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What is Freedom?
Vincent Kavaloski modernises Plato’s allegory of the Cave.
Once, in a faraway land, there was Cave World Corporation. A dank and cheerless building, vast and cavernous, its open-plan halls housed hundreds of workers who sat in individual booths chained to flickering silver screens upon which endless dots and lines formed moving pictures of great fascination. The figures on the screens moved according to the commands of distant Programmers. But the watchers knew nothing of the Programmers: they knew only the enticing, bright-lit screens. Having seen nothing else, the people believed the electronic figures and shapes and graphs they were seeing were Reality; and they believed that they were free.
Plato Looks Towards The Cave by Ron Schepper 2020. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Life in Cave World was a contest. Those who could quickly identify the most shapes were given honors by the Programmers. They were called Executives, or Officers, or VIPs. They were given extra dots for their screens, and flashing signs that said: ‘I am happy!’ or ‘I am free!’ or ‘I am somebody!’ All the signs flashed at exactly the same moments, so that the VIP section seemed engulfed in a great pulsing electronic wave, reading ‘I am happy, I am free, I am happy, I am free, I am Somebody!’ To sit in the wash of these bright lights was exciting, envied and sought by everyone. “Someday,” the others thought, “if I work hard and follow the dots correctly, I will get a flashing sign on my screen telling me ‘I am happy, I am free!’, and then I will be Somebody!”
One day a young woman became tired of the little flashing dots and the endless contests. The figures seemed so predictable, so routine, so boring. “Surely,” she thought, “there must be more to life than this? Besides, who is Somebody?” With great effort she tore her eyes loose from her screen and glanced around. She turned slowly around and in doing so made a great discovery: the chains that held her existed only in her mind!
Her screen began to flash furiously: “Stop! Return to Reality. Repeat. Stop! Return to Reality.” But she stood up. She was afraid from the strangeness of it all, but she continued to turn. There, beyond the rows of identical screens, she saw something amazing – distant people madly typing at keyboards. They were the Programmers, controlling every aspect of the only world she knew, but she could not understand. She wondered whether they were an illusion. They looked strange to her, and menacing. She stumbled back into her seat, turning back fearfully to her screen. It flashed furiously at her: “You are beginning to recover from a psychotic episode. Repeat. You are now returning to Reality.”
Later she was given some extra colorful dots, then even a flashing ‘happiness’ sign, but life could not be the same as before. An insidious doubt had seized her mind. She was infected with the terrible disease called ‘Questioning’. So not long after, the young woman grew restless once again. She could no longer be absorbed in the allure of moving dots, no matter how colorful. One day she even blinked! Her screen went blank for a brief moment. In that moment she leaned forward, stood up again, and turned around. This time her screen flashed even more furiously at her. But she decided to follow her questions, and to explore.
Off in the distance, beyond the Programmers, she saw a dim sign saying ‘Exit’, and beyond it a light. She began to walk towards it, hearing around her waves of contemptuous laughter from the Programmers. But even louder was the derisive, cutting laughter of all the VIPs, who were watching her shaky, tentative struggle on their screens. But their happiness signs had grown dim.
The woman fled through the Exit and up a steep stairway, bruising her knees and hearing only the rumble of laughter behind her. Yet stronger than this laughter was a gentle presence that seemed to guide her in her ascent. She followed the fractured, distant light always upward. After a long, exhausting ascent she reached a glass door shimmering in its brightness. She hesitated, then threw open the door and walked out into a glorious springtime.
The hard, brilliant light struck her with such force that she became painfully blinded. She writhed under it, and part of her began to long for the dark safety of the Cave. It was comfortable there, while here she was alone and vulnerable, with no flashing signs to tell her what to do or how to feel. She felt the great fear of freedom.
She looked down to avoid the direct light. At first she saw only shadows and reflections in water. But after a time her eyes began to adjust, and she saw the true glory of that sunlit world. What magnificence! The utter miracle of lush green plants, the mystery of white clouds floating in the deep blue dome of the sky… and everywhere, everything saturated in light: wave upon endless wave of voluptuous, buoyant light. She wandered as if newborn, in wonder and delight, trying to touch every leaf and fragrant flower and blade of green grass she passed. She danced wildly in the sea of sunlight for the sheer joy of being alive. Alive! As if for the first time! Joy lifted her thoughts higher and higher like a red-tailed hawk soaring on an updraft to heights of ecstasy, to the burning beauty of the sun itself. Her soul was consumed by fire!
Later, exhausted by this outpouring of ecstasy, she lay resting in the soft grass. Her thoughts turned to her former companions, locked away in dingy Cave World below, manipulated like puppets by the Programmers. She must tell them the truth! The world of flashing dots was a cruel lie!
Hard as it was to leave the World of Light, she turned back, journeying down, down to the Cave. She strode in and shouted: “Friends, come with me out into the sunlight! The true world is brighter and bolder than you’ve ever dreamed! Come out from your prisons of flashing screens!” But the people loved the prison of their illusions and they feared the new and different. Their screens flashed with angry epithets. When she persisted, trying to shake them from their trances, the Programmers pressed buttons to destroy her image on the screens. But although they could erase her from their machines, they could not extinguish her or her message. She walked through the Cave, singing of the wonder and freedom and joy of the World of Light; but the Cave Dwellers tuned her out – all except a boy in the back corner. As he glanced up at her, a question entered his mind. At that precise moment, his screen went blank and she reached out her hand to him. He grasped it, and rose slowly, like a morning star. Together they turned and began the long journey toward the light. A new day was dawning.
© Vincent Kavaloski 2020
Vincent Kavaloski is Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Studies at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He also facilitates Socrates Cafés and public discussions on peace, justice and human rights.