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Core Curriculum: Expository Writing “The Prison of Perception”

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Core Curriculum: Expository Writing “The Prison of Perception”

The Prison of Perception

Perception is a fickle thing. It is inherently personal, unique to each individual. But it does not exist in a vacuum. Wrought through the blows of tragedy, the shackles of upbringing, and fires of joy; perception is malleable and dependent upon experience. And yet our entire existence is built upon this shaky foundation. It determines not only what we see, but how we see it. This problem is woven into the human experience and philosophers have explored and debated it for millennia. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, approached the issue of perception head-on in his seminal work, The Republic, with a famous allegory now known as “Plato’s Cave.” Plato’s understanding of human nature, though not infallible, was certainly profound. The allegory of the cave provides much-needed perspective and wisdom to our individualistic, self-centered society.

Book 7 of The Republic opens with a narrative between Socrates, Plato’s instructor, and his student Glaucon. To illustrate an important point, Socrates describes a remarkable cave. Facing the wall at the back of the cave, are a number of prisoners, bound from head to foot. They have been completely restrained for their entire lives, unable to move even their heads. Their entire world consists of the cave wall. Located on a ledge behind these prisoners is a fire. Between the prisoners and the fire, set slightly lower, is a wall. Puppeteers hide behind this wall, using the light of the fire to cast shadows of various objects upon the cave in front of the prisoners. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes they are silent. The echos from their voices bounce off the wall in front of the prisoners, who can only see the distorted shadows cast by the fire. Naturally, they assume that the sounds they hear come from the shadows. In fact, they perceive the shadows to be reality.

At this point in his description, Socrates presents several possible scenarios involving this strange circumstance. First, a man is freed from his bondage and turned toward the light. Plato concludes that he would be blinded, and feeling hurt, turn back toward the shadow-adorned wall to which he was accustomed. If, Socrates asserts, he were compelled to come out of the cave into the daylight, he would be even more repulsed. Slowly, however, his eyes would adjust until he could look straight at the sun itself. Then he would realize how miserable his former existence among the shadows had been, and love reality. However, were he to return to the cave, the dimness would make it difficult for him to see. Those still in bondage would assume his eyes had been ruined. Thus, the deception of those in the cave would be continue.

Although there is some debate surrounding this allegory, most scholars agree that it is an explanation of Plato’s “Theory of Forms.” Plato believed that each worldly example of virtue we see around us corresponds to the ideal virtue in its purest form. Or to put the concept in more concrete form – each table in the world is an imperfect replica of the ideal table. Taken to its full extent, this theory assumes that everything we see around us is merely a shadow of the true reality. And it is only by realizing this and ascending into the realm of the ideals that we can see the world in its true form. According to Plato, the study of philosophy is this pursuit.

While I don’t whole-heartedly embrace Plato’s theory of forms, it does portray two important and related truths. First, there exists a reality beyond the physical and immediate. Ultimate truth is real. And second, our ability to understand this reality is dependent upon our perception – our frame of reference.

These two truths are notably absent in western society today. Our post-modern culture is in love with shadows. Many deny the existence of reality beyond the physical. Society celebrates the individual, regardless of his or her actions. It lauds self-expression, regardless of implications. It champions perceived personal fulfillment while ignoring its eternal consequences. Over the last several centuries, modern thought and culture has progresses down a path toward relativism and individualism. Plato’s cave provides a much-needed message that everything is not as it seems. Reality exists independent of human recognition, and humanity must reckon with this reality beyond themselves.

Sadly, I too have been influenced by the constant barrage of post-modern ideas. Although I do overtly accept a relativistic view of the world, its presence in the air I breathe has influenced me. Nor do I denounce the metaphysical realm or the existence of ultimate truth. But atheistic ideas saturate my environment and can seep into my worldview almost imperceptibly. The allegory of the cave brought these issues to the forefront of my attention and unearthed two pertinent realities. It inspired me to look beyond the apparent issues to the root problems. No matter what the situation, a more thorough investigation produces superior conclusions. Truth is rarely discerned through emotions, and the answer is rarely on the surface. In addition, I realized how much I rely upon my own perception of events. This is inescapable. However, to find true meaning and fulfillment in life, I must learn to look beyond myself as much as possible. Self-absorption and a reliance on their own frame of reference caused the prisoners in Plato’s cave to settle for distorted replicas of truth. Unless I rely on the wisdom of others, I will fall prey to the same fate.

Plato’s allegory of the cave opened my eyes to the individualistic and relativistic tendencies of our post-modern society. Regrettably, I am no exception. Plato warned that relying on personal experience to ascertain reality creates lives of pure illusion. Through carefully constructed metaphor, he advocates the reality of ultimate truth and the uncertainty of humanity’s ability to grasp it. In this way, he proves an insightful critic of post-modern thought. Perception is indeed a fickle thing.

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