Chasing Shadows

Recently, I read The Republic by Plato. Although it was written thousands of years ago, I was amazed at how the message was timeless in exposing the subjugation of humanity by society – and the need for freedom from this enslavement. According to Plato, a proper education through gymnastics (physical exercise) and poetry (study of the arts) is the manner by which the mind is elevated and the good is pursued. A proper education will result in the elevation of students’ minds and souls from focusing on the pursuit of immediate gratification of the temporal, to the enlightened and difficult pursuit of the eternal. The philosopher is the one who pursues this truth and, once enlightened, carries a responsibility of leading others out of their ignorance and toward the light and the notion of a just society. Plato uses the analogy of prisoners being led out of a cave to explain how those trapped in a false sense of temporal reality may come to the realization of that which is true or eternal. 

Our education system in the United States correlates in many ways with Plato’s cave analogy. Students are prepared for the successful accumulation of wealth or products, rather than enlightened in a way that results in the “good.” Some of this is due to secularization, but it is also the result of Christianity surrendering many of its principles to American nationalism and consumerism[1] – as was so blindingly exposed in the 2020 national elections. Plato’s cave analogy correlates to the false reality of American consumerism, the education system serves to prepare its students to fulfill the temporal mindset of consumerism, the system of consumption results in the perpetuation of enslavement, and Christ provides true freedom from this system.

Plato’s cave analogy portrays the uneducated as prisoners shackled in a cave facing toward the wall, unable to turn their heads. A fire burns behind them by which they are able to see shadows projected onto the wall before them. Puppet masters use the fire to project images onto the wall in front of the cave prisoners, allowing them to see and hear only a reality created by the puppet master that they believe to originate from the dancing shadows on the cave wall.[2] While the prisoners may begin to understand the patterns, routines, and general behaviors of the shadows, it is to no avail. The sad reality is that the “truth is nothing other than the shadow of artificial things.”[3] The prisoners’ fully exist within, and pursue in futility, the fraud that is being perpetrated upon them. The prisoners are rarely able to break free of the chains and escape without a philosopher entering their cave existence and leading them out into the light of truth.

Today’s students are treated much like the prisoners shackled in Plato’s cave. Currently, education is largely focused on developing individuals into economic contributors and consumers, rather than on the classical purpose of developing a good and harmonious soul. Students develop the tools necessary to seek after the newest clothing, technology, houses, and other possessions, much like the puppet masters dangling puppets in front of the fire to present a shadow reality to their prisoners. Rather than seeking truth, they are shackled into the desire to seek temporal comfort under the guise of the American Dream. Modern students are directed to the false reality of the shadows through idealized versions of history and patriotic duty. 

The puppet masters extend far beyond the leadership of the school and into the very fabric of the American society for which schools are structured to prepare their students. Large corporations develop marketing in order to shape an image of a life that causes customers to desire their products with the expectation of attaining fulfillment.[4] These carefully shaped marketing campaigns cause people to approve or disapprove of others based on the image to which they have subscribed. The American economy is reliant on developing people who “worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.”[5]

The pursuit of the eternal is presented as uninteresting in contrast to the immediate gratification of the temporal. Societal subjugation to the puppet masters of economic wealth demands that others are enslaved in order to produce the desired life. American consumerism becomes the shackles restraining others inside their own cave as their lives are sacrificed for the creation of the material possessions of others. Like the cave prisoners seeking to understand the shadows on the wall of the cave, the pursuit of material gain is really just chasing shadows – often cloaked cloaked in lofty or religious language – that dissipate meaninglessly and leave a desire for more. When the truly meaningless nature of the shadow is revealed, the reality of the chains returns.

Jesus offers us the opportunity to free ourselves from the shackles of temporal gratification, leave the cave of consumerism, and step out into the light of a new kingdom that exceeds what Plato believed to be the unobtainable justice sought in his analogy of the city. The real truth and the real good to which Plato desired to lead those who were shackled in darkness may be found in Christ. Rather than running on the treadmill of conformity to the pattern of a world that leads nowhere in its pursuit of the temporal, through Christ, our minds are renewed to discern what is truly good and right.[6]Through Christ, we enter a kingdom based on the selfless love of God and others that values the dignity of the person, not just what the person obtains or produces. We no longer seek the good solely for our own benefit, but for that of others.

Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman illustrates how Jesus leads us from the cave of the temporal into the light of the eternal through the revelation of truth. Much like Plato’s desire that philosophers return to the cave and liberate those imprisoned,[7] the Samaritan woman abandoned her immediate physical concern and returned to her town in order to lead all those she could to the light of Christ.[8] We should do the same. Our desire should be to lead others from the chains of a society that requires enslavement to a system of shadows that ultimately leads to emptiness and into the light of the Kingdom of God.

[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 107

[2] Plato, The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 193-194

[3] Plato, 194

[4] Smith, 102

[5] Romans 1:25, NKJV

[6] Romans 12:2, NKJV

[7] Plato, 198

[8] John 4:4-26

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