Plato, the Unreal, and the Virtual Essay

There are a lot of topics to consider Plato’s thoughts and ideas towards the reality. However, it is ironic that, in today’s world of virtual realities and constantly evolving technology, the thinking of Plato is more relevant than at any other time in human history.  Humanity has undergone immense shifts, at least in terms of altering ways of life, since he expressed his philosophy in ancient Greece thousands of years ago.  In a very real sense, then, Plato should have no relevance except in matters going to the most intrinsic and consistent aspects of mankind, life, and virtue.  The modern individual should be enabled to assert that living is so altered today, Platonic thinking must essentially exist in terms of a different type of human being.   The human being remains the human being, always.  This being the case, Plato’s Republic, dealing with shadows, illusions, reality, and mankind’s involvement in all of them, is perfectly poised to address concerns in a world now largely made up of shadows.

Of course, Plato compares a number of things in this essay, a deal more than the philosophical exploration of the real as opposed to the unreal, and his thinking regarding social harmony and justice is strikingly applicable today as well.  This is primarily due to the reality that human beings remain essentially the same, which in turn accounts for thousands of years of societies and philosophers seeking to identify, and then create, the ideal state.  Whether they argue with Plato or otherwise, in fact, the dominant philosophers of more recent eras, nonetheless, rely on his precepts as foundations for thought.  Rousseau’s and Locke’s concepts of the social contract, so potent as ideological forces in shaping modern governments, very much reflect Platonic ideas regarding natural balances achieved by individuals pursuing a collective good.  Plato actually provides a “working model,” or template, in the Republic that is nearly mathematical in its precision.  Operating from the rational premise that social justice cannot be achieved unless there is an active sense of justice within the individual, he presents a symmetry going to mutual interests.  When an individual’s sense of justice is accommodated, so it must be the wider expression of it, which in turn promotes justice as offered to all.  Then, Plato has the essence of humanity as completely analogous to the structural essence of a society, in that each component of reason, spirit, and appetite must function in cooperation with the others, in order for the balanced individual to contribute to the balanced society.  This is very much the core of social contract thinking, in that personal responsibility to the society is achieved when the individual, attending to each of their own needs in proper and inter-relational proportions, further promotes individual need through being a part of the balanced culture.  It is an equation that both satisfies the society and acknowledges the key driving mechanisms of the human being, and it is then a contract in itself.

That Plato’s ideas of justice should be so widely turned to by philosophers, then, is not surprising.  Perhaps equally unsurprising, however, and also regrettable, is that so many later philosophers seem to come across the same obstacle or dilemma occurring in Plato.  In plain terms, the reader finds the same symmetry of reasoning and trajectory of betterment in Rousseau, Locke, and Mill, but what they do not find, as is absent in Plato, is the guiding force to ensure that the quality of justice will exist within individuals.  From Plato on, philosophers tend to assert the inherent good of a sense of justice as a basic component of humanity, and one which will perpetuate good for all; nonetheless, they uniformly are unable to actually generate this and can only point to it is an idealized state of being more desirable than any other.  Plato, for example, admirably brings in Thrasymachus to counter his thinking, and offers a cynical view of justice as inevitably defined by what the strong desire may create.  Plato then goes to complex lengths to prove that justice is more than this, and is, in fact, something of a mechanism absent only when mankind does not comprehend its true nature as tripartite.  Even Plato, however, cannot go beyond promoting justice for its own sake except when justice is correctly perceived as an intrinsically good form or reality.  As with other philosophers, Plato’s insistence must reside in humanity learning to be good and just, a state of affairs consistently difficult for mankind to achieve in any lasting way. With Plato, as with Rousseau, Locke, Mill and even Marx, humanity will be good “just as soon” as it understands goodness, and the formula is then one of perpetual frustration.

This issue, debatable in itself, is nonetheless removed from the significant insights Plato offers to the modern world regarding what may be called illusion.  In this Plato essay, it is noted and widely argued today that technology has forged a world in which the virtual and the real are less distinct than ever before. This reality transcends the obvious one of visual impressions and perceptions.  These are important, certainly; modern media so universally convey effects that defy traditional ideas of what the reality may in fact be, and this is as present in advertising and reporting as it is in entertainment.  What things actually “look like” is now subject to creative control, and the technology is such that the false appears as actual as the real.  Perhaps more important, however, is how behaviors and perceptions are not completely relying on sensory input shift as well, and because virtual reality is also within modern communication.  In simple terms, distance, once a defining element in determining what may be trusted to be real, is no longer necessarily meaningful.  This is powerfully evident in interpersonal communication today, and particularly in the forms of social media.  There is no need to document how social media have overtaken the modern era, or how many people daily, and sometimes hourly, turn to it to create and maintain personal relationships.  What matters more are the processes behind the creation and maintenance because they are,  notwithstanding the investment of the users, essentially virtual and not fully real.

It would, in fact, be interesting to discover how Plato would view this omnipresent activity today, one which is creating vast communities of individuals connected only by perceptions of who they are as presented online, and as linked by apparent similarities of inclinations.  In the past, affection was necessarily based upon actual interaction between people in the literal world.  If friendship relied somewhat upon letters and phone calls, the foundations of it had been first established by some form of direct contact. Today, however, the word “friend” is given a new meaning because it may well refer to someone never met, just as social media effort to accumulate large numbers of “friends” must more diffuse the original definition.  This is a reality existing on assumption and perception only, and it is one – importantly – increasingly seized upon by people in all cultures.  Then, such a powerful shift in external perception must go to ideas of the self, which in turn affect the individual’s notions of social responsibility.  How the question must be asked, can there be a necessary emphasis on what is real when what is not known to be real is given such weight?

    It is, not unexpectedly, then tempting to refer to today’s reliance on social media as an extension in Plato allegory of the cave essay.  Rather than a few individuals, hundreds of millions are watching shadows move on a wall and fully accepting them as real. The analogy seems perfect, particularly when the factor of the unseen individuals as manipulating the shadows is taken into account.  This is not to suggest that corporate powers are the manipulators, necessarily; instead, dual roles are occupied in this new “cave,” as the watchers and believers of the shadows are creating shadow impressions of reality for others.  In a sense, in fact, Plato’s original metaphor of the cave foretold this modern and pervasive reality because, no matter the populations or intents, what is occurring is that untold numbers of people are seeing and creating shadows, and are believing in them as manifestations of reality itself.

There is, however, a crucial difference between Plato’s cave-dwellers and modern society.  In Plato’s scenario, the individual freed from his bonds turns to comprehend the mechanics of the shadows and is stunned by the clearly more meaningful reality.  Then, as he moves into daylight, his awareness and comprehension of reality expand, thus placing the other realm into proper perspective. Cognition evolves through these processes because the man is given the opportunity to leave the virtual behind and confront literal existence.  This man, however, as with those left behind in Plato’s cave, had no choice.  The shadow world they accept is accepted because it is the only reality to be known.  This is emphatically not the case in today’s world, for millions are eagerly constructing the virtual as real.  They come to knowing that it is largely made of shadow but, in investing their perceptions and presences within it, they increasingly view it as a form of reality, rather than as a distanced extension of it.

This being the case, it is difficult to conceive of how Plato would respond to such a voluntary dismissal of the real.  It may be that the very idea would strike him as incomprehensible.  What is important, however, is that his cave still exists to serve as a template and a reminder for individual and society alike.  The people may be born into the illusion or, having lived in the real world, chosen to turn to illusion and attribute substance to it.  None of this can affect the nature of the thing itself as a shadow, however, and this renders immense value in this  Plato Republic essay  today.

Humanity may or may not be inevitably driven to embrace justice as an inherent good, but an ethical concept is not the same as a virtual reality, as a debate over an ethical concept is not the same as a willingness to accept a shadow as real.  It then seems more important than ever that the people of today devote some attention to what most commands their respect and elicits their interest.  We are very much in a global “cave,” content to interact based on flickering images and words, and increasingly – and dangerously – giving these virtual transmissions the power of reality.

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