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Allegories of Individuality & Society

This article features an introduction to the concept of ‘Allegory’; followed by a preface to four important ones (two parables, a fable, and a fairy tale), leading to commentary on each one, along with references to films and related media; and concluding with a list of the relevant links.

Book: The Works of Plato; DVD Films: The Matrix; Logan’s Run

Allegory is a technique used by authors to embed a deeper meaning into the surface of a story, which produces two main effects. The primary effect is that it conceals the very fact that it contains an inner meaning at all, from all but those whose mind is critical in observing fictional works; and this makes it an esoteric mode of communication.

The secondary effect (given that one has detected a deeper level of meaning) is that it provokes thought and investigation into what this meaning could be—which in a way involves a decoding of symbols, in the form of the characters and events employed metaphorically in the story to represent particular aspects of reality. That these symbols and metaphors are interconnected (by design) to form a cohesive, meaningful whole—in effect, a second story—is what makes the surface story an allegorical one.

Four Important Allegories

There are four particular allegories I have long found to be highly significant, with regards to the essential principles of being an individual in a society—and these principles are eternal. Three of the allegories transcend all time and space, meaning that they are highly applicable to any society, anywhere, and at any time in history (and thus making them of utmost significance); whilst one of them represents only a particular stage in a society.

Of the three “transcendent” allegories, two of them are concerned with the ‘worldview’ (or Weltanschauung) of an individual: the fundamental, all-encompassing mentality an individual uses to orient himself within society and to the world. And of those two worldview allegories, one of them may be the most supreme allegory of all time.

1st Allegory of ‘Worldview’

The Allegory of the Cave, by Plato (The Republic, Book VII, 380BC)

This is a parable of both tremendous philosophical and historical significance, and well illustrates the dichotomy of ‘worldview’ formation, in that some people prefer illusions (i.e. the surface reality presented to them by their society), and will hold on to them tenaciously when they are threatened; whilst others are inclined to inquire and seek understanding, by exploring beneath the surface of things that are commonly taken for granted or ignored altogther.

A secondary yet highly significant aspect of the story represents the relationship between these two types of worldview. The one prisoner (out of his group within the cave) who breaks free from his chains—and thus, for the first time in his life, is able to turn from the wall and see the mouth of the cave behind him—wanders outside to see the light, and quickly comes to realise that his life in the cave was based on illusion—and that he was a prisoner.

Eventually, he returns to the cave to share this discovery with his friends; however when he tries to explain to them that the things they consider to be real are only the shadows of those real things, they not only consider him mad, but they vow to execute anyone who even speaks of wandering off as he did.

The Matrix (1999 Film)

Of all the films I have seen on this theme, The Matrix is the most sophisticated and thoroughly executed cinematic portrayal of the allegory; and one particular scene in the film addresses the secondary aspect I mentioned: that of the relationship between those who seek the truth (drawn to the light), and those who prefer the illusion (entranced by the shadows).

Neo, our ‘seen-the-light’ protagonist, is being schooled by his new mentor Morpheus on why one cannot simply free people from their mental enslavement (which in this story is represented by the Virtual Reality ‘cave world’ of The Matrix):

“The Matrix is a system, Neo […] when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But […] you have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.

In other words, this principle represents the archetypal ‘bursting someone’s bubble’ effect, in that when the very paradigm through which they view and understand the world is under threat of being shattered—and therefore, everything that gives meaning to their life along with it—the result is a reaction that amounts to a “fight to protect it.”

Logan’s Run (1976 Film)

This older film is also an excellent depiction of Plato’s Cave, and is in some ways a more direct cinematic representation than even The Matrix, in that the ‘cave’ in this film takes the form of a domed city, in which the population are not aware of an outside world—and a particularly notable aspect of the film is its direct illustration of the secondary aspect of the allegory.

Logan, the protagonist, has a privileged position in this apparently Utopian society, along with Francis, his best buddy. However, after he discovers the world outside the dome—which although a wasteland remnant of the previous civilization, is nevertheless testament to the fact that his seemingly idyllic society was based on lies—he returns to tell his buddy; and not only does Francis refuse to believe it, but—as a result—he actually turns against his best friend and tries to kill him.

DVD Films: Dark City; The Truman Show; THX 1138; Zardoz

Dark City (1998 Film)
The Truman Show (1998 Film)
THX 1138 (1971 Film)
Zardoz (1974 Film)
The Village (2004 Film)
The Island (2005 Film)
The Adjustment Bureau (2011 Film)
The Sixth Sense (1999 Film)

DVD Films: The Village; The Island; The Adjustment Bureau; The Sixth Sense

These eight films are also based upon the parable of the cave, and each is worth watching for its unique illustration of its meaning.

The Allegory of the Cave (Animated Version, narrated by Orson Welles, 1973)

This is a very nice animated version of Plato’s Cave, just under ten minutes long, and appropriately classed-up by Orson Welles.

2nd Allegory of ‘Worldview’

The Blind Men and the Elephant (Ancient Indian Fable)

This fable is of several blind men, each one feeling a separate body-part of an elephant, and consequently, none of them being able to agree on the nature of what is before them. A wise man passes by—i.e. simply a man who is not blind—and asks them why they are arguing. After each one reports what they are sure they can feel—a pillar, a rope, a wall, etc—he essentially informs them that they are all right, except that each one is only partly right, since each is only examining one part of the elephant and thereby missing the whole.

This allegory represents how paradigms limit one’s perception, which then produce false ‘worldviews’—the metaphor for this being ‘blindness’. This occurs both within societies, in the form of various kinds of ideology; and also between societies, whose different manners of perceiving the world are conditioned by cultural factors. In both cases, paradigms are depended upon for a relatively stable and reliable way of seeing things—but it is really a pseudo-understanding: grounded in truth, but missing essential parts of it.

DVD Film: Vantage Point

Vantage Point (2008 Film)

This film, while not exactly based on The Blind Men and the Elephant, is definitely within the realm of that theme, using a non-linear narrative technique to show how various people view the same public event differently. The film’s ‘multiple perspective’ design and editing are actually the most prominent aspect of it, as it attempts to keep the ‘elephant’ obscured from the viewer too, as he watches the ‘blind men’ characters within the story.

Allegory of Opinions

Books: The Complete Fairy Tales & Stories of Hans Andersen; The Ship of Fools

The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen (Short Story, 1837)

Despite being a children’s tale, this story manages to very well convey an important principle of Society with regards to the disparity between people’s thoughts and the real reason for them—that being fear. And a very particular fear: the fear of thinking something—anything, no matter how obvious and true—that goes against what Society ‘thinks’, i.e. what is officially thought, and therefore, commonly and collectively thought.

The aspect the story represents—that of the relationship between Society and opinion—is of course simplified: firstly, that the characters consciously rationalize to themselves why they should not state the obvious (for fear of looking a fool), when in reality they would suppress the acknowledgement (of the obvious) as a reaction to the feeling of fear. And secondly, the fairy tale ending: of everyone collectively acknowledging the truth they had all been denying, when a young boy persistently points it out.

Despite this simplification, it’s an excellent allegory that alludes to a highly significant sociological principle not often discussed.

Spiral of Silence, by Elizabeth Noelle-Nuemann (1980)

This work of sociology comes to mind in connection to the principle illustrated in the Emperor’s New Clothes—that being, basically, self-censorship due to the fear of being outcast in some way. The book itself was out of my price range, but I managed to find a good commentary on it, in addition to the Wikipedia page, which describes it as:

“…a political science and mass communication theory […] which stipulates individuals have a fear of isolation, which results from the idea that a social group or the society in general might isolate, neglect, or exclude members due to the members’ opinions. This fear of isolation consequently leads to remaining silent instead of voicing opinions. Media is an important factor that relates to both the dominant idea and people’s perception of the dominant idea. The assessment of one’s social environment may not always correlate with reality.

Allegory of Democracy

The Ship of Fools, by Plato (The Republic, Book VI, 380BC)

The final allegory relates to democratic societies, the message being a commentary on a system of government which does not favour those who are actually most fit to lead (and in fact abuses them), but favours those who are best at convincing people that they are the most fit to lead—which leads to the progressive disorder of that society. I think the significance of the message is not to overlook the obviously desirable aspects of Democracy, but to allude to these particular aspects as forming the seed of its own destruction (which Plato effectively illustrates in his description of The Five Regimes).

The Ship of Fools, by Sebastian Brant (1494/1944 Edwin H. Zeydel Translation)

Evidently, the allegory is not exclusive to democracies, and seems also to have relevance to societies which have developed from primitive forms to more advanced ones, thereby paralleling democratic characteristics in some ways (such as, in the appointing of less suitable or inept officials). This book contains a collection of the wise observations of this medieval satirist, with a large collection of clever, entertaining, and illustrated poems depicting the various sorts of folly he was surrounded by in his society—much of which still has relevance to modern society.

The Ship of Fools, by Sebastian Brandt

Stepping stones . . . . lead outside the cave

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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