Plato, the Matrix and Times Square: revisiting the myth of the cave

Plato’s most famous myth is perhaps that of the cave, with which the philosopher hit the mark of eternity. The myth can be interpreted in many ways, but one (in my opinion) is more important than the others. In my opinion, this myth can be interpreted existentially, because Plato tells us, through the metaphor of the cave, to give meaning to the world around him, the human being must construct his own reality inside, to give himself a meaning, but a meaning constructed exclusively by his own intellect. In this article, we will begin by talking about the myth itself, its famous sci-fi analogy through the film Matrix, and the creation of a cave in a real space, Times Square.

Plato’s famous cave myth
Plato writes about the myth of the cave in the 7th book of the Republic, I will not dwell much on the description of the myth, as it is known to many, but more on its meaning and interpretation for our purposes. The Greek philosopher tells of a cave in which at the bottom there are men chained to a wall. Behind this wall there is a big fire in front of which other men pass by, carrying statuettes, and the silhouettes of these objects are projected on the wall (Plato compares it to a puppet show, we can find analogies with the cinema). Now, the important thing to say, is that these men have never seen anything other than these projected images, for them, they represent all that is true in the world, all their knowledge is based solely and exclusively on these images. One day it happens that one of these chained people manages to break free, and finds himself outside the cave. Here he finds another world, the reality of things, and decides to go back down into the cave to free his companions and tell them the truth. The other men, however, are not ready to hear the truth, it is too much for them, and so they kill him (here Plato quotes the death of Socrates). The myth is simple but rich in analogies and metaphors. Within it is the construction of the entire Platonic universe, for the world outside the cave would be the world of ideas. For Plato, this world is eternal and immutable; in his metaphysics, it is where real knowledge is to be found. The inside of the cave, on the other hand, represents our world, the world of things, which is only a representation of the world of ideas. The chained men represent people who live on earthly passions, the chains stand for ignorance, the statuettes for the objects of the sensible world, and then we come to the protagonist, the man who frees himself. He represents the philosopher, in fact, the philosopher is the man closest to the truth, because he is a researcher, and it is the philosopher’s task (according to Plato) to free men from their ignorance (Plato also gives the myth a political meaning, as he saw the philosopher as the right guide for a state). In short, Plato’s immense myth tells us this. In the continuation of the article, we will talk about its Hollywood analogy, and the comparison with Time Square, analyzing only the spatial construction of the myth, and its applications.

Science fiction applied to metaphysics: the cave told through the Matrix
The Matrix, the famous cult science fiction film released in 1999, is a perfect parallel to the myth of the cave. In fact, it is much more than parallelism, it is Plato’s own thought applied to science fiction. In fact, the film, for those who have never seen it, is apparently set in a very normal world, only to discover that in fact, it is all a simulation. The real world is in an unspecified future, in which machines have taken control and feed off the energy that the human body creates. In practice, humans are living batteries. Through this simulation of reality (which is called the Matrix), the machines try to keep mankind under control and in check. A group of rebels, however, has managed to break free from the “chains” of the computer and are looking for a chosen one who can lead them out of the tyranny of the machines and show them the way. The spatial context in which the whole narrative plot takes place is exactly that of the Platonic myth, with the only difference of a leap into an apocalyptic future.

Time Square: a cave in the Big Apple
Luckily for us, the world we live in is not controlled by machines, nor is it all a simulation of them (or at least as far as we know), but caves do exist and are still present. Let us analyze the Platonic myth here, eliminating its metaphysical side. Many examples could be quoted, and perhaps the most topical and immediate one would be a comparison with the social world and our avatars that live within the network. But I prefer to talk about a real space in which we can move around and enter: Times Square. Why do I talk about Times Square? It is a confined space in which our eyes are enraptured by the real inhabitants of the square. Thousands of led and mole lights populate this place, creating all the screens and signs for advertising purposes. Our senses find it hard to get distracted by the thousands of luminous inputs, the true inhabitants of this space. The man chained to the cave wall can become a metaphor for a visitor to the square, for both the projected images become the truest reality. Everyone comes out of Times Square having bought something. Through these lights and the huge buildings that surround the area, we can make sense of this space. But just like in a theatre set, the space has no depth, it is thin and fragile, a mirror reflecting itself. Coming to the conclusion of the article, what I mean to say is that in my opinion, the importance of the myth of the cave is the fact that humanity has always created its own “caves”, not in a negative sense, but out of a need. By removing the metaphysical side of the myth, we are left with the real space (the one outside the cave), and the creation of a space that is just as real, but immersed in human interpretation and subjectivity (the cave itself). It is difficult to make sense of life, to see a purpose in it, to find the way. Perhaps it does not exist. Caves are aimed at that, they try to create meaning. In the case of the Matrix, the meaning of its cave (looking beyond the narrative plot), may be to ponder things well in life, otherwise, you really risk that your whole existence turns into a “simulation”. In the case of Times Square, the cave has a finalist purpose, namely to impress, advertise and buy. A bit of everything is based on this nowadays, or at least that is the average thinking. In general, the myth of the cave is still relevant and we should all remember it because it can help us to find meaning or purpose in this strange and crazy world, or to avoid being sucked into it.

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