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.

Today

Today, as very few of you will I’m sure be aware (hey, I wasn’t until a few minutes ago) is World Mental Health Day. I have touched on my own personal experiences of mental health problems before, having spent the last few years suffering from depression, but I feel today is a suitably appropriate time to bring it up again, because this is an issue that, in the modern world, cannot be talked about enough.

Y’see, conservative estimates claim at least 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, be it a relatively temporary one such as post-natal depression or a lifelong battle with the likes of manic depressive disorder or schizophrenia. Mental health is also in the top five biggest killers in the developed world, through a mixture of suicide, drug usage, self-harming or self-negligence, and as such there is next to zero chance that you will go through your life without somebody you know very closely suffering or even dying as a result of what’s going on in their upstairs. If mental health disorders were a disease in the traditional sense, this would be labelled a red alert, emergency level pandemic.

However, despite the prevalence and danger associated with mental health, the majority of sufferers do so in silence. Some have argued that the two correlate due to the mindset of sufferers, but this claim does not change the fact 9 out of 10 people suffering from a mental health problem say that they feel a degree of social stigma and discrimination against their disability (and yes that description is appropriate; a damaged mind is surely just as debilitating, if not more so, than a damaged body), and this prevents them from coming out to their friends about their suffering.

The reason for this is an all too human one; we humans rely heavily, perhaps more so than any other species, on our sense of sight to formulate our mental picture of the world around us, from the obviously there to the unsaid subtext. We are, therefore, easily able to identify with and relate to physical injuries and obvious behaviours that suggest something is ‘broken’ with another’s body and general being, and that they are injured or disabled is clear to us. However, a mental problem is confined to the unseen recesses of our brain, hiding away from the physical world and making it hard for us to identify with as a problem. We may see people acting down a lot, hanging their head and giving other hints through their body language that something’s up, but everybody looks that way from time to time and it is generally considered a regrettable but normal part of being human. If we see someone acting like that every day, our sympathy for what we perceive as a short-term issue may often turn into annoyance that people aren’t resolving it, creating a sense that they are in the wrong for being so unhappy the whole time and not taking a positive outlook on life.

Then we must also consider the fact that mental health problems tend to place a lot of emphasis on the self, rather than one’s surroundings. With a physical disability, such as a broken leg, the source of our problems, and our worry, is centred on the physical world around us; how can I get up that flight of stairs, will I be able to keep up with everyone, what if I slip or get knocked over, and so on. However, when one suffers from depression, anxiety or whatever, the source of our worry is generally to do with our own personal failings or problems, and less on the world around us. We might continually beat ourselves up over the most microscopic of failings and tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, or be filled by an overbearing, unidentifiable sense of dread that we can only identify as emanating from within ourselves. Thus, when suffering from mental issues we tend to focus our attention inwards, creating a barrier between our suffering and the outside world and making it hard to break through the wall and let others know of our suffering.

All this creates an environment surrounding mental health that it is a subject not to be broached in general conversation, that it just doesn’t get talked about; not so much because it is a taboo of any kind but more due to a sense that it will not fit into the real world that well. This is even a problem in the environment of counselling  specifically designed to try and address such issues, as people are naturally reluctant to let it out or even to ‘give in’ and admit there is something wrong. Many people who take a break from counselling, me included, confident that we’ve come a long way towards solving our various issues, are for this reason resistive to the idea of going back if things take a turn for the worse again.

And it’s not as simple as making people go to counselling either, because quite frequently that’s not the answer. For some people, they go to the wrong place and find their counsellor is not good at relating to and helping them; others may need medication or some such rather than words to get them through the worst times, and for others counselling just plain doesn’t work. But this does not detract from the fact that no mental health condition in no person, however serious, is so bad as to be untreatable, and the best treatment I’ve ever found for my depression has been those moments when people are just nice to me, and make me feel like I belong.

This then, is the two-part message of today, of World Mental Health Day, and of every day and every person across the world; if you have a mental health problem, talk. Get it out there, let people know. Tell your friends, tell your family, find a therapist and tell them, but break the walls of your own mental imprisonment and let the message out. This is not something that should be forever bottled up inside us.

And for the rest of you, those of us who do not suffer or are not at the moment, your task is perhaps even more important; be there. Be prepared to hear that someone has a mental health problem, be ready to offer them support, a shoulder to lean on, but most importantly, just be a nice human being. Share a little love wherever and to whoever you can, and help to make the world a better place for every silent sufferer out there.