Hamas are creating their own caves (Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images)

February 7, 2024   6 mins

Some meditations on the human condition blaze with truth even after millennia. And perhaps none more so than Plato’s Cave. Plato assumes what was self-evident to both the simple and the wise from the beginning of civilisation until just yesterday: that reality is given, not humanly constructed, and that education is the process whereby we learn to participate in it. Human beings, he teaches, are by nature capable of ascending to the warm light of truth. Yet the vast majority languish in subterranean dungeons administered by sophisticates who despise the simple and think themselves wise, but are merely half-educated.

The Cave illuminates the peculiar bleakness of our post-Covid, post-October 7 existence. It reflects, as in a distant mirror, a society disordered and divided by ideologically charged, algorithmically enhanced insanity. And it anticipates the simulacrum of education that predominates in our schools and universities today, which has left whole generations incapable of distinguishing truth and goodness from evil and falsehood.

Plato imagines people chained to the bottom of a cavern with their backs to the opening. These prisoners are aware of little more than a play of shifting shadows on the rocky wall below, punctuated by occasional utterances. They don’t know that the shadow-play — the common societal story in which they have been immersed from birth — is a human fabrication, produced by hidden puppeteers manipulating figurines of animals and human beings in front of a fire that burns above and behind them. People watching a silent film in the earliest days of cinema allegedly took fright as a train rushed toward them on the screen. The prisoners are similarly unable to achieve any critical distance from the semblances projected on the cave wall, which they take to be the whole of reality.

The ignorance and isolation of this captive audience can hardly be overstated. Chained by their necks so that they cannot turn their heads, the prisoners have never seen a human face. They have no direct acquaintance with their neighbours, of whose very existence as individual human beings they are unaware. Whatever knowledge they may have of others is mediated by the shadows, from which words and sounds, echoing off the wall, seem to come.

This comprehensive mediation is just what the puppet-masters, separated from the prisoners by the low wall they hide behind, intend. These few, an oligarchic elite, compete for status, wealth and power — goods conferred only with the necessary but uncomprehending consent of the people, who must be kept in the dark so as not to rise up against their masters. This rigged game is won by ideological manipulation. All the categories through which the imprisoned multitude make sense of their experience must be ready-made; all that they take into their souls must be pre-digested. These categories are as flat, indefinite, and insubstantial as shadows, fitting images of the empty abstractions that today pass for serious ideas in the halls of power, the academy, and the media.

Today, we live in a postmodern Cave, which differs from earlier ones in important ways. In past Caves, the shadows at least affirmed a shared civic identity. In Sparta, they showed lean warriors nobly facing or shamefully fleeing danger, and cowards suffering extreme public shame. Today’s puppeteers also use fear and shame to maximum effect, but the shadow-play is predominantly critical — designed not to encourage like-mindedness among citizens, but to debunk past ideals and promote division and discord. For many Americans, not least those with university degrees, thinking about matters of common concern now involves little more than slapping labels such as “racist”, “sexist”, “classist”, “colonisers”, and “liberators” onto those who pass before them. These categories, in which relevant distinctions are eclipsed and individuals (to say nothing of whole peoples) are swallowed whole, have been worn out by many decades of use. In recent months, they have furnished the smoked lenses through which many who have no historical knowledge of Israel or Jews see the murders, gang-rapes, and mutilations of October 7, and perversely regard them as justifiable resistance against what they take to be Jewish tyranny.

Nor did earlier ages have digital technology and social media, which have fundamentally degraded social relations. For while all of the prisoners in Plato’s Cave watch the same shadow-play, its American successor has many dark corridors and cramped chambers in which isolated audiences are continually targeted with curated images and tendentious stories, algorithmically selected to maximise emotional appeal, partisan impact and profitability. These stories typically feature heroes and villains, in binary opposition to other dramas in other chambers — like Westerns in which the good guys and bad guys all swap hats. All these sub-caves are policed to ensure uniformity and correctness of content and to purge dissident voices, mostly by people who are no longer comfortable outside of their own chambers. Some, however, are state and corporate agents, and these monitor virtually all subterranean neighbourhoods. Here as elsewhere in the postmodern Cave, the line between prisoners and puppeteers is blurred.

The ideological compartmentalisation of the postmodern Cave, accelerated by Covid and the Great Resignation of recent years, has grave consequences for the health of the American polity. The residents of earlier Caves may have been similarly deluded, but at least they shared the same delusions. Their disputes referred to a common play of shadows that was accessible to all of them, and so provided a foundation, at least in principle, for shared deliberation about matters of common concern.

This is all but impossible today, when there is little agreement even about the most basic facts. The truth is nowhere to be found, while “my truth” is in every mouth, including that of the former president of Harvard — an institution whose now ironic motto is Veritas. Under these circumstances, it is impossible for Americans to recover a shared conception of the common good. Little wonder that so much of what cultural, political and corporate “thought leaders” say about hotly contested issues consists mostly of crude generalisations and imperatives tinged by recrimination and threat.

Instead, elite higher education equips one to succeed in the competition for the “honours, prizes, and praises” Plato says are bestowed on those best able to make out the shadows and predict their movements. This is as it has always been, except that students are now taught that the Cave is a closed system from which there is no exit because there is no transcendence, no abiding moral and spiritual measures to which the soul might attune itself in all times and places. Small-p politics pervades contemporary life simply because zero-sum relations of power are supposed to determine every significant dimension of human existence, including even the criteria of truth. With those in doubt, even mathematics — ta mathemata in Greek, “the learnable things” — must be condemned as an instrument of oppression.

The result is that postmodern Cave-dwellers know their fellow citizens mostly as caricatures, and themselves very little. They know nothing of the transcendent truth above them. They have the vaguest notions of the past, the soil from which they have sprung. And it is not just the force of habit that holds them motionless in their part of the gloomy pit. It is also the natural longing to find meaning in actual human community, a desire that grows stronger the more it is frustrated by artificial substitutes like social media “friends”.

Genuine education, by contrast, breaks open the postmodern Cave, which would otherwise remain hermetically sealed. It turns the soul around to face up towards the sun, Plato’s image of the source of light and life that he calls the Good. It unfolds in the face-to-face relationship of teacher and student. Imagine what it is like for a prisoner to be compelled to rise and turn around. The first thing he sees is the face of a human being looking into his eyes and speaking directly and immediately to him. He learns that he can stand on his own two feet, and he is told that he must walk on them as well. Shown the puppets and the fire, he is asked what these things are. All of this is utterly new and confusing. He has never been treated as an intelligent, responsible agent — a human self.

We are told that the prisoner’s eyes hurt when he is compelled to look at the firelight. This initial, negative stage of education involves a painful loss of certainty and an assumption of personal responsibility that can be terrifying to the point of nausea. Little wonder that the prisoner, distressed and annoyed, will not go voluntarily into the light, but must be dragged along the “rough, steep, upward way”, Yet it is through this process that he begins to discover that he is a being with independent agency and judgment, because he is for the first time being treated as one. His conversion is in this fundamental sense ethical before it is intellectual, and it can be caused only by one who, having already undergone conversion, has become aware of an overriding obligation to come to the aid of others.

Outside the Cave, the released prisoner becomes attuned to the natural rhythm of the seasons and the years, and is warmed by the sunlike Good. If recalling his first home fills him with pity, it is because he has for the first time experienced the delight and fulfilment that comes through contact with what is most real, compared with the worthless honours and prizes of the Cave. Inwardly impelled to return to the underground in the hope of releasing others, he is met with mockery and said to have suffered corruption of his eyes, an accusation that implies he will damage others’ vision if left unchecked. Similarly, those who vigorously reject the combination of dogmatic ideology and relativism that have taken hold across American institutions must expect to be called enemies of “our democracy”.

For Plato, all this inspires the Cave’s “perpetual prisoners” to attempt to kill the would-be liberator. Perhaps they claim that his eyes are corrupted not so much because he sees poorly in the dark, but because he sees them well enough, and they cannot bear the rebuke implicit in his gaze. This, at any rate, explains why our governing elite take pains to slander those who reject illiberal indoctrination, and to place the greatest obstacles in their paths. They rightly fear that the restoration of real education would spoil their grand societal grift.

Jacob Howland is Provost and Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX, commonly known as the University of Austin. His latest book is Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic (Paul Dry Books, 2018).