A Species In Denial—Introduction
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Print Edition Plato’s ‘cave’ allegory for life in denial
The great writers mentioned earlier were brave enough to refer to the agony of the dilemma of the human condition, but it was the Greek philosopher Plato who described more clearly than anyone else, albeit allegorically, the whole situation associated with the human condition. This astonishing description, which employed the allegory of a cave, appeared in Plato’s great work, The Republic, which he wrote in about 360 .
Considering how penetrating Plato’s description of the human condition is, a much more detailed analysis will be presented in the first essay of this book, Deciphering Plato’s Cave Allegory—And in the Process Explaining How The Human Condition is Resolved. For the purposes of this Introduction, a brief interpretation is sufficient.
Since the full version of Plato’s allegory goes for eight pages, the following summary from the 1996 Encarta Encyclopedia offers a succinct description: ‘The myth of the cave describes individuals chained deep within the recesses of a cave. Bound so that vision is restricted, they cannot see one another. The only thing visible is the wall of the cave upon which appear shadows cast by models or statues of animals and objects that are passed before a brightly burning fire. Breaking free, one of the individuals escapes from the cave into the light of day. With the aid of the sun, that person sees for the first time the real world and returns to the cave with the message that the only things they have seen heretofore are shadows and appearances and that the real world awaits them if they are willing to struggle free of their bonds. The shadowy environment of the cave symbolizes for Plato the physical world of appearances. Escape into the sun-filled setting outside the cave symbolizes the transition to the real world, the world of full and perfect being, the world of Forms, which is the proper object of knowledge.’
Plato’s parable says that between the natural, radiant, all-visible, sunlit world and humans’ ‘cave’ existence stands a ‘brightly burning fire’ that prevents them from leaving the cave. In the full text of the allegory in The Republic, Plato says that ‘the light of the fire in the prison [cave] corresponds to the power of the sun’ (Plato The Republic, tr. H.D.P. Lee, 1955, p.282 of 405). What the ‘sun’, and its Earthly representation, the ‘brightly burning fire’, represent is the condemning cooperative ideals of life, the ideals that bring the depressing issue of the human condition Page 36 of
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So intense was ‘the power’ of the ‘sun/fire’ to condemn and depress humans that they could not face it, let alone approach it, and they were so held in bondage by the unconfrontable issue of the human condition, so ‘chained’ up, as even to be estranged—alienated—from each other. As the Encarta summary translated it, they ‘cannot see one another.’ (It is worth recalling that, like Plato, Alan Paton described humans as living in ‘the bondage of fear’ of the issue of the human condition.)
Also, because the human condition is the crux issue before us as a species, living in denial of it meant humans were living an extremely fraudulent, artificial and superficial existence, they were living in a world that wasn’t ‘real’, a world of delusion and illusion. Plato’s ‘shadows’ on the back wall of the cave symbolise this world of illusions that humans have been living in. In the full text of the allegory in The Republic, Plato says that, ‘if he [a prisoner in the cave] were made to look directly at the light of the fire, it would hurt his eyes and he would turn back’ (Plato The Republic, tr. H.D.P. Lee, 1955, p.280 of 405). The prisoner had to face away from the fire and could only look at the shadows cast by the real world on the back wall of the cave.
I have always admired the 1976 Francis Bacon painting titled Study for Self Portrait (owned by the NSW Art Gallery in Australia) for its honest portrayal of the human condition; in fact I once unsuccessfully sought permission to use it on the cover of my first book, Free. Bacon depicted the human condition as honestly as anyone has ever managed to write about it. Study for Self Portrait shows one of Bacon’s characteristic twisted, smudged, distorted—alienated—human faces (in this case his own, which makes the painting that much more honest), but it also shows the body’s arms to be chained up behind the body, which is constrained in a box. The entire image is reminiscent of Plato’s representation of the human predicament under the duress of the human condition. The two William Blake pictures that I have used on the cover of this book are also dramatic depictions of the story of humans’ struggle with the human condition. The top Page 37 of
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The use of fire as a metaphor for the cooperative ideals of life that barred humans’ escape from their ‘restricted’, alienated condition, is common in many mythologies. In Christian mythology, for example, in the story of the Garden of Eden, there is ‘a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life’ (Genesis 3:24). Later in the Bible it is recorded that the Israelites said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire any more, or we will die’ (Deut. 18:16). While fire is a metaphor for the cooperative, loving, selfless ideals of life that so condemned humans, the metaphysical, religious term humans have historically used for these ideals is ‘God’.
This interpretation of God as the embodiment of the cooperative, selfless, loving ideals of life will be much more fully explained when Plato’s allegory is more completely deciphered in the first essay of this book. It will be explained there that the cooperative ideals of life are a manifestation of the most profound—and confronting—of all truths, that of the negative entropy-driven, matter-integrating, cooperation-dependent, teleological, holistic purpose or design or meaning in existence.
The following quote offers an example of how the ancient Zoroastrian religion used fire to represent the Godly, upright, pure ideals of life: ‘[In the Zoroastrian religion] Fire is [considered] the representative of God…His physical manifestation…Fire is bright, always points upward, is always pure’ (Eastern Definitions, Edward Rice, 1978, p.138 of 433). God, of whom fire is representative, is ‘pure’, the personification of the all-meaningful cooperative, loving, selfless ideals of life, however because these ideals are in such contrast to humans’ apparently non-ideal and thus apparently non-meaningful competitive, aggressive and selfish nature, humans have naturally feared God. They have been a ‘God-fearing’ rather than a ‘God-confronting’ species. Humans have been fearful that they may be a horrible mistake: White wondered whether a human was ‘a monster, a destroyer’, Blake asked ‘Did he [God] who made the lamb make thee?’, Pope pondered ‘if God has placed him [man] wrong?’, and Lawson asked ‘Do you think the Maker blundered?’
In the biblical account, Job pleaded for relief from confrontation with the issue of the human condition that the Godly, meaningful, Page 38 of
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Job’s ‘land of gloom and deep shadow…the land of deepest night’ perfectly equates with the analogy of life in a cave; that state of deepest and darkest depression caused by trying unsuccessfully to confront and make sense of the apparent extreme lack of ideality in the human make-up. Only by turning away from the ‘fire’, avoiding the condemning glare of the cooperative ideals of life, could humans find some relief from the criticism and resulting terrible—even suicidal—depression. Again, as the Israelite people said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire any more, or we will die.’ When reading the Resignation essay, it will become palpably clear how terrifyingly depressing the issue of the human condition has been for humans.
The reader may wonder how it is possible to confront and talk about the subject of the human condition so completely and with such ease if it is so dangerously depressing. The reason it is possible is that humanity has at last found the dignifying biological explanation for why humans have not been ideally behaved. It has found the explanation that liberates humans from the insecurity that the dilemma of the human condition has for so long caused them—and, thankfully, with the elimination of that historic insecurity all the products of that insecurity, in particular humans’ angry, competitive, selfish, egocentric and alienated behaviour, subside and eventually disappear forever. In religious terms, that question of questions of what is the ‘origin of sin’ has been answered. The explanation is presented in Beyond and elaborated upon in this book.
As is made clear in Beyond, it is not me, but humanity as a whole that has found this explanation of the human condition, because it is only as a result of the discoveries of science, the peak expression of all human intellectual effort, that I have been able to synthesise the biological explanation of the human condition. In fact it is ‘on the shoulders’ of eons of human effort that our species’ freedom from the human condition has finally been won.
The evidence that the human condition has been solved is that it is being talked about so openly and freely here. The human condition is such that you cannot talk about it until you have understood Page 39 of
Print Edition it, and, by so doing, broken free of it. The biological explanation for humans’ ‘corrupted’, non-ideal condition has been found, and thus the criticism from the Godly ideals of life has been removed—humans’ historic ‘burden of guilt’ has been lifted—the ‘great fire’ has been doused.
The Encarta summary of Plato’s cave allegory describes how ‘Breaking free, one of the individuals escapes from the cave into the light of day. With the aid of the sun, that person sees for the first time the real world and returns to the cave with the message that the only things they have seen heretofore are shadows and appearances and that the real world awaits them if they are willing to struggle free of their bonds.’ As has been explained, the ‘sun’ represents the condemning Godly, meaningful, cooperative ideals of life. The reference to needing ‘the aid of the sun’ to decipher the human condition and thus ‘see for the first time the real world’, refers to the fact that you cannot solve the human condition if you are living in the ‘cave’ of denial. As is stated in the Encarta entry, ‘vision is restricted’ in the ‘cave’. To be able to synthesise the explanation of the human condition required that I confront and acknowledge, rather than live in denial of, the Godly, meaningful, cooperative ideals of life and the associated issue of the human condition. In Plato’s terms, I needed to be living in the presence of the illuminating ‘sun’, rather than in the dark ‘cave’ of denial. In The Republic Plato talked of ‘objects [being] illuminated by daylight…[just as they are] by truth and reality’ (Plato The Republic, tr. H.D.P. Lee, 1955, p.273 of 405). If you are living in denial of the human condition you are in no position to assemble the truth about the human condition. You cannot assemble the truth from a position of lying, from a position within the ‘cave’. While science makes clarifying explanation of the human condition possible, the actual synthesis of the explanation requires that the truth of the Godly, meaningful, cooperative ideals of life and associated issue of the human condition be confronted. How it is that some people have been more able to confront and thus think about the human condition than others is examined in the Plato essay where human alienation and its many degrees are explained.
Considering how dangerously depressing the subject of the human condition has historically been for most humans, it needs to be emphasised that it is at last safe to confront the issue of the human condition; this assurance is supported by the fact that the subject is being so completely and freely confronted here in this book. Also, how could the many people who have been involved since the late Page 40 of
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In the words of the Encarta summary, Plato emphasised that ‘the proper object of knowledge’ was to achieve ‘the transition to the real world’; that is, solve the human condition and end the alienated state of denial that humans have had to live in, get out of the ‘cave’. While humans have had to live in denial of the human condition in order to cope with it, that did not mean that our task was not ultimately to solve it. While most people, including almost all scientists, studiously avoided any confrontation with and thus any analysis of the human condition, confronting and analysing the human condition is in fact ‘the proper object of knowledge’. As poet Alexander Pope said in his Essay on Man, ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of Mankind is Man.’
Pope’s admonition that we should not leave it to ‘God to scan’ makes the point that faith was not going to be sufficient to sustain humanity. As has already been emphasised, while religious assurances such as ‘God loves you’ could comfort us we ultimately had to understand why we were lovable; answer the question, are humans part of God’s ‘work’, part of his purpose and design, or aren’t they? While religions played a crucial role in sustaining humans who were living under the duress of the human condition, they could not lift the burden of guilt from humanity, explain the human condition, produce the dignifying biological understanding of human nature. There had to be a biological explanation for humans’ non-ideal, upset, corrupted, insecure, divisive competitive, aggressive, selfish, angry, egocentric and alienated behaviour and our responsibility as conscious animals has been to find that explanation. Historian Jacob Bronowski stressed this responsibility in his 1973 television series and book, The Ascent of Man, saying, ‘We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex [instinct]. Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us’ (p.437 of 448).
The Australian biologist Charles Birch, whom I was fortunate to Page 41 of
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It needs to be emphasised that finding understanding of humans’ non-ideal, upset, corrupted, divisive behaviour does not condone such behaviour, it does not sanction ‘evil’; rather, through bringing compassion to the situation, it allows the insecurity that produces such behaviour to subside, and the behaviour to disappear. As is explained in Beyond, humans’ non-ideal, ‘evil’ behaviour is a result of a conflict and insecurity within themselves that arises from the dilemma of the human condition; resolve the dilemma and you end the conflict and insecurity. One of the greatest philosophers of our time, Sir Laurens van der Post, has written: ‘Compassion leaves an indelible blueprint of the recognition that life so sorely needs between one individual and another; one nation and another; one culture and another. It is also valid for the road which our spirit should be building now for crossing the historical abyss that still separates us from a truly contemporary vision of life, and the increase of life and meaning that awaits us in the future’ (Jung and The Story of Our Time, 1976, p.29 of 275).
The task Sir Laurens wrote of as ‘crossing the historical abyss’ was the task of confronting and solving the terrifyingly depressing subject of the human condition. Elsewhere in Sir Laurens’ writings he acknowledges both the terrifying nature of that abyss where dark depression exists and the extent of humanity’s denial of the human condition. He wrote of ‘a world which does not recognise the reality of “these mountains of the mind and their cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-Page 42 of
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Living in denial was a horribly dishonest, superficial and loathsome state to have to endure, but it allowed humans to live when their inability to understand their divisive condition would have otherwise led to epidemic suicidal depression—and the end of the human race. As Joseph Conrad wrote in his 1915 book Victory, ‘For every age is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end’ (p.90 of 396).
Armed at last with the understanding of the human condition, the understanding of why humans are not fundamentally bad, all the denials, facades, delusions and illusions that humans have hidden behind can be exposed and dismantled. As the Encarta summary states, ‘the message [is brought back] that the only things they [the prisoners in the cave] have seen heretofore are shadows and appearances and that the real world awaits them if they are willing to struggle free of their bonds.’ With understanding of the human condition everyone can leave the dark, immensely ‘restricted’, cave existence of living in denial—that is as long as they are prepared to ‘struggle free of their bonds’ of denial of the human condition. The difficulty of struggling free of denial is the next issue to be examined.