The philosopher Plato wrote a famous work called ‘The Republic’.
He wrote The Republic as a series of conversations, which often featured Plato’s famous teacher Socrates. Here is the translated text of the ‘Allegory of the Cave’:
An allegory is a story in which characters and events stand for real life situations.
‘Socrates begins by asking Glaucon (Plato’s brother) to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been imprisoned since childhood. These prisoners have been imprisoned in such a way that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at a wall in front of them, unable to move their heads. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway. Along this walkway is a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects “…including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials.”. In this way, the walking people are compared to puppeteers and the low wall to the screen over which puppeteers display their puppets. Since these walking people are behind the wall on the walkway, their bodies do not cast shadows on the wall faced by the prisoners, but the objects they carry do. The prisoners cannot see any of this behind them, being only able to view the shadows cast upon the wall in front of them. There are also echoes off the shadowed wall of sounds the people walking on the road sometimes make, which the prisoners falsely believe are caused by the shadows.’
Socrates suggests that, for the prisoners, the shadows of artifacts would constitute reality. They would not realize that what they see are shadows of the artifacts, which are themselves inspired by real humans and animals outside of the cave.
Here is a video version of the allegory:
This allegory can be usefully applied to postmodern ideas about the media:
- We are the prisoners
- The media is the fire and the puppeteers who cast shadows
- We think of the media as ‘reality’
- We will be free if we can see beyond and behind the illusion.
Or as Russell Brand suggests: ‘Look for the light source itself, don’t follow the shadows on the wall.‘ – in other words, look beyond the images and try and find the truth, whatever that is.
Here is a music video which exemplifies many of these ideas: