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Friday, April 14, 2017

An Analysis of The Truman Show Using Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

David Elishmerni
An Analysis of The Truman Show Using Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Plato is widely considered as one of the most popular philosophers in the history of philosophy.  This is not only because he was able to produce one of the best students of all time, Aristotle, but also because his thoughts and philosophies have influenced so many philosophers after him.  His ideas were examined and served as the springboard for many philosophers decades after him.  One of his main philosophical ideas can be found in The Republic where he explained the nature of two realities to one of his students named Glaucon.  This explanation is embodied in the story of individuals trapped in a cave which has been called the Allegory of the Cave.  This research paper seeks to analyze the works different authors and philosophers discussing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and its application to a contemporary film entitled The Truman Show.
Briefly, the Allegory of the Cave tells the story of a group of individuals whose legs and arms are chained inside a cave since they were born.  They are so tied that they could not look around them or go outside the cave.  Behind them is a fire which causes shadows to appear in front of them every time individuals from outside the cave walk past the cave.  Because of the fire behind them, these cave dwellers have been seeing shadows all their lives.  In fact, these are the only things that they see apart from the cave.  They think that these shadows are the real things.  Plato proceeds that if it so happened that one of the prisoners is able to escape from his chains, he will be able to go outside of the cave and discover so much more things aside from the shadow.  The prisoner will realize that what they have been accustomed to seeing are mere reflections of the real thing. At first, understanding this can be difficult to accept for which he might even be confused and disoriented. Over time, however, the prisoner will be able to get accustomed to this new reality and finally see the world in a different view.  With this discovery, he makes it his obligation to go back to the cave and tell about his discovery to his fellow cave dwellers who proceeds to kill him because they refuse to believe him.
Different philosophers and authors have attempted to explain the meaning behind Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  One of the common interpretations is that Plato’s story which is full of symbolisms should not be taken literally.  One of these authors is Haymond (2009) who states that Plato used the story of the cave to refer to the physical world we are living in and the people that inhabit the physical world.  He states that “Plato interprets the physical world as only an illusion – an imperfect representation of a perfect Form.” (p. 8)  Haymond (2009) explains that the cave represents the physical world that we are living in while the cave dwellers are the people who live on the physical world.  The darkness in the cave and the shadows refer to the ignorance of the people who think that what they know is the complete reality.  Ignorance prevents the people from reaching a higher level of understanding or from leaving the cave.  On the other hand, the individual who was able to escape the cave represents the philosophers who were able to discover the higher world.  Haymond states that “The freed prisoner represents anyone who sees this physical world for the illusion that it is and who transcends this fallacy with their mind, thereby reaching the World of the Forms where one can know truth. Plato referred to these people as the philosophers of the world. Once they escape the fake world and know the truth, it is hard to return to their original habitation, just as it is hard for the prisoner to return to the cave.”  Upon understanding the true nature of reality, they seek to free the other individuals from their own chains only to be met with resistance and violence from the same people he tried to help liberate.
Plato’s ideas have influenced many philosophers after him. His thoughts have also been adapted in many works of literature until today. One of the famous contemporary works of art that utilized Plato’s philosophy is the Truman Show.  The Truman show tells the story of Truman Burbank whose life from the moment of his birth was shown on reality TV for the audience to see.  Just like the cave dwellers, Truman Burbank has lived his entire life thinking that it the only true reality.  Unknown to him, he is the main star in a reality television who features the drama of his life.  From his parents, his wife and friends to his communities, everything is staged.  Despite the artificiality, for Truman Burbank, everything is all real.  Just like the cave dwellers who thought that the cave they were living in was the only true reality. 
In his work, Falzon (2014) found the plot of the Truman show intimately similar with the Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in the sense that in both cases there is a deliberate and systematic deception done by an individual who controls the reality that the cave dwellers and Truman Burbank were experiencing  (Falzon 41).  In the case of Truman Burbank, his life is controlled by the director who controls everything on the set.  For the cave dwellers, their life is controlled by an unknown puppeteer.  Falzon added that for both Truman and the cave dwellers, there is no knowledge that they are being deceived because everything for them appears to be all real (Falzon 41). In fact, even when there were indications that there are strange things that are happening in the community, such as things falling from the sky or the daily events following a strict routine, Truman found it difficult to investigate further to find out what is wrong.  In the same manner, the cave dwellers in Plato’s allegory resorted to killing the prisoner who was able to escape because his revelations contradicted what they have known since they were born.
Slatman (2014) reinforces the views of Falzon (2014) in the sense that the former likewise argues that the liberation from the cave is not easy and requires time to get used to.  A close reading of the Republic will reveal that the cave dweller who happened to escape did not want to escape from his imprisonment.  Slatman (2014) states, “The one imprisoned down there did not want to be unshackled and wanted even less to leave his dark spot.  The cave is safe and pleasant place of our daily life where we are in fact quite satisfied.” (p. 32-33) Slatman emphasizes that the liberation from ignorance is not easy as well.  In many situations, the liberation will be opposed by the individual out of fear.  People fear venturing the unknown especially when staying in the darkness is the easier and more convenient alternative.  This happened to the prisoners of the cave who did nothing to remove the chains that trapped them in the cave since their birth.  It also happened to Truman who initially had a difficult time grappling with the idea that his life is not real.  In fact, before his discovery, he was quite happy with his monotonous life where every event happened following a regular pattern.  As Slatman (2014) explained, “As long as he does not know that his life is not ‘real’, he is actually quite happy (p. 33). However, once he discovered that his life was fake, he made it a point to want to literally get out and escape.
In support to the views of Falzon (2014) and Slatman (2014), Watkins (2016) examines Plato’s allegory of the cave and its relationship to true knowledge.   Watkins emphasizes that had the prisoner stayed inside the cave, he would not have managed to achieve knowledge.  He seeks to make a point that real knowledge can be found by going beyond our comfort zones and leaving the darkness of the cave that we have been accustomed to see. 
Considering that Truman has lived a staged life all his life and that his life and everything around it is fake because it is controlled by an evil director, is it possible to say that Truman’s life is less authentic compared to the life of the people whose life is not staged? Though his life is not real, does it make his life not authentic as well? What is the relationship between authenticity and reality? Does Truman have free will? The concepts of authenticity, reality, and free will were discussed in Lone’s (2015) The Philosophical Child.  Lone begins with an examination of the different levels of reality similar to Plato’s concept of the World of Forms and the Physical World.  He examines whether it is possible to rank a person’s reality life based on hierarchy.  Using Plato’s premise, it is possible for someone’s life to be more real than another person’s life?  In the case of Truman’s life, his reality is artificially constructed for him for the company running the show to earn money.  Lone (2015) states that, “…the creator of the television show The Truman Show asserts that we tend to “accept the reality of the world with which we’ve been presented” (p. 50).  Lone encourages the readers to explore their life and entertain the idea that their life may have been constructed by their own parents, teachers and friends (Lone 50).  Taking this into account, Lone wants us to examine whether we can reject their social constructions and make our own constructions of reality.
In the light of the discussion on authenticity and reality, Deuze explains that it is immaterial for an individual whether his life is staged or not real. For him, his own world is his reality.  In essence, one reason why the show was able to convince Truman that he was living a real life was because it is man’s nature to accept that reality that is presented to him.  In the words of the film’s director, he said, “we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.  Deuze supports this view and states that, “The Truman Show is just another version of the real, one that is carefully staged and completely mediated, much like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, as people in the cave watching the puppets, were unware of any other lifestyle, or world other than the one which they were shown.” (Deuze 141) This stresses that both Truman and the cave dwellers failed to discover the deception because they have fully embraced the idea that there was only one reality which is the reality that they were living in. 

            Through the various research papers consulted from different authors, it has been established that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave should not be taken literally but figuratively.  The Allegory of the Cave refers to the physical world we are living in and the people who live in it. The darkness of the cave symbolizes the people’s ignorance as distinguished from the light outside the cave.  The Truman Show is one of the many contemporary works that used Plato’s philosophy as springboard for its plot.  The similarities between the two works are obvious in the sense that Truman Burbank’s life is artificially controlled by a puppeteer who controlled everything in his life.  Similar to the cave dwellers, Truman Burbank was imprisoned.  For both Truman Burbank and the cave dwellers, they have failed to discover the deception early on because they have accepted that the world they were living in as the reality.  He also did not have any knowledge that his life was not real until he discovered clues that the life he was living might not be real.  Once he discovered this fact, he initially had a difficult time accepting but when he found a way he took the step to escape from his imprisonment. 

Cited Works
Deuze, Mark. “Media Life.”  Media Perspectives for the 21st Century. Ed. Stylianos Papathanassopoulos.  New York: Routledge, 2011.
Haymond, Bryce.  A Modern Worldview from Plato’s Cave.  2009.  Web. October 15, 2016.
Lone, Jana Mohr.  The Philosophical Child.  Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015.
Slatman, Jenny.  Our Strange Body: Philosophical Reflections on Identity and Medical Interventions.  Amsterdam University Press, 2014.
Falzon, Christopher.  Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy.  Routledge University Press, 2014.

Watkins, Greg.  Time the Redeemer: Time as an Object Cinema in a Post Metaphysical Age. Journal of Religion and Film.  January 4, 2016. Web. October 16, 2016.