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Why we are all slaves of delusion

Aug 15, 2004 Success, Sunday Nation

Imagine this: some prisoners sit in a cave, chained by the neck, hands and legs. They have been this way since birth and so have no conception of any other way of life. Shadows keep appearing on the wall in front of them. The shadows are caused by jailors who stand behind the prisoners, unseen. They manipulate carved animal figures in front of a flickering fire, causing shadows to be projected on the wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners, unable to turn around and see the puppet show for what it really is, remain mesmerised by the shadows dancing before them. The shadows are their only experience, and therefore their only reality.

This is the famous allegory known as Plato’s Cave, which is the best-known part of The Republic, thought by many to be one of the most important books ever written. What is Plato, the doyen of Greek philosophers, trying to tell us with his story of the prisoners in the cave? He is beseeching us to become aware of a higher reality, the truth about our existence that lies beyond what we can experience with our five senses. He is warning us not to become entranced by mere shadows, mere reflections on a wall. He is asking us to wake up and see the world as it really is.

For we are all prisoners in Plato’s Cave, and will remain so until we are able to twist our necks round to look at the furtive characters behind us, projecting images onto the wall of our consciousness to keep us perpetually distracted from the horror of our true condition. Consider first the nature of Kenyan politics. What enticing show are guileless Kenyan voters being treated to? The theme of the politicians’ routine is always the same, and it always has the following messages: that the politician is a supremely noble man or woman, whose only desire in life is the advancement of the common people; that the politician is there to protect his tribespeople from exclusion and even annihilation by other tribes; that this particular politician is on a lifelong crusade to eliminate the scourge of corruption from the face of Kenya; and that jobs, roads, clinics, schools, affluence will be received by his constituents if only they keep voting him in.

I have yet to come across a Kenyan politician whose puppet show does not contain these images. Many Kenyans who have learned to look away from the show on the wall have seen the politicians in their true form, and have seen their irredeemable ugliness: an absolute fixation on their own well-being and personal gain; a gleaming eye that sees that the easiest way to become rich in Kenya is to gain access to public funds; and total ignorance of what it takes to deliver services and development to their “prisoners”.

But then again, why do they need to deliver services at all? Their voter-prisoners seem perfectly content to gaze in a stupor at the pictures shown to them. All the politicians actually need to do is to keep them ignorant. A stupefied electorate fits the bill just perfectly. So do you still wonder why those who lead us keep us steeped in myth, superstition, conspiracy and ignorance?

But you are referring to the unschooled and unwashed masses, I hear you say. I am an educated, enlightened product of the modern world. I can see that these politicians are all rogues. I lay no faith in them whatsoever. So what have I got do with Plato and his damned cave?

The chances are that you are being entranced by a rather different set of images. Your “modern” world, you see, requires you to become an earning-and-spending machine. You must be persuaded to push yourself to your physical and mental limits in order to maximise your earning power. And once you have money in your pockets, you must be persuaded to part with it. You must feel that your ultimate redemption lies in non-stop consumption of the widest possible array of goods and services. In this way the modern world keeps going round. In this way you play your designated role.

If left to yourself, however, it is quite likely that you will come to realise that this is a supremely empty way to lead your life. You will soon see that no material thing has ever given you more than fleeting pleasure. You will soon come to the conclusion that you have no real need for more than a simple lifestyle. You will soon work out that even if you scale the most amazing peaks – become a billionaire, for example, or win a Nobel prize – after your achievement you will still die. Every material and intellectual thing you hold in your grasp is the merest of illusions, and will slip away like dust through your fingers. These realisations may, one day, cause you to look away and look upward, to seek a higher way of being.

You must be stopped at all costs! You must be made to stare at a puppet show that keeps flashing images at you, keeps reinforcing the right “values” in your life: that material wealth is the most important objective; that getting to the top of the pile is the only way to receive the adulation of your fellow humans; that you actually need things like multi-sparkle particles or ultra-boost freshness in your toothpaste; that you should one day spend more money on a car than your entire village spends on health and education; that the only way is to live is to want more, more and still more.

And so you will be subjected to a relentless barrage of images on the wall of your cave. You will see beautiful young couples kissing passionately after using the latest turbo-charged toothpaste. You will see that mothers who truly love their children use disposable nappies with clearly superior absorbency. You will observe that your life is full of terrible risks that will all disappear miraculously once you buy the right life insurance. You will realise that the best wine is aged for decades and costs as much as a month’s rent, and that you must aspire to drink it in the right circles. Once you consume these products you will be happy and content, for sure.

Your enslavement will be reinforced every day: by the movies you watch, by the lifestyle articles you read in the paper, by what you hear people say at cocktail parties. It will be sealed by a simple device: the television in your house, through which you will receive the correct conditioning messages for many hours every day – a kind of daily dose of a powerful drug. You will find yourself very happy to watch the flickering images on your screen; they will become the essence of life itself.

In Plato’s allegory, the prisoner who escapes from the cave returns to tell the others of the true nature of reality, and is immediately thought insane. So you decide, reader: you can keep staring at the sparkling images – it’s much, much easier that way. Or you can seek a higher form of reality. That was the challenge Plato threw to us more than two millennia ago. Most of us are still staring.

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