The significance of Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave. The cave dwellers are chained in such a way that they can see nothing but shadowy images on the wall cast by statues and flickering flames. The statues are representations of everyday objects outside the cave (dogs, cats, trees, and so on). When a cave dweller escapes and makes his way outside the cave, he finds that what he and his fellows had thought to be reality is really only faint and distorted images of copies of real things. He returns to the cave and tries to explain this to them, but they judge him to be crazy, and are so offended by his criticism of their false beliefs that they seek to kill him.
Now, the cave dwellers in this allegory stand for the citizens of a democracy like the Athens of Plato’s day, and the shadows on the wall represent the illusory belief system of democratic psyches, which are dominated by appetite and swayed by the rhetoric of the sophists and demagogues who flatter them and help rationalize their disordered desires. Plato characterizes their delusions as “dead weights” that are “fastened on them by sensual indulgences like gluttony, which twist their minds’ vision to lower things.”
The man who escapes is the Platonic philosopher, for whom Plato’s model is Socrates. The objects in the ordinary world outside the cave represent the Forms or natures of things, as understood in light of Plato’s essentialism. The sun that illuminates these objects corresponds to what Plato calls “the Form of the Good,” which is the divine source of the Forms. The hostility of the cave dwellers to the escapee represents the hostility of citizens of a democracy to the philosopher who exposes their egalitarian delusions—such as Socrates, who was murdered by democratic Athens.
Plato warns that art and music characterized by “ugliness of form and bad rhythm and disharmony,” and a popular culture that glorifies “bad character, ill-discipline, meanness, or ugliness,” do “cumulative psychological damage,” corrupting moral sensibilities and capacity for rational argument.
The same is true, he says, of a preoccupation with pleasure seeking, which inclines a soul toward “frenzy and excess” and “violence and indiscipline,” and he warns that this is especially true of sexual pleasure. The culture of a healthy society must accordingly celebrate reason, beauty, goodness, and restraint. The improper formation of character yields what Plato calls “misology” or hatred of rational discourse, generating citizens with “no use for reasoned discussion, and an animal addiction to settle everything by brute force.”
The applicability to modern American pop culture is obvious, and only the details need updating. The walls of Plato’s cave have been replaced with cell phones streaming Netflix and pornography, and misology now manifests itself in Twitter mobs and “cancel culture” rather than the executioner’s hemlock (for the moment, anyway).