Plato’s Cave Two important lessons for our society
Plato’s cave is typically familiar to three types of people: those with keen interest in philosophy, multi-discipline self-readers and readers of political philosophy. The story is typically but rightly pigeonholed as an allegory because it is fictitious and a thought-provoking experiment for those who wish to minimize the harms of their mind and body to others. But it is many a time unjustifiably sidelined as a story better suited to dust-buried books because its practical message is not immediately comprehended by unreflective readers. And in this way, in an age of instant understanding productivity, valuable thoughts get marginalized because they fail to resonate with the expeditious spectacles of readers. However, they alone are not to be blamed for this obscurity because even those with the responsibility to explain this are frequently unclear about its true lessons. The net effect of this dual damage is disinterest and discomfort with the idea as beautiful and valuable as Plato’s cave.
Plato’s Cave allegory is the sketch of a cave, inside which there are a handful of captives. They are all tied in chains with faces positioned to a shadowed wall. Adding insult to the injury, they, because of their physical immobility, had a firm belief that the objects cast on the wall are the only reality of the cave. This obviously is a mistaken belief because the wall-mounted shadow is the corollary of objects placed before a fire/light at a distance from them. Luckily, however, one of the captives gets unchained, sees the fire/light and runs off from the open cave. And the narrative comes to an end.
On the factual lens, the story is straight and simple and no more than a tedious work. But on a deeper lens, there are two ways it can be un-encrypted. On the one hand, it is a tug of war between collectivism and individualism. On the other, it is a tale of responsibility of the freed, runaway privileged person. The former relates to the idea John Stuart Mill, in his groundwork “On Liberty” (1859) warns us against, that is, ‘the tyranny of the majority’. This is an aggressive trap of the majority in which the minority camp is often kept tangled. Taking an example will bring the idea home. Imagine that you live in a community that has the practice/custom of establishing guilt by ordeal, which is to find out the guilt or innocence of a person by making them suffer; if they survive the suffering, they are innocent, and if they don’t, they are guilty. Now if you think that this is a terrible, hideous or obnoxious way of establishing offence and suggest that there be other ways to know the same, then you guys are loners who have to stand up against a mass. This obviously is no less than an Achilles’ heel because as HLA Hart in his seminal book “The Concept of Law” (1961) agreeably admitted that the old customary practices take time to die out. Therefore, your suggestion for reform, howsoever qualitative, will not come forth overnight. In fact, the glaring truth is that you will be an oddity and outcast for your community, and will be maltreated until the majority acknowledges the mischief of their practice. This has been the fate of many world laureates ranging from Voltaire to Thomas Hobbes to Jeremy Bentham and from Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela and many more.
Not to forget, this is also the fate of minority reformists in our part of the world as well. Whenever our electorate agrees to uproot vices such as dishonesty, promise-breaking, maltreatment of humans, corruption and so on, they mistakenly think that the task of renaissance vests in a few politicians. In this way, they deliberately obviate themselves from making personal changes and tyrannize the reformist minority with the job they could not dare take up on their shoulders. This is the first lesson from Plato’s allegory: those in majority will put the burden of change on the minority without putting in their share of contribution. Relating to the story of the cave, the captives left behind had expected that the freed person would come back for their help despite their lack of personal initiative to help themselves. There is nothing wrong in the provision of help but demanding it in lack of motivation to assist oneself is dangerous because it makes us slaves of others’ assistance and puts disproportionate burden on others.
The other is plight of those who are minority—but privileged—because they are resourceful in terms of office or knowledge and experience. They, too, commit tyranny against the underprivileged. This is particularly evidenced in the legal profession. Regrettably, in Pakistan, the life of a lawyer assessed from any angle is an exemplary fit for this misery. On the academic level, there is the challenge of adjusting to the haphazard and content-constrained syllabus changes made by Higher Education Commission (HEC). Then, there is the class challenge of overcoming the forbearing teaching techniques of the instructors; although not true for all. On the degree level, there is the challenge of competing with foreign-qualified counterparts; making the worth of home degrees less attractive. On the employment level, the job market favours the foreign qualified for understandable reasons such as language, drafting, research and reading skills but with little cooperation and development provision for local degree-holders. Resultantly, this leaves the locally-qualified to make a trial and error fit with the shoddy bar politics. On the honorary level, they are very often hash-tagged as the first amongst impolite, earning demeaning names like wukla-gardi (lawyers’ vandalism) and nalaik log (doltish people).
Mind you, there is no denying that, in some cases, this name-calling is self-earned, but holistically speaking, there have been systemic damages caused by the few resourceful. The HEC’s recent education reforms had caused immense damage to study body. Firstly, by introducing incoherent Law Admission Test (LAT) plan for prospective three-year and five-year students. It was a point of debate for quite some time whether it applied to the former until inconsistently decided that it did and then later on withdrawn after the taking of their LAT exam.
Secondly, the new syllabus is unevenly revised; minimal content changes have only been made to the first two years at complete comfort with the subsequent courses which needed equal qualitative revision and updating. More so, there are no pertinent books available for student-facilitation, leaving them to resort to substandard guides. This ever-growing ‘guide culture’ has done immeasurable and unquantifiable damage to students and institutions alike. Students are disadvantaged because they become solely exam-focussed and devalue conceptual learning. Reputed institutions are disadvantaged because their detailed and updated information-sharing is seen as exam burden by a great deal of students, making them unwilling to resort to student-friendly damaging tactics such as shorter class notes, etc.
The blame game does not end here. The professionals, too, are ruthless to newcomers. They know the state of studies in our country but still refuse to facilitate candidates with reasonable skills from local degrees because they think it taxing on their routine to train the untrained. May I ask at this point, if service of humanity is the lynchpin of lawyers, why they must not take actionable steps to assist the grassroots graduates so that the cornerstone of their profession is felt by its weak-today, strong-tomorrow participants? It only takes few ounces of selfless behaviour to think about those left behind. This is not to deny that a handful of professionals are forthcoming, but we need more of them to share the burden forwarded by our education system. This is our second lesson from Plato’s allegory which is that those who are bestowed with chance and opportunity should think beyond themselves to justify their privileged status. For an enlightened person is not the one who knows his/her benefits and fails to keep others in the loop. Relating back to the cave captive who got free, as an enlightened person, he should have thought of a way of helping his fellows either in the cave himself or by going outside the cave formulating a strategy to fetch them out.
Unfortunately our country is trapped exactly in the pitfalls that Plato’s cave allegory teaches us: to avoid tyrannising minority if we are the majority, and remembering the underprivileged if we are the privileged minority. Thus, our core lesson is that any change or demand for change is a two-way projection. Thus, the mass change-demanders must start with charity at home if they really wish to see vices such as dishonesty and corruption etc. to be uprooted from our society rather than singularly putting such burden on the few governing. Likewise the privileged minority must make it their business to bridge the gaps with practical initiatives and not put the burden of learning and development on the troubled underprivileged alone.