John Vervaeke on Plato's Cave

Published: Feb 20, 2022

I once heard about Plato’s Cave in college lecture, but never like this. Kudos to Mr. Vervaeke. What a fun way to learn this myth.

The following is an excerpt from John Vervaeke’s Ep. 5 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Plato and the Cave.

Watch the full video. It’s worth your time.

Plato had an interesting idea. (Draws Man-Lion-Monster on whiteboard). He said, “the man can learn”, the man is capable of grasping theory, abstract symbolic representation of the case. Now, the lion isn’t really capable of theory, but what the lion can do, is the lion can be trained. You can use your reason to train your lion. How do you do this?

Well, this is where Socrates is so relevant. Right, this is why Plato writes dialogues. Because what Socrates did was he took reason into the social arena. Socrates goes into the marketplace and dialogues with people. This social interaction is happening, and the social interaction is being wed to rational reflection, and to inspiring people to try and overcome self-deception.

And so, using a Socratic Method, the man can train the lion. And then the man and the lion together can tame the monster. Not kill it but tame it. And what you want, is you want that teaching of the man, the training of the lion, and taming of the monster, so that something happens: you reduce as much as possible the inner conflict.

Plato describes wisdom as an internal justice within the psyche. In which the man has been taught, the lion has been trained, and the monster has been tamed, so they can get along together as much as possible. This is what’s known as an optimization strategy. If I let the monster rule, everything else shrinks to a minimum. What you want, is you want the right coordination of each part of the psyche so that each can live as much as it possibly can without putting the other two in danger. When you can get that inner harmony, that optimal relation. So each is living as much as it can, without putting the other ones in danger. This mutuality of the most existence, for Plato, is to experience a fullness of being. This is to be as fully alive as you possibly can be. It’s also to experience a kind of peace because your inner conflict has dropped.

So, this is very powerful. One of your meta-drives, in addition to all the drives people have, they want to have whatever they’re having without inner conflict. They want to be at peace with themselves. This, of course, is a powerful meta-drive that you can tap into. Because if you have a strong drive within you to get this inner justice, to realize wisdom, to get this fullness of being, then I can appeal to it. I can appeal to it Socratically.

But notice this has an important component to it. Because as I reduce inner conflict, my self-deception goes down. And as I reduce my inner-conflict, I’m less ego-centric. Both of these things are making me more in touch with reality. So, I’m reducing inner-conflict, but the effect that’s having is I’m getting a clearer vision of reality because my self-deception and egocentrism is going down. Now, that matters because as we’ve seen before, you want to be in touch with reality. You have a meta-drive.

Philosophers have various thought experiments for talking about this. One I’ll sometimes do with students is I’ll say, imagine the following: You go home one day and your parents say, “Come here, I want to show you something”. And you say, “What?”. They take you to this hallway that you’ve walked down a thousand times before and they press on a part of the wall that, for you, has never meant anything. When they press it, a door opens, and there’s a room in there, and there’s tv screens and video tape and pictures of you throughout all stages of your life. And then they say the following to you, “9 months before you were born, we were hired by the government to have you. This is part of an experiment. The government gave us scripts to memorize. We did this as part of a government experiment. We don’t actually love you or care about you at all. We’ve just been following the script, doing what we’ve been doing because the government has hired us to do this. But we’re obligated, now that you’ve turned 21 or whatever, to tell you the truth. We don’t care about you. Now, we still have to keep doing this. When we leave the room, you can forget all about this if you want. Right, and we’ll say what we’ve always said, we’ll tell you how much we love you, we’ll make sure that your needs are met. Just know that none of that is how we truly feel. Okay?”

Now I ask people: How would you feel? And they go, “Well I’d be devastated.” And I say: But nothing has changed. They’ll still say all the same words to you, They’re still going to treat you exactly the same way. And what people say is, “It’s no longer real.”

Here’s another thing I’ll do with people, I’ll say: How many of you are in satisfying personal relationships? Quite a few people put up their hands. And then I’ll say: How many of you would want to know that your partner was cheating on you, even if that meant the destruction of your relationship? Almost everybody puts their hand up. They’re willing to destroy this relationship that’s giving them so much happiness because they don’t want it to be fake. They want it to be real. We’ll talk later about why this need to be real is so important.

But I want you to understand what Plato is talking about here. Notice that two of your most important meta-drives are being met in the platonic model. You’re reducing inner-conflict and you’re becoming more in touch with reality. Now, that feeds on itself in an important way. I get better at picking up on real patterns in the world. My skill at picking on real patterns is improved because I get a clearer vision, I get better at tracking real patterns, right. But what does that mean? Well as I start to get more inner-peace, I start to be able to pick up on real patterns, I get the skill, the vision ability. But of course what I can do is I can apply that to myself. Socratic self-knowledge. As I get better about picking up on real patterns, I can apply that to myself. I can get better knowledge of myself. As I get better knowledge of myself, I can better teach the man. To be a good teacher, you have to know your student better. I can better train the lion. I can better tame the monster.

So notice what’s happening here. I improve, a little bit, my skill at picking up on real patterns. I use that skill on myself to increase my self-knowledge and get better patterns. Which means I reduce my inner-conflict. As my inner-conflict goes down, I get a clearer vision of reality. As I get a clearer vision of reality, I get better at picking up on real patterns. Which means I improve my self-knowledge. Which means I reduce my inner-conflict. And you see what happens? This starts to spin like this. These two sides feed into each other and reinforce each other and improve each other. And this is wonderful for you because you’re becoming less inner-conflicted and you’re coming more in contact with reality.

Now Plato has a famous story, a parable, a myth, in the sense that I’m talking about in this series. It’s called the parable or the myth of The Cave. And it’s a way of talking about this. The relationship between these things. Notice two things here. You need to remember this. Notice how much self-transformation and getting more in contact with the world are interconnected. This is participatory knowing. I’m not over here as an impartial, passive observer, just forming true beliefs about this. I have to change myself in order to see the world. And then the world changes and that puts a demand on me to change myself. And as I change myself, the world discloses itself in a new way, and so on and so forth. This is participatory knowing. I’m not just changing my mind. I’m not just knowing with my mind. This is knowing with the very machinery of myself.

Now, what’s Plato’s myth? Well here’s the surface. There’s this pathway going down. That leads to this inner cavern. There’s a fire here. There’s people chained to chairs, so all they can do is look at the back of the cave. Now there’s other people walking in front of the fire and it’s casting shadows onto the cave because of the fire light. And they’re hearing the echoes. And what Plato says is, people take the shadows and the echoes to be the real things. Because they’re chained, they’re caught up. But what happens is an individual gets free. And what does that individual do? That individual turns and see the fire and that allows them to realize that the shadows and the echoes aren’t the real things, they’re shadows and echoes. And what happens is the person’s ability to notice the real patterns, as opposed to the merely correlational patterns, is changed.

Remember we talked about that? People start to realize these are what real patterns feel like as opposed to what I thought was real. You get the taste for reality developing. And that taste means they start to look around and explore. And then they realize there’s a path, there’s light coming through it. And then they start a journey upward. Now, notice how this journey works. When they take a step forward, they’re blinded by the light. And they have to wait. They have to wait for their eyes to adjust. The self has to be transformed. And then once the eyes have been adjusted, they can see how to go, and they can take another step. And then they’re blinded again. And there’s this slow process. And Plato keeps talking about this: at various stages they have to stop because they’re blinded, and then they adjust, and then they gain the ability to see where they couldn’t see before. It’s this participatory transformation I talked about.

And eventually they come up here and they look around. And what are they looking for? They want to see the source of the real light. The light that’s making them, allowing them to pick up on the real patterns. Where is this light, that shows the reality of things, coming from? And not only is it showing the reality of things, this light is the source of the life of things. Where’s this source of understanding and light? They look around, and of course they glimpse because they can’t stare at it directly (the sun). It’s overwhelming, it’s beyond their comprehension. But they see it. And it fills them with a kind of awe. Of course what they do is they go back down into the tunnel rapidly. And they try to tell their fellow prisoners what they saw. And of course they’re stumbling around because their eyes don’t work anymore in that darkness. And they’re saying things that make absolutely no sense to these people. And so they ridicule them. And if they could they would kill that individual. And of course this is an allusion to Socrates.

Now first of all, notice that, contrary to what people think, enlightenment is not just an eastern idea. This is a myth of Enlightenment, of coming Into The Light. It’s a myth of self-transcendence and self-transformation. It’s a myth, and I mean “myth” in the sense that we’ve been talking about, it’s a parable of coming into greater and greater contact with reality. See, notice the story is: you pick on real patterns, that challenges you and sort of blinds you, and then you transform to pick them up, and then you’re enabled to move forward, then you confront those real patterns again, and you’re doing that cycle that I talked about. There’s a Greek word for this ascent: Anagoge. This is the Anagoge of Plato’s idea.

Notice what he’s doing. He’s taking the movement between the illusory world and the real world, and he’s turning it into this account of how you can make your life rationaly more meaningful. You can become more fully alive and more at peace, in conjunction with you becoming more and more in contact with the real patterns that make sense of reality. You can satisfy, in a mutually supporting fashion, your desire, your meta-drive for inner-peace and your meta-drive to be in contact with reality. This is what Plato calls wisdom: a fullness of being. We become more and more real ourselves, as we become more and more at peace, so that we can more and more realize the real patterns. We conform ourselves more and more to reality.

And you may say, “This is kind of a crazy story.” Is it? Is it? Because here’s a story from 1999: There’s all these people, and they’re trapped in a world of shadows and unreality. It’s called The Matrix. And they need to wake up and be welcomed to the “real world.” And the character that’s in there is Neo – from Neoplatinism, the “new man.” People flock to that movie! And all it is, is this (Plato’s Cave), with some great martial arts and some interesting science-fiction special effects.

This is what I mean about a myth! This isn’t a story from the past… right. The reason why you go to the Matrix and people still watch it and talk about it is because it’s a myth. It sings to you, it speaks to you now. Because it talks about perennial problems that you face. Problems of the psyche being in conflict with each other. The problem of being caught up in illusion and being out of touch with reality. And it presents the possibility of liberation and self-transcendence and a fullness and an enhanced meaning in life. It’s a myth of wisdom that is perennially relevant. Because it’s not about the past, it’s about what’s happening in you right here, right now.