The most misunderstood things in life are often taken for granted because then it’s hard to see that something might be wrong. And that’s the whole idea of Plato’s famous Allegory, where chained prisoners sit in a cave and stare at the shadows on the wall, unable to move their heads. They can only see the wall with shadows caused by the source of light — fire, and objects cast by puppeteers. And they also hear an echo from behind the cave.
In the allegory, Plato tried to describe one crucial mistake we all seem to make to this day — confusing the symbols describing reality with reality:
Plato’s point: the general terms of our language are not “names” of the physical objects that we can see. They are actually names of things that we cannot see, things that we can only grasp with the mind.
In this way, for example, the word “water” is a sound that represents a certain liquid, but we can’t drink the word or use it in any other way. Or money and numbers represent wealth upon many agreements and systems we created but aren’t wealth itself, as fundamentally, money is just a paper or number — nothing useful. These symbols are like a menu and an actual meal. The menu represents a certain meal but isn’t the meal — it only describes it. The same goes for our ego — an idea we have of ourselves that represents who we are when we project it through our personality — the social mask. But the idea has little to do with us as living organisms — it’s only our description. The legendary British philosopher Alan Watts once summed it up this way:
For on the one hand there is the real world and on the other there is a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds. These are very very useful symbols, all civilization depends on them, but like all good things they have their disadvantages, and the principle disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality, just as we confuse money with actual wealth.”
And it brings us to the fundamental problem of what is reality. But the funny thing is that it’s impossible to describe it. And if we try, we’ll get lost in more symbols and ideas. Even the sole idea that the world is physical, spiritual, or mental is nothing more than an idea considering how we experience it. Isn’t neurology science describing that we don’t see the world as it is but create an image of it somewhere on the back of our heads? And in the same way, our eardrums create sounds — or rather, we create them? Then why are we so sure about the nature of the world when we only describe its symbols?
The only thing we can be really sure of is that there is inside and outside, going together as one — there can be no inside if there is no outside, and there can be no outside if there is no inside. In this way, we have the inner world — a voluntary system of the nerves, the psychological world, etc., and the outer world — everything outside or involuntary. And we experience some happenings in both worlds — thoughts, feelings, emotions, movement, or forms. Other than that, everything comes down to what a man we call wise, Socrates, said a long time ago:
“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”
It’s all we really “know,” and although it’s wise, how could we live with this attitude? The answer to the question: “If we should do anything in life” is obvious and positive to most people, but when we really think about it, we can find there is no necessity to do anything after we meet our basic needs. And I’m not writing about laziness, but the fact that life doesn’t have any particular meaning — it’s just a happening that we can interpret in infinite ways. Yet, these days we complicated this happening to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to understand and discover anything outside the system of symbols we created — an ancient Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, once wrote:
“The effect of life in society is to complicate and confuse our existence, making us forget who we really are by causing us to become obsessed with what we are not.”
And this way, we live in a world where the symbols describing reality are way more important than reality itself. Actually, these symbols are the reality for many, if not most people, because we are trained to see the world like this from childhood, and it’s generally easier to process. Also, it’s not an entirely bad thing — it lets us communicate and create this fantastic spectacle we call life with all the roles and rules.
The symbols of reality let us communicate, experience reality and fulfill various individual and collective desires. But the obvious problem is that it also makes us detached from reality. And what’s worse, we rarely point a different route in society — everyone needs to belong and play the game of comparing shadows on the wall and thus racing the race of life.
And here we are back to the problem described in Plato's Allegory —the only prisoner who freed himself and returned to the cave to reveal the truth failed because enlightenment blinded him in the cave. Thus the well-adjusted-to-darkness prisoners saw a man who couldn’t even return to his former place and couldn’t longer recognize the shadows on the wall. Therefore, they concluded that the same thing would happen to them if they ever left the cave. They were so afraid of it that they would rather kill the prisoner who left the cave than let him convince them to join him.
This story refers to Plato's master — Socrates, who tried to show people that they know nothing or that what they know is nothing but shadows — illusory names, not reality. But it didn’t give him praise from others but caused him to be accused, among other things, of corrupting youth, by questioning reality. And finally, after losing a democratic process, he was sentenced to death and died after drinking hemlock poison.
The problem has been the same since ancient times — people want convenient truths and don’t care about reality. But it escalates in autocratic systems that play with people's minds, feeding them with propaganda that creates a certain worldview. For example, isolated from the whole world North Korea feeds people with propaganda that they regularly win the Football World Cup, the Golden Medal at the Olympics and all this. They do it to strengthen the authority of their current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, and maintain total power.
There is a lot of propaganda even in democratic countries, but the rulers of authoritarian countries and their propaganda are like puppeteers in the Plato allegory who can show prisoners anything and describe its meaning by echos from behind. And that meaning doesn’t have to have anything to do with reality, which is extremely dangerous because these days, such puppeteers have more powerful tools than ever to influence other people’s minds and benefit from it.
The symbols of reality aren’t reality, though we have globally agreed on what is what to enhance our communication and somehow move in this mess. But when we start playing with these symbols to our benefit and disallow criticism or even questioning, especially Socratic Questioning, like authoritarian countries try to do, we might completely lose ourselves in a deluded world that has nothing to do with reality.
However, if we balance all the seriousness of the system of symbols with curiosity, philosophy, and spirituality, we may be okay remembering that all we’re doing is playing by mutual agreement of what is what and accepting the fact that we ultimately know nothing.