In a cave deep underground, a group of prisoners are chained to a bench in such a way that they face a wall. The only light from the tunnel leading up to the surface behind them projects murky shadows on the wall; these shadows the prisoners mistake for substance, reality.
One of the prisoners at some point realizes his chains have fallen off; timidly, he follows the light up the tunnel, where he is dazzled by the brilliant daylight. He stumbles around and wanders far away from the cave opening until his eyes adjust, when he realizes he is seeing reality with his own eyes for the first time.
One day, by accident, escaped prisoner rediscovers the opening and ventures down to the depths. It takes a while for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and he stumbles around, alarming his former fellows, who suspect there is a madman among them. They become convinced of this when the former prisoner tries to convince them of what he’s seen on the surface, and that their chains, too, have fallen off. They set upon the former prisoner and try to kill him; he barely escapes with life, retreating to the surface world of light and reality.
One of the lessons of the allegory is that most men in any
given society live in darkness, mistaking their socially-conditioned perceptions
of reality for the thing in itself. Another is that enlightenment only comes to
certain individuals almost by luck and is by its nature a lonely condition; it
is not contagious and cannot be induced in others, even when it is for their
own good. A third is that bringing such a message of enlightenment to others,
no matter how straightforward or well-intentioned, is likely only to raise
An analogous lesson is that such hermetic groups are stagnant and self-destructive, and doomed to lose members one by one or in droves over time, until their ultimate demise. When the only means of conflict resolution is driving off dissidents, you are probably in a Plato’s Cave.
In my lifetime, I have had the experience of venturing down a number of Plato’s Caves that are not mine. I can’t remember when or how I emerged from my own Plato’s Cave, or even its exact nature; I suppose it was generic, suburban, midcentury America. But emerge I did, and I don’t recall ever returning to it in the sense of accepting its Muggle precepts.
But I’m pretty sure I’ve wasted a lot of time down lots of other people’s Plato’s Caves.
One of them was the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, a now-defunct trade school that expired in 2019 but in truth deserved to die more than a generation ago. Another was a downtown Pittsburgh Cultural District gallery dedicated to cartooning, gone since 2018 and not terribly lamented (indeed, the entire local cartooning scene centered in the East End of Pittsburgh, in my experience, forms a Plato’s Cave belonging to somebody else, not me). Another was the New Group Theater, a band of actors located in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood that imploded around 1990 and died out a few years later.
A current Plato’s Cave of my acquaintance happens to be a moribund congregation of worshipers in an urban-blighted community, where a parasite pastor and a few enablers have zealously driven away all dissenters to the point of their own extinction.
|The curse of the Unknown Grandfather: Benjamin Franklin (Frank) Simpson tied me to someone else’s Plato’s Cave for a time; loooooong story. But I’m free now. Again.|
I could name more than a few more comic book publishers and
conventions, advertising studios, arts organizations of every sort, and a few other
entities besides that qualify as other people’s Plato’s Caves (the department that
awarded me my highest academic degree is certainly such a Plato’s Cave; the entire
comic book industry in general could be considered another). How I happened to
stumble down each rabbit hole would form a series of long stories; suffice it
to say in each case I never really belonged there and was lucky to have escaped
with my life.
Common to all these Plato’s Caves is that they happened to be run either by vain, overweening leaders incapable of brooking criticism (the editorial cartoonist presently without a newspaper who was convinced he was the best-educated cartoonist that ever lived; the ham actor who could not perform on stage with anyone as accomplished, let alone more talented, than himself; the aforementioned parasite pastor interested only in paycheck and bleeding a legacy endowment dry without offering commensurate service in kind; and so on), or a generally criminal ethos that demanded expulsion of all that couldn’t get with the program (the diploma mill and fleecing operation that posed as an art school; the complicity of a tenured faculty shielding a MeToo predator; etc.).
Needless to say, all these Plato’s Caves failed to benefit in any way from my brief association with them (or for that matter anyone else of quality who happened into their orbit), and for a short period of time I was the focus of blame, a sort of scapegoat, that had to be driven away each time. Most of these Plato’s Caves, I am proud to say, disappeared a short while after my involvement with them, with just enough distance to prove that neither my involvement nor departure had anything directly to do with their demise; there are no flies on me. Those that still continue on, somewhere deep underground, are easily ignored from the surface.
The palpable sense of doom and toxicity, the stubborn refusal to learn, and the driving away of the most enlightened are all dead giveaways that you may have wandered down someone else’s Plato’s Cave. If you have, disown it—and run for your life.
Read my Young Adult prose experiment, The Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series—New chapter every Friday!