Are you imprisoned in Plato’s cave?

For the past 6 months I have been tutoring an A-level student in religious studies  (focusing on philosophy and ethics). This course seeks to give an introduction to the fundamentals of religious and moral philosophy, in the latter case considering applications of ethical theories to real world dilemmas such as in medical ethics, war and peace and environmental issues. My tutee had her AS-level philosophy exam last week, and during revision classes we discussed some interesting connections between a concept in classical philosophy and a variety of issues in the world of today. Some of these connections I feel are rather poignant for modern society and the environmental movement.

No introductory course in philosophy would be complete without discussing Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. While Plato originally intended the story to provide an analogy describing how closed many people’s minds were to (his version of) greater philosophical truth, there have been many alternative interpretations.* A notable one in recent years is the Wachowski Brothers’ (now the Wachowski Sisters‘) 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, in which the material world as we understand it is in fact just a highly elaborate computer simulation whose purpose is to keep our minds constantly busy whilst armies of machines harvest our biological energy to fuel their war on the real version of humanity.


The allegory

Plato dreamt up his cave allegory in his book The Republic, which arguably paved the way for much of what we now know as modern Western society. The rather twisted setup of the story involves a small group of life-long prisoners, imprisoned in a mountainside cave. These prisoners have been shackled down by their limbs and neck for their entire existence, with their only experience of the world being that which is projected onto the wall of the cave in front of them by puppeteers (whose motives are highly questionable), using a fire burning behind their backs.  Plato said the prisoners’ most prized hobby is to name the shadow images which pass by on the wall. They do this without knowing that the horse which they name is in fact a rather low-order approximation to a real horse.


One day, a single prisoner is let free from his shackles. Turning around, his darkness-adjusted eyes are blinded by the light of the fire which had been the origin of all things he had seen, and he stumbles through the mouth of the cave and outdoors. Upon reaching the mouth of the cave, the escapee is again blinded by the light of the sun, realising his entire life has been a lie – that there was so much more to existence than he could have ever dreamed previously.

Plato speculates as to what the further movements of the prisoner might be, but the most important point is that the prisoner feels compelled to return to his former inmates in order to tell them just what they are missing. Upon returning to the dark cave, the others think him mad and do not believe a word he says. How on earth could there be anything else in the world, when they have everything they could ever want or need? Besides, the first prisoner’s skill in naming the shadow puppets has by this point been drastically reduced, his eyes again needing to readjust to the darkness. Plato goes further: the prisoners say that, if they were able, they would kill their old companion, for his ridiculous claims.

There are, by construction, plenty of parallels here with the narrative of The Matrix. Keanu Reeves’ character Neo, the chosen one, is the prisoner who escapes from the bonds which he hadn’t even realise he was wearing. Through Morphius’ guidance, he learns what existence truly is. Along with his new companions, Neo aims to free all those humans who have been captured and brainwashed into this grand computer simulation. As in Plato’s tale, anyone brave enough to fight against the matrix will be met with much resistance and likely be killed. However, in this case the aggressors will not be former inmates, but rather, agents of the matrix – for the cave analogy, the puppeteers.


Plugged into the matrix

Another allegory is very much closer to home, and yet still shares the same essence of the matrix analogy, in that it centres around a so-called virtual reality. As I discussed in a previous piece, smartphones now form an intrinsic part of many, many people’s daily existence. Some estimates claim the average US citizen spends a shocking 5 hours staring at the screens of mobile devices every day. Even if such estimates are exaggerated, it is clear that an enormous chunk of the average person’s day is spent on apps and websites, almost none of which even existed at the turn of the millennium.

Both the prisoner who spends their existence staring at shadows and the technology user who spends their time looking at a screen are trading off their three dimensional existence for a two dimensional one, giving this particular analogy a special relevance. The difference here is that the former does not realise they have actually made a trade, while the smartphone user becomes willingly imprisoned.


Recent work has been done looking into the impacts of the five major social media on mental health. Youtube was the only medium to come out of this analysis as having a positive effect, while Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter were held to have an overall detrimental impact on their users’ mental health. In some cases, survey respondents reported these media as linked to anxiety, loneliness and a lack of self-confidence. There is mounting evidence to suggest that spending one’s time on social media is unhealthy, but the user is drawn back again and again, often implicitly, by the associated dopamine hit, deeply ingrained habits and that particularly 21st century phenomenon fear of missing out.

The aspect of being ‘blinded by the light’ is certainly applicable, with those who give up their technological burdens reporting their deep sense of relief. However the aggression element of Plato’s cave allegory is probably not so present here, with there being general feelings of agreement toward anyone who speaks out about the evils of social media. However, when a person quits using (or never owned) a mobile phone or laptop, the response from others will often be a comment on how annoying it will be to try and get hold of them, or a question about how they will manage under such old fashioned pretences.


Born into ignorance

If you were wondering why this post is included in a blog which focuses on positive approaches to tackling the problems posed by climate change, the following shows where the relevance lies.

Emitting carbon dioxide is not something we can opt out of. By the very fact of our existence, we are polluters of the Earth’s atmosphere, breathing in oxygen and breathing out this greenhouse gas. In addition, we are (mostly) born into societies which are driven by fossil fuels. As I have previously argued, we still haven’t found any means of electricity generation, mass agriculture or transportation which are completely independent of fossil fuel usage, even if some approaches need them far less than others. In a world where long-distance travel, 24 hour lighting and instant communication form a ubiquitous part of daily life, it is almost unavoidable to inherit a large carbon footprint just by going about in the world. To see this for yourself, I would highly recommend calculating your carbon footprint using the helpful quiz provided by the One Planet Living initiative.

Many, many people are, of course, aware of the fact of their polluting. The (mainly psychological) issue lies in the corresponding ‘disconnect’, which I have mentioned in the past. Beyond awareness is, rather than the philosophical enlightenment Plato eludes to, a distinct change in lifestyle. Your carbon emission can be vastly reduced by a collection of small changes to everyday life, such as cycling rather than driving, changing electricity provider, eating less meat, generating less waste and turning electrical devices off when you’re not using them. These steps, taken separately, provide no enormous disruption to your daily routines. Taken together, they pave the path towards a less carbon-intensive lifestyle.

On the face of it, you may think the aggression part of the allegory does not appear here, since it isn’t often you hear of anyone killing someone for their attitudes towards environmental issues. This may be the case, but aggression is certainly present in the face of environmentalists. Consider the small group of fracking protesters who stood up against the government overturning its banning in their home county of Lancashire. One a day in January, this commendable group’s peaceful outcry at a Cuadrilla site was met with physical aggression by construction workers, who pushed them into a road using fencing.


The aspect of oppression is also present, with many governments being well aware of their large carbon footprints, and yet doing very little to cut their emissions, at the expense of worse-off people both abroad and at home, both in present and future. Further, renewables schemes and green incentives are scrapped by those in power bowing to the almighty Pound, with former UK Prime Minister David Cameron scrapping a programme giving homeowners renewables incentives just days after signing the COP21 international agreement in Paris. In today’s London, renowned educational establishments such as the British Library and Natural History Museum regularly have exhibitions which are sponsored by fossil fuel giants. I was particularly shocked when the Science Museum put on its Wonderlab exhibition, which sought to teach children about the science of climate change (amongst other things) and yet drew its funding from the Norwegian company Statoil.

Perhaps the connection to Plato’s cave is not as immediately clear as in the case of The Matrix, since most of us are at least partially aware of the damage we are inflicting upon the planet. However, consider the case of pushing climate change combatting lifestyle changes to the extreme. It is certainly the case that if you give up eating animal products completely, stop flying in planes and don’t generate any disposable waste at all, you will receive plenty of resistance from people around you; expect to be labelled as being ‘ridiculous’ or ‘idealist’.

Upon giving up flying, you will undoubtedly hear comments such as ‘if you don’t book that seat then the plane will still fly anyway’. Upon quitting meat, you will surely hear ‘if you stop eating meat then this won’t stop any pigs, cows or chickens being killed’. Upon going zero waste you will hear ‘There is still waste involved in the production of those so-called waste-free products you are consuming’.

Of course the world isn’t going to stop turning because one person stands up and says it isn’t right – no one ever expected it would and that is not the point. Environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have attempted many times to try and arrange for action on climate change to come about from the top down, for governments to change their electricity generation methods, cap their emissions and encourage more environmentally friendly lifestyles. Sadly, little effect progress has been made in this direction, with many environmental policies being expensive, sub-optimal and unattractive. Consider, for example, the attitude of UKIP’s Paul Nuttall towards green levies and environmental regulations: the country would be more prosperous without them. In a free market capitalist system, the state being willing to impose any sort of environmental regulations on businesses or citizens seems unlikely.**

Considering the failure of most attempts at top-down action on climate change, it is increasingly apparent that solutions to the climate crisis must have grassroots, bottom-up origins. Bottom-up environmentalism means lifestyle change and coordination of local groups and organisations. It means fundraising events, outreach activities and general word-spreading. The hope is that eventually top-down action will become a necessary response to mass public demand, but for now my personal belief is that the best bet on tackling climate change is to do everything within your own power to reduce your emissions and encourage others to join you in doing so.

There is a way out of climate oppression by the so-called elite class. You may have heard some refer to it using the words revolution or rebellion. The first step? Unplug yourself from the matrix.


Notes and references

* : As well as those mentioned and discussed here, there are some other awakenings to which Plato’s famous story could be applied. Firstly, in modern day North Korea, learning of the ‘outside world’ and speaking of this to fellow citizens is considered utmost treason. An application which is relevant to the RS course I am tutoring is, for Christians, the transfiguration of Jesus, following which his disciples were labelled as mad for their ‘seeing the light’ and their dedication of their lives to Jesus. Further, Simon Amstell’s mockumentary Carnage hints at non-veganism (also known as carnism) as a Platonic cave imprisonment.

**: Having said that, the UK seems to be heading away from the small state associated with free market capitalism. Both the Conservative and Labour Party manifestos are much more communitarian than the politics of the past couple of decades, both making a clean break from Tony Blair’s neoliberalism. This is not to say, however, that either party is planning to make real efforts to protect the environment.

[Images: headercave, matrix, fracking]

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