I was recently rereading some of my favorite philosophical literature. Anyone who does this will undeniably recognize just how persistently relevant these ideas are. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, though. On one hand, we can find solace in knowing that current political disagreements are not unique to the present, but have endured throughout history. On the other hand, one can’t help but to think that, by this time, we would have learned the lessons of history and relegated poor ideas to the past. Perhaps this is a naive intuition.
When I was rereading book VII of Plato’s Republic, I was both amazed and distraught at how easily one can find modern day equivalents. Plato’s analogy of the cave in book VII is an ancient work whose parallel features, while not entirely conforming to the analogies made by Plato, nevertheless imposed themselves on me, only with modern day manifestations.
The Allegory of the Cave
Plato’s analogy of the cave describes three prisoners who have been chained inside a cave, always and only facing its inner wall. Whenever a person or object moves along the opening of the cave, a shadow is cast on the inner wall of the cave where the prisoners face. Since the prisoners haven’t received any exposure to the world outside of the cave, their conception of what is real and what is not is confined to their experiences inside the cave. Because the prisoners have only experienced shadows, their belief is that the shadows themselves are true objects of reality. Their ignorance stems from lack of exposure to the real world.
One day, one of the prisoners is somehow freed from his confinement and leaves the cave. The prisoner was initially blinded by the sunlight, making it hard for him to see the objects of the outside world. He was disoriented and uncomfortable. When he was told the objects outside the cave he was seeing are real, and the shadows he experienced in the cave were mere projections, he was in disbelief. One day, he stares into his own reflection in the water and it dawns on him that everything he previously experienced inside the cave was, in fact, mere projection. The prisoner — eager to tell the other prisoners about his experience — makes his way back to the cave where the other prisoners remain confined. When he informs the other prisoners that the shadows are only a projection of what is real, they don’t believe him. They think that leaving the cave caused him to go insane. They scold him, ridicule him, and violently resist any attempts to be freed or informed about the world outside the cave.
In making this analogy, Plato wanted to describe what it was like to be a philosopher — to be someone who was an enlightened individual among others who have only experienced projections of the real world, as opposed to the real world itself. The allegory is used for several other purposes, including arguing in favor of Plato’s theory of the forms, and the fallibility of our senses.
After rereading this, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the cave, modern day universities, and social media. The cave, social media, and the university (specifically the liberal arts and social sciences) are (or at least have become) mere projections of the world outside of those entities. Those immersed in these faculties and those on social media are constantly exposed to projections of the outside world. Eventually, after constant reinforcement, the projections become their conception of what is real. Any attempt by those who have experienced the outside world to inform those exposed only to projections are often met with resistance and disbelief.
The allegory is also remarkably analogous to the defiance that conservative speakers are met with on college campuses. It’s less so that the conservatives are the freed prisoner as it is that the protestors are the prisoners who refuse exposure to the real world.
Why not leave the cave? After all, it’s not like those in it are confined like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory. The truth is, people don’t leave the cave because it’s comfortable and easy to stay in it. It’s easy to believe in projections and it’s easy to assign malicious motives to those being projected. They grow accustomed to it, and they don’t want to accept that much of what they are taught is more projection than reality. They are deceived, either intentionally or not. The consequence is a hostile and divided social and political climate.
Is this a problem unique to leftists? Surely not. Many conservatives have the same issue. I am not saying that conservatives are the philosophers that Plato described, or that they are the ones who have enlightened views of the actual world we live in. In fact, it’s my belief that there is a massive groupthink and confirmation bias problem on the right. But ask yourselves this: Which side of the political aisle is meeting opposing viewpoints with violent resistance? Is it campus conservatives or is it campus leftists?
Well, for one, you don’t see conservatives protesting leftist speakers on campus. That is almost strictly a leftist phenomenon. More fundamentally, though, this is an issue that is both instigated and perpetuated by universities and social media algorithms. It happens to be the case that universities are overwhelmingly leftist, and so are those who control the social media websites. By consequence, those who comfortably conform to the agenda of universities and social media are also the ones who are resisting their disruption.
If you went to a random conservative and a random leftist and asked both to lend full credence to the opposing person’s viewpoint, which one would be more likely to succeed? Would it be the conservative, who has been to university, is on social media, and is constantly immersed in a progressive agenda, yet rejects it? Or would it be the leftist, who could only access the ideas of conservatism if they sought it out of volition?
Follow Josh Eisen on Twitter