Plato was one of the greatest thinkers of all time, as well as the founder of philosophy as we know it today. He is most famously known for his work The Republic, which contains a brilliant analogy for the epidemic of ignorance called the Allegory of the Cave. It goes a little something like this:
A group of prisoners is held captive in the recess of dark cave. Each of these prisoners has lived in the cave from the time they were born, and are chained to the wall behind them so they cannot escape. Shadows of unknown objects dance across the wall in front of them every day, as sounds echo from elsewhere in the cave.
The prisoners watch these shadows and hear these sounds day in and day out for the entirety of their lives. They become mesmerized by the actions playing out in front of them. Deprived of any other sensory information, the shadows and the sounds are the only reality these prisoners know. They constitute the entirety of their world.
Little are these prisoners aware that the shadows they see are cast by a large fire that sits far behind them in an upper alcove of the cave. Its light radiates past groups of townspeople carrying items such as vases and baskets on their heads as they make their way through a portion of the cave on their way into town. Loud talking and laughter between the townspeople echoes and creates the sounds that fill the cave.
The prisoners are not able to observe the source of the shadows or the sounds, and thus the shadows they observe are their reality, and the sounds they hear must emanate from the shadows that they see.
One day, one of the prisoners is set free of his chains, and he is forced to observe the fire. The bright light stings his eyes, but he is eventually able to make out other people holding the objects to the fire and creating the shadows. Someone tells the prisoner that what he is now seeing is reality, and all that he has known before was not real.
Unable to handle this new wave of information, the prisoner refuses to accept this attempted revelation, and returns to the safety of his recess of the cave, to what he has always known to be reality.
But then the prisoner is suddenly dragged away from his place of imprisonment, away from the fire and the townspeople. He fights and he thrashes, attempting to uphold the reality he has come to know his whole life. As the prisoner is brought out of the cave and into the harsh light of the sun, he is blinded by the bright light.
Over time, he begins to regain his sight, and observe reflections of things in the water of a nearby lake, and then the things being reflected themselves. He sees the grass and the trees, the stars and the moon, and eventually, he sees the sun itself, the light from which has allowed the prisoner to observe all of the marvelous things the natural world has to offer.
Through his revelation, the escaped prisoner found this new reality to be far superior to that which he had accepted within the cave. He believed this so much so that he thought it his duty to return inside the cave, inform the other prisoners of his discovery, and set them free so they too could rejoice in this new reality.
But upon reentering the cave, the prisoner again became blind, as his eyes were forced to reacclimate themselves to the darkness. He was eventually able to make it back to the other prisoners and free them, but in his new state of blindness, he appeared to have been harmed by the outside world.
He tried to inform his contemporaries of the world that existed outside of the cave, but in an effort to maintain the reality they were comfortable with, and to ensure that they would not encounter the same blindness inducing harm as our enlightened friend, the other prisoners tried to kill him. And thus ignorance begets more ignorance.
Nice Story. So what?
I was getting to that. Geez.
Written over 2000 years ago, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave conceptualized a mantra that people unfortunately still live by today: ignorance is bliss. The prisoners in the cave found it more desirable to accept reality as it was displayed to them than to seek the nature of truth at the expense of having to undergo some level of personal change.
In ancient Greece, this was perhaps more acceptable than it is today. I imagine the world was a lot harder to understand. The scientific method had yet to be developed, and opinion and pagan belief was the law of the land.
But today, we have the benefit of hindsight. We have the summation of all the knowledge that we have stumbled upon in the hundreds of years since Plato so astutely depicted one of the pillars of the human condition.
To have an almost infinite amount of knowledge at your fingertips and squander it at the expense of overcoming some personal obstacle and (God forbid) actually challenging yourself to become a better person for once is nothing short of a complete and total act of tomfoolery.
Ignorance may not be bliss, but it does come in several flavors that we should first understand before we denounce it outright.
The 3 Types of Ignorance
Hint: they aren’t Moe, Larry, and Curly.
They are instead Pure Ignorance, Willful (or Systemic) Ignorance, and Inherent Ignorance, all of which are portrayed in the Allegory.
Our first example begins with the prisoners chained to the wall who have convinced themselves of the totality of their reality. These prisoners are a metaphor for the masses. The common folk. They are ignorant to that which we define to be actual reality, but they are also ignorant of their ignorance.
This is pure ignorance. If you do not know something, and you are unaware of your ignorance, then you are purely ignorant.
For example, did you know that in 2008, a homeowner in Japan discovered a homeless woman living in his closet after he noticed some of his food start to go missing? It’s true. Not only did you probably not know that, I bet you didn’t even know you didn’t know that.
This is the most innocent type of ignorance. With the infinite amount of facts and information we can come to learn, it only makes sense that we are unaware of a majority of knowledge. Because of its prevalence in society, pure ignorance is commonly accepted as a tenet of human nature. Some people are more patient with others who display this type of ignorance, but some are not. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell don’t have seven hours to teach Grandma how to sync her email to her new iPhone.
Later in the allegory, the freed prisoner was exposed to the fire as the source of the shadows, but he instead chose to return to the world he knew behind the wall. Then, at the end of the allegory, the enlightened prisoner attempted to inform his fellow captives of his discovery, but he was killed for the heresy he was inferred to be spreading.
This type of ignorance is willful ignorance. People often display willful ignorance when they become aware of their pure ignorance but are unwilling to leave the comfort of the reality they have been living within; they are unwilling to leave the cave.
So perhaps I just told you about the homeless woman being discovered in that Japanese guy’s closet and you refuse to believe it. You’re just straight up like, “Naw, not buying it.” That’s willful ignorance. And it’s super fucking annoying.
Willful ignorance is the worst type of ignorance because it is self-elected. People choose to maintain their old beliefs, regardless of any contrary evidence to them.
When groups of people display willful ignorance, we are able to observe systemic ignorance, which consists of a hive mind developing out of an echo chamber of shared beliefs that perpetuates a group confirmation bias. It is this type of ignorance that has allowed slavery to subsist for such a long period of time, the Nazis to gain power in 1930s Germany, and Donald Trump to mount a successful 2016 presidential campaign.
Once someone becomes aware of their pure ignorance regarding a specific matter, he or she is usually only a few Google searches away from understanding the entire scope of the point of contention at hand.
But people who are willfully ignorant refuse to research any information that might further educate them on the aforementioned accepted truths in the event that they might have to admit their ignorance (because God forbid they aren’t all knowing beings) or change their opinions or beliefs (because God forbid they have to grow as a person once in awhile).
Finally, the moment in the allegory when the freed prisoner becomes knowledgeable of his previous pure and willful ignorance by way of the observation of the world outside of the cave, he is able to acknowledge his inherent ignorance.
As humans, we are always forced to accept our current level of understanding as reality. Whether we dwell in caves and observe shadows day in and day out, or we are part of the select few who are able to make it out of the cave and see the greater world before us, we are relegated to our base human senses and experiences to define what is real and what is not.
The distinct differences between pure ignorance, willful ignorance, and inherent ignorance are that the inherently ignorant person is aware of what they are ignorant of (opposed to the purely ignorant), and they are willing to accept knowledge that advances their understanding of the current state of their reality (opposed to the willfully ignorant).
The inherently ignorant person accepts that if they were ignorant before, they can be ignorant again, and in all honesty, they probably are. They have made it out of the cave, but what if there is another structure they have to escape to be able to further their understanding of the universe? In this instance, the inherently ignorant person recognizes that they are also partly purely ignorant. However, being aware of one’s ignorance is the only first step one can take to attempt to dispel it.
Don’t Kid Yourself: We’re All Ignorant
You probably read the Allegory and were like, “Whew, thank baby Jesus I’m not like one of those prisoners. I know what reality is. I’ve seen the light.”
Cough bullshit cough.
I realize that I know nothing about you, but we are all just as willfully ignorant of the vast knowledge the world possesses as the next person. Even me.
Whether you realize it or not, you elect to live in a version of reality on a daily basis.
And it’s not entirely your fault.
Life is hard. Constructing versions of reality that we understand (or think we understand) is the best method we have for coping with the absurdity of our existence.
But you need to be able to recognize when you construct these versions of reality.
Like when you when you decide to eat at McDonald’s despite the overwhelming evidence that it is detrimental to your health, when you ignore signs that your friend is an alcoholic to attempt to salvage your dying friendship even though your friend spends more time at the bottom of a bottle than in your company, or when you elect to believe that the Earth was created in six days by an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, and omnitemporal deity roughly 6,000 years ago despite mounds of physical evidence within our universe that this is not possible.
I probably pissed off someone with at least one of those statements. Honestly, I hope I did. Because that means I’ve got your attention. Right now, you’re the people on the wall, and I’m the guy trying to show you the fire. You’re the people in the cave, and I’m trying to show you the way out.
I’m the guy who used to be chained to that same wall you are now. I ate my McDonald’s and tolerated my friends’ self-deprecating behaviors and denied modern physics. But I knew something was off. I knew that life had to be more than a series of shadows on a wall. So I began by searching for the source of the shadows.
Eventually, I found the fire. Or a fire; every matter of ignorance is different. It was bright and unpleasant to look at. I hated it at first. The fire represented my lifelong ignorance, and the knowledge of its existence made me nothing short of a hypocrite. In my childish stubbornness, I wanted nothing more than to return to the safety of the wall and watch the shadows dance across it for the rest of my life.
But I asked myself, “What kind of life would that be?” If it’s red pill or blue pill, I’m going red pill every time, baby.
How can anyone honestly choose to live a life of elected ignorance, when all one has to do to seek the truth is turn around and stare at the fire?
For the same reason that it is easier to hit the snooze button instead of going to the gym before work. For the same reason it is easier to eat a candy bar than an apple. For the same reason it is easier to read through your Twitter feed than through an actual book.
It requires less effort both physically and mentally to be a mindless creature chained to a wall than it takes to be an active citizen seeking the truth to the mysteries of the universe.
We are lazy creatures, us humans. We would all rather take the easy road in almost every circumstance. But what good ever came from the beaten path? What great accomplishment ever came from someone simply living up to the status quo? Not the Internet. Not the American Highway system. Not Free Bird.
So I saw the fire. And it was painful to accept its existence. But I did. And I knew that wasn’t enough.
I also began to make my way out of the cave. The light of the sun has been overwhelmingly blinding. It was uncomfortable to begin leave behind a lifestyle that I had grown oh so accustomed to. But once I was able to cope with the change of my environment, I was able to see more clearly than I had ever been able to before. Once I was able to comprehend the universe at large as my own singular, sentient being, I knew that I could never go back.
I am still working my way out of the cave, and I have accepted that I always will be. I am constantly changing and growing as a person, and I have come to realize that I can never rid myself of ignorance, let alone be able to ever become purely knowledgeable about anything.
But more importantly, being one of the people to get a taste of the world outside of the cave, I knew it was my duty to go back in. I knew that I had to allow others to begin to experience the revelations that I had begun to make.
And that’s what I hope to do with my writing. Provide a fresh perspective. Offer a differing opinion. Introduce new ideas.
It will not be easy. Pain will have to be endured at the outset if gains are to be noticed. You don’t get jacked by sitting on the couch. You don’t get smart by scrolling through Facebook. You don’t get a girlfriend by pulling all-nighters consisting of Red Bull and Call of Duty. Unless she’s into that kind of thing. Congratulations, I guess.
But where do we go from here?
We have to get out of this fucking cave.
How To Leave The Cave
Step 1: Analyze every aspect of your life. Your wants. Your needs. Your opinions. Your beliefs. Your underwear. Nothing is off limits.
Question everything. You want to buy a new car? Why? You need to go to work? Why? Your favorite sitcom is The Big Bang Theory? Why?
No, seriously, why? I would legitimately like to know.
Because it is often the things we take for granted, the things we accept as universal truths that tend to simply be ingrained opinions that we latched onto, hoping to cope with the endless void that is unknowing.
Until you can understand the origin of every want, need, opinion, and belief you hold, beyond the biases you have attached to each and every one of them, you will not be able to escape the cave.
Step 2: Find someone you disagree with and discover a way to understand their point of view. Don’t fear the debate or the argument. Don’t get into a fight, but don’t pussyfoot around the heart of the conversation either. Speak with one another until you both thoroughly understand each other. You don’t need to agree with one another but you should be able to articulate the other person’s opinion back to them. Right or wrong, you will have expanded your general worldview.
We tend to seek information that merely supports beliefs we already hold. Also, we often only immerse ourselves in environments and situations that are conducive to beliefs we hold. Think about the church you go to or the content you allow on your Facebook feed. I doubt you’ll find many atheists at your Lutheran church, or many Republican propaganda articles posted by your mostly Democratic Facebook friends. I am not saying that this makes views you hold incorrect, but only exposing yourself to one side of an argument is simply a form of passive ignorance.
Step 3: Let go of routine, ritual, and romantic notions. Just because you’ve always done something does not justify its inclusion in daily life. Don’t be afraid to let go of beliefs or opinions simply because they are held by the greater population. Your individual integrity of searching for universal truth is more important than upholding any opinions at large.
Certain routines or rituals might be beneficial to your daily life, like going to work on time or exercising regularly. However, that does not mean the routine itself cannot be questioned. Do you like your job? Are you happy with the work you do? Do you exercise enough? Are you exercising correctly? Ask questions, and then assign relevancies.
Step 4: Search for the universal truth. Seek out knowledge everywhere you can. Read books. Watch documentaries. Have stimulating conversations. Begin to sort bullshit from valuable information.
Raise your standards. Ask for more. Stand up for yourself. Expect more from others. Reject the status quo. Be less like others and more like yourself.
If you do steps one through three correctly, step four will happen naturally over time. It is more a matter of refining who you are through the pursuit of pure knowledge than it is a conscious effort to be a different person.
Remember that societal change begins with the individual. When you make conscious efforts to become aware of your ignorance and stamp it out wherever possible, your actions will rub off on those closest to you, and it will spark a domino effect of change.
And after reading all of this, I may have come off as an arrogant know-it-all preaching from my soapbox.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not a perfect individual. I have my own faults and flaws that I struggle with every day. But instead of placing my hope in an institution, a common belief, or an ephemeral feeling, I place it in myself and my ability to be an agent of change.
I stepped out of the cave. And you can too.
So join me. It smells less like ass out here.