillers? Despite the problems I mentioned last time out, of all the people we’ve got to choose from politicians are probably the best people to have governing us (or at least the most reliably OK, even if it’s simply because we picked them).

Plus, politics is a tough business, and what is the will of the people is not necessarily always what’s best for the country as a whole. Take Greece at the moment; massive protests are (or at least were; I know everyone’s still pissed off about it) underway due to the austerity measures imposed by the government, because of the crippling economic suffering that is sure to result. However, the politicians know that such measures are necessary and are refusing to budge on the issue- desperate times call for difficult decisions (OK, I know there were elections that almost entirely centred on this decision that sided with austerity, but shush- you’re ruining my argument). To pick another example, President Obama (and several Democrat candidates before him) have met with huge opposition to the idea of introducing a US national healthcare system, basically because Americans hate taxes. Nonetheless, this is something he believes very strongly in, and has finally managed to get through congress; if he wins the elections later this year, we’ll see how well he executes.

In short, then, there are far too many issues, too many boxes to balance and ideas to question, for all protesting in a democratic society to take place at the ballot box. Is there a better solution to waving placards in the street and sending strongly worded letters? Do those methods at all work? In all honesty, I don’t know- that whole internet petitions get debated in parliament thing the British government recently imported from Switzerland is a nice idea, but, just like more traditional forms of protest, gives those in power no genuine categorical imperative to change anything. If I had a solution, I’d probably be running for government myself (which is one option that definitely works- just don’t all try it at once), but as it is I am nothing more than an idle commentator thinking about an imperfect system.

Yeah, I struggle for conclusions sometimes.

Adieu, 2011…

Well, this looks set to be my last post of 2011, so before anyone makes the annual decision that the best way to greet the new year is to go and get paralytically drunk and loudly forget the words to Auld Lang Syne, I thought I might take a look back over the year (as an fyi, it’s just “For Auuuld Laang Syne” rather than “For the sake of Auld Lang Syne”- since Auld Lang Syne translates as Old Times’ Sake, the latter doesn’t really make sense). However, just about every TV channel and newspaper will be doing roughly the same thing whilst sitting behind desks wearing serious expressions and posh suits and complaining about Charlie Sheen and Syria, and if you wanted that kind of analysis the you probably wouldn’t be here. So instead, here is the world’s 2011 round robin letter*:

Hello all!

Well, what a year it has been! Our big happy family has got that bit bigger and happier and a few of the little ones have grown up really amazingly. The bigger ones have been having a few problems, but they should be old enough to sort out their own problems,
In JANUARY, our little Arabian adoptees started teething, and I must admit it was a difficult time for us all. Luckily our darling Tunisia went through her phase quickly, and her brother Egypt followed soon after in FEBRUARY- now they’ve cut their new Democracy teeth I think it will be easier for us all. Little Libya took a while longer to follow her siblings, but we saw the doctor about it and he identified a Gaddafi that was causing a major blockage. Unfortunately, two of the other boys, Bahrain and Syria, have had less luck- the doctor doesn’t think he should remove a similar blockage that’s afflicting Syria, but it’s a terrible burden for her and she’s been halfway for almost a year- I may seek a second opinion in 2012. In MARCH our daughters New Zealand and Japan both encountered some difficulties while at university; New Zealand struggled to get over the near-loss of her friend Christchurch, currently recovering from a nasty case of Earthquake, but when Japan found out she too had been afflicted she had to appeal to the family for support. The illness unfortunately lead to her losing her job at the nuclear power plant, which for a while looked as though it could turn into a catastrophic legal meltdown, and it may be a while before she can find a replacement post. Still, both are recovering nicely from their ideals- we breed ’em strong here! Big news for Great Britain in APRIL, as her eldest son William got  married! The whole family (well, about a third of everyone at least) turned out to watch it, and it was a lovely ceremony- they are now the darlings of the family! MAY, and America finally began to get over his feud with little brother Afghanistan. The rumours are that the whole business was somewhat orchestrated by one of Afgha’s friends (Osoma or something like that), but he moved away around this time- some say America may have even had a hand in this?! Can you believe some people?! It was Europe’s children (am I glad I left that man!) who had problems to deal with in JUNE- after the initial success of their family money sharing plan, they discovered that Greece was having some problems paying back his debts, and after they agreed to help both him and brother Portugal out, the pot was running dangerously low, especially after that incident with Ireland last year (that girl and her cheese…)- hopefully they can start getting things back on track soon, and maybe even get Britain back into the fold! JULY was a joyous month for our family, as we welcomed another little one into our lives. He was baptised South-Sudan (he looks so like his older brother that we had to link their names, although they don’t seem to get along for some reason), and we look forward to him growing up in the coming months and years. We got some more peace in AUGUST as Libya had her first Gaddafi operation and we began to see her first smiles and less teething tears- here’s hoping the other boys soon follow! SEPTEMBER was a quite month for most of us, but OCTOBER was far more exciting- not only was Libya’s Gaddafi finally got rid of, but ‘the Eurozone’ (as we like to call them- catchy, we think!) finally got their financial affairs in order, Spain finally had an operation to pacify her ETA (Expanded Tumour, Abdominal for those who don’t know!) after all the pain it’s caused her over the years. NOVEMBER and DECEMBER proved quite quiet and relaxing, perhaps to make up for all the excitement- even Christmas was quieter than usual! The only major family even being America finally making it up with Iraq- here’s hoping they stay close throughout the New Year and beyond. Happy New Year to all of you, I hope it treats you well
Yours,

Planet Earth

*I do not advocate the sending of real round robin letters, as they are a scourge on humanity and serve only to light fires. Please can anyone reading this who sends them regularly please go and find a bucket of hyena offal to hang upside down in. Other than that, I wish you a happy new year