Plato’s Cave and the Construction of Reality in Postmodern Movies
Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato were the first to propose ideas that people have been exploring ever since. From time to time, writers will present an idea that seems original but is a rehash of these old ideas. Writers referred to as postmodernists have explored the meaning of reality in books and movies. Plato also philosophized about reality, most famously in his allegory of the Cave. This allegory can give us a deeper understanding of certain modern (or postmodern) movies about constructed reality, such as The Matrix and Inception. In turn, understanding these movies in a new light can teach us something about our own relationship with reality.
The Allegory of the Cave
Plato’s Cave is a thought experiment. Suppose you find an underground cave where several people are chained to the floor. Their chains hold them in place and prevent them from turning their heads, so the only thing they can see is a wall in front of them. On this wall, they see shadows projected by people on a raised platform behind the prisoners, “like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets”. 1
For the purposes of the thought experiment, Plato assumed these prisoners have been in this position for most of their lives – they don’t remember a time when they saw or experienced something other than these shadows. Therefore, their entire reality is made up of the shadows and the echoes emanating from the back of the cave. As an outside observer, you know these shadows aren’t “real” because you are aware of other things that are more real. The prisoners, however, have no definition of “real” beyond what they have experienced.
Plato proposed what would happen if one of these prisoners was suddenly set free and allowed to see not only the puppeteers on the platform but also the rest of the world outside the cave. First, because he had never faced in the direction of a light source before, he would have some difficulty physically comprehending what he was seeing. Then he would have difficulty accepting the idea that there was more to reality than his previous experiences. “Will he not fancy,” Plato asked, “that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?” Even when the prisoner did accept that what he was now seeing was real and the shadows were only imperfect representations, he would still have ahead of him the process of learning what everything was and what it meant.
Plato went on to suggest that the cave was a metaphor for our own world, that there are concepts beyond our experience that are even more “real” than the version of reality we observe regularly. The prisoner’s journey into the real world is a metaphor for our own learning process as we come to understand those concepts.
Called to Adventure on the Surface
In the Hero’s Journey, a theory of narrative structure popularized by Joseph Campbell, protagonists must leave their Ordinary World and cross a Threshold into the Special World. In Plato’s allegory, the cave is the Ordinary World, the circumstances (if not a physical location) the characters have been in before the story begins. An Inciting Incident, such as someone from outside the cave freeing a prisoner, acts as a Call to Adventure.
The real world outside the cave may not seem like a “Special World” to most people, but this is because most people are residents of that world. From the perspective of the freed prisoners, the world beyond their previous experience is full of adventure. According to Plato’s allegory, the deeper concepts we learn about when we dare to exceed our perceived reality are just as “Special” as our surface world would be to cave-dwellers.
It can be very interesting to find examples of the stages of the Hero’s Journey in various movies. Comparing them to Plato’s Cave can lead to similar insights in understanding not only the narrative of the movies but also what they say about the people who watch them.
“I Don’t Want to Live in your Stupid World!”
The 2015 film Room, based on a novel of the same name, bears some similarities to Plato’s allegory. Born in captivity, five-year-old Jack Newsome has never seen the outside of Room, the shed he shares with his mother, except through a skylight and television programs. When his mother, Joy, decides to make an escape attempt, she must first explain to Jack that there is a real world beyond the walls of Room.
At first, Jack resists the idea of an outside world, partly due to naivety but also due to fear of the unknown. It is understandable that the prisoners in Plato’s allegory would have similar reservations about leaving the cave. The process of leaving Room and adjusting to the outside world is a coming-of-age journey for Jack, just as the journey out of the cave of shadows is a metaphor for learning.
“Free Your Mind.”
The 1999 sci-fi action film The Matrix seems to be heavily inspired by Plato’s Cave. In this movie’s post-apocalyptic world, humans are kept prisoner underground and shown a false reality called the Matrix. Because they have been in this mind prison since birth, they have no idea their world is not real unless someone on the outside “wakes them up” and starts them on the journey back to the real world.
When the movie’s protagonist, Thomas “Neo” Anderson, exits the Matrix and finds himself back in his real body, one of his first comments is that his eyes hurt. Morpheus, his guide, says, “You’ve never used them before.” This detail is taken almost directly from Plato’s Cave to help build the movie’s world.
Unlike Plato’s allegory or Room, when prisoners are freed from the Matrix, they cannot focus entirely on learning about the real world. This is because they are caught up in a conflict against the machines, the creators of the Matrix, who would like to either put them back in the virtual reality or kill them to prevent their freeing anyone else. The protagonists’ continued quest to free other prisoners represents the philosophy that freedom from the cave of shadows – understanding the deep truths beyond our perceived reality – is paramount.
“Nothing is Fake; it’s merely Controlled.”
Another movie with elements similar to Plato’s Cave is The Truman Show. In this 1998 psychological comedy, the cave is a massive dome-shaped film set, and the prisoner is Truman Burbank. Unbeknownst to Truman, every aspect of his life is carefully curated by a production crew for a live, 24-hour, worldwide broadcast. Every single person he sees is an actor, and even the weather is artificially generated. A minority section of the show’s viewers believe the show is unethical, that Truman is a prisoner who deserves to be free.
Due to a series of accidents, Truman begins to realize his world is not genuine, and he tries to escape. The production crew and the actors desperately try to stop him while still maintaining the illusion, but this eventually becomes impossible. The movie ends with Truman leaving the set, so the movie’s audience never learns how he reacts to the outside world.
Why Would Someone Stay?
Seeing the journey out of the cave as a metaphor for learning is not the only interpretation of Plato’s allegory. A more modern (or postmodern) interpretation compares the shadows in Plato’s Cave to the constructed reality people build for themselves through things like technology.
As Jean Baudrillard explained it, people no longer use “simulacra” as substitutes for real things when the genuine article is not available or too expensive; we now turn to false things without even considering real things, as if we cannot tell the difference. 2 For example, some women take their beauty standards from models in magazines and social media while disregarding input from people they knows and interact with face-to-face. In response to Plato’s allegory, Baudrillard would argue that we dig ourselves into a cave of shadows. Leaving the cave, then, is as simple as rejecting these falsehoods and accepting reality.
Plato proposed that a free prisoner would ultimately consider the real world preferable to the cave of shadows. “And when he remembered his old habitation… and his fellow prisoners,” Plato said, the free prisoner would “pity them.” Modern films sometimes challenge that idea.
Many characters are initially reluctant to leave their Cave of Shadows. The Cave can be a comfort zone for the prisoners, and many moviegoers relate to the desire to stay in the comfort zone. This fits the “Refusal of the Call to Adventure” stage in the Hero’s Journey. Also, if Baudrillard was right and people willingly choose shadows over real things, the prisoners will be even more reluctant to turn away from the shadows.
In Room, after his escape, Jack admits that he sometimes misses Room. Joy, who spent seven years in Room, has an even harder time adjusting to the outside world. She attempts suicide, and in one shot she is seen back in Room – her prison became her comfort zone, and she has not yet mentally escaped her captivity.
The 2010 sci-fi action film Inception features constructed realities in the form of dreams. Using special drugs, people in this movie can enter extremely vivid and realistic dreams; the level of detail and skewed perception of time in these dreams can even prevent dreamers from discerning the difference between dream and reality. These constructed dreams become even more like Plato’s cave of shadows when people use them like prisons, trapping targets in worlds they believe to be real so their subconscious minds can be interrogated.
One scene shows a group of people who go to a drug den in order to “be woken up” – they genuinely think their subconsciously constructed world is real, and reality is a dream. These addicts have become prisoners, and because they are trapped in their own minds, all the shadows are based on things they already know. Unless they are freed from this mental prison, they will never learn or accomplish anything truly worthwhile in the real world – but their story is not at all the focus of the movie. Rather, it is about master thief Dom Cobb.
At the end of the movie, Cobb is shown a dream where he can be reunited with his family – in reality, his wife is dead, and he is legally restricted from seeing his children, but in the dream he can be with versions of them constructed from his memory and even grow old with them. Cobb is tempted to stay in this world because, even if he overcomes the hurdles keeping him away from his children, he cannot bring his wife back in reality.
Another thing that keeps prisoners in their caves is the promise of safety. Plato’s allegory seems to assume that the prisoners are physically healthy. For the sake of the thought experiment, he ignored the question of how the prisoners get food and drink to sustain themselves, for example. If the prisoners were set free, in addition to gaining new knowledge of the world, they would also gain new responsibilities of caring for themselves. The shadows may be less real than things outside the cave, but they are also safer – the shadow of a knife cannot cut you, and the shadow of a flame cannot burn you.
In The Truman Show, when Truman reaches an exit door, he hears “the voice of God” also known as Christof, the show’s director. Christof encourages him to stay, so the show can continue. He points out that the outside world is full of deception, just like the world in this movie set, but the deceptions of the show are always for Truman’s benefit (at least according to Christof). Truman is safe in the show, just as the prisoners are safe in Plato’s cave.
In The Matrix, humans’ physical bodies are kept in pods of fluid, hooked up to various wires and tubes through which they are fed nutrients. While they are very much defenseless in this state, they are also never threatened by anything outside their minds. Being set free from a pod looks a great deal like being born, cut free from an artificial umbilical cord and thrown almost violently into a dry, cold world full of dangers. This demonstrates the negative aspect of Plato’s metaphor for learning: it is an uncomfortable process.
Cypher, one of the antagonists in The Matrix, wishes to return to the Matrix with no memory of the real world because the real world is post-apocalyptic. In the Matrix, he would not be fleeing or fighting for his life or struggling to survive underground. This is an understandable motive which calls into question Plato’s stance that the real world is better than the cave of shadows.
However, birth is an apt metaphor in this discussion for another reason: until someone leaves the cave (or the womb), they cannot mature to their full potential. Plato’s philosophy says the benefits of the knowledge outside the cave are more important than the risks.
Every protagonist in the movies discussed here eventually chooses freedom over staying in the comfort zone. In his movie, Neo gains many new abilities, from martial arts to telekinesis, that he could not have learned unless he was first released from the Matrix and granted the perspective necessary to “free his mind.” Dom Cobb explicitly calls his dream wife “a shade” of the woman he actually misses, “not good enough” to warrant staying in the dream world.
Is Ignorance Really Bliss?
The other element in this discussion is a moral question for the person who enters the cave from outside and finds the prisoners. Is it right for that person to free a prisoner? If the prisoner is initially reluctant to cross the threshold, how much should an outsider encourage them to come out into the real world? Although many people ultimately consider the benefits worth the risks, does that mean outsiders should force people to pursue those benefits, metaphorically dragging them out of the cave and into the light?
In The Matrix, Morpheus admits to feeling a moral quandary about freeing Neo. “There is a rule that we do not free a mind once it reaches a certain age,” Morpheus says. “It is dangerous. They have trouble letting go. Their mind turns against them.” Although the free humans hope for all of humanity to be free, they would rather free everyone at once, by striking the Matrix at its source, than break people out one by one, potentially traumatizing them.
Considering freedom of the mind as a metaphor for learning, it is easy to see this scenario happening in our own world. Many adults struggle to learn a subject, develop a skill, or otherwise gain an aspect of maturity he or she missed out on in childhood. “Forcing” such people to take the journey of learning can be seen as doing more harm than good.
The key difference between Plato’s allegory and reality is the main potential problem with all thought experiments: this situation would never happen in real life. If there were really people imprisoned in a cave who had been there for as long as they could remember, rational people would consider that cruelty on par with slavery. The rational response would be to free those prisoners – this would absolutely be the correct moral choice. Similarly, most audiences of The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Room understand that imprisoning people in virtual reality, a movie set, or a shed is wrong.
Pointing this out may seem like a nitpick with the format of the allegory, but it has an important implication. Some people may be held back from maturity because they are “prisoners” of something they did not choose. The morally right thing would be to “free them” by trying to teach them. This can be done through support of social programs and institutions that encourage adult learning (education of children is a given, as their ignorance is certainly not by choice).
However, if it seems the prisoner is willfully choosing not to pursue “enlightenment,” trying to force education on them may be counterproductive. If Baudrillard was right, the postmodern generation willingly chooses to get information exclusively from constructed realities. Informing these people that there are better things in the world outside their cave of shadows may be a good idea, but trying to force them to turn toward the real world may not be.
In past generations, protagonists like Alice, Dorothy Gale, and Jennifer Connolly’s character in Labyrinth could slip in or out of Special Worlds like Wonderland and Oz as easily as waking up from a dream. Modern and postmodern stories tend to draw clearer distinctions between reality and constructed reality, and escaping from false worlds is usually an important goal. This indicates an increased emphasis on focusing on what is real, even if it is uncomfortable. The alternative is staying trapped in the Matrix or the Truman Show for the rest of our lives. But it must be our choice, because we cannot always count on Morpheus to wake us up.
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