The Parable of the Cave

This Journal entry is a repost of the original July 31, 2011 entry.



One of our presidential candidates recently stated that the U.S. population has increased 25 million over the last 10 years, but that there has been no increase in U.S. jobs over that same period. Both our donkeys and elephants seek to create more jobs by encouraging the making of more stuff. Our donkeys seem blind and totally oblivious to future implications. Our elephants seem aware that living beyond one’s budgetary means may have unpleasant future consequences, but are totally unable to extrapolate this thinking towards natural resources, social tensions, environmental degradation, quality of life, and just about everything else one might care to think about.

Political debates over subjects like entitlements, national debt, unemployment, illegal immigration – not to mention the multitude of social, political, and human rights issues – remind me of the inhabitants in Socrates’ “Parable of the Cave” – an illustration of the difference between enlightened and unenlightened understanding. In this story men have grown up in a cave wearing restraints that allow them to only see one wall of the cave. A variety of shadow shapes are cast onto the wall and manipulated by others hidden from the men’s view and understanding. The shadows are the only “reality” the men have ever known and over time they come to comprehend and even be able to predict the timing and sequencing of the shadow show – they believe that they have achieved an understanding of “reality” – which, of course, is merely the shadows of the actions that are creating the shadows. I see the creation of more jobs and a revitalized economy as but a false (unenlightened) “reality” – the continuing depletion of world resources must surely result in unpleasant realities. This, I believe, is the enlightened reality.

If our long term goals are to improve quality of life, end environmental degradation, resolve social tensions, and stabilize our stock of natural resources then we certainly don’t want to increase the difficulty of accomplishing this by increasing jobs – our first priority should be to decrease the difficulty by decreasing the population by 25 million people. The benefits of reducing population seem obvious, but to advocate such would, of course, be political suicide. Looking beyond the obvious is not a strategy that very many of us can come to grips with. It is not easy to act in the interest of future common good when it requires sacrificing some of our present prosperity. Achieving this kind of enlightenment would require instating eyesight into blind eyes.