The very first lesson that I can recall in my undergraduate degree was on Plato’s Cave. The full meaning and depth of it barely penetrated my consciousness and as soon as I realized it was not “assessable” knowledge, I disregarded what little had sunk in. I lay part of the blame of this apathy on my lecturer who seemed hasty to get past the ‘boring old stuff’ and into her beloved Rousseau. But this famous allegory must be remembered, and not merely by progressive education lecturers who deconstruct it and turn it into a tool for the Left. It must be remembered by all of us who stand now, blinking in the sunlight, looking around for someone to talk to.
But where is everyone? They are all still in the cave. And they’re playing Pokémon Go.
The allegorical cave’s inhabitants are entranced by the shadows on the wall cast by puppets in front of a fire. For these people, the shadows are all that there is, and they have fully accepted that this—sitting silently in darkness and staring at a two dimensional shadow play—is the full extent and purpose of their existence.
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They have embraced a flat reality.
We are living in a time in which the magnitude of flattened living has become obvious, and for the moment, it is Pokémon that has given us a disturbingly overt insight into the drabness at the heart of the West.
For the uninitiated, Pokémon Go involves people looking through their phone’s camera and walking around, searching for little creatures (Pokémon) which appear superimposed on the screen, as if they actually inhabited the particular space the camera is pointed. If you point your camera away, the Pokémon is gone. The game populates the physical world with virtual animals. If you haven’t heard of it, that would be surprising, for it has taken the world by storm. Within three days of its release it had more users than Twitter. It earns its creators millions of dollars every day.
And it’s all, completely, unreal.
To see the denizens of Plato’s Cave for yourself, all you need do is walk to a local landmark—for me it is my local botanical gardens. Here you will be presented with people of all ages (65 percent of players are over 20), walking around while staring into their phone, waiting to see something appear on their screen, so that they can swipe their screen, wait a few moments, and then either move on or swipe again.
That is what you will see—but it is not what they see. They, like Plato’s cave-dwellers, see something that is not there. Arguably, they see “reality.” Now of course they’d reject this claim. They know it’s not real; it’s just a game. But when actual money, actual time, and actual physical exertion is spent in the acquirement of something, even if it is not technically real, it has now become real in as much as it costs reality. Even though these people are physically outdoors, they are actually located inside. They are no longer acting in the real world. They are locked within the cave, and the cave is in their mind.
A trade has been made: reality for illusion. The most saddening aspect is that it is in a botanical garden, filled with centuries-old beauty gathered from around the world, these men and women find nothing worth their contemplation. They find nothing more valuable than the shadows on the wall. Their eyes are not accustomed to the light of nature’s beauty. They cannot see it—it is too big and too bright and too real for them. So they spend money on an illusion to distract them from the claim that Beauty makes upon their existence.
Escaping from beauty and reality is not new. Pokémon simply makes it more overt. And we should not be so ignorant as to think Pokémon is the only outworking of it. This is a plague as old as the earth—perhaps even older. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan speaks the words that animate the existence of all of us who wish to deny the radiance of God’s established order. “The mind is its own place,” he says, after being cast out of Heaven, “and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” The mind is, indeed, its own place. But Satan knows that he is lying to himself, for just moments earlier, the fallen angel lamented, saying, “Farewell happy Fields where Joy forever dwells.” He knows what he has lost, and it is in this knowledge that he attempts to exalt the power of his mind to deny the reality of Hell’s torture.
Unlike Satan, humanity often does not know what we have lost. We’re born into the cave and it is easier than ever to never leave.
The evidence is everywhere. As a high school teacher, I hear what young people are talking about on a daily basis. Recently I woke to read about the brutal murder of Fr Jacques Hamel, who had his throat slit in the church at the hands of Islamic extremists. When I arrived at school my students were discussing where to find Gyarados, a water-type Pokémon. Apparently there are a few at the local Japanese Gardens.
Our world is suffering—but it is not merely suffering from the violence of terrorism, it is suffering from individuals’ self-selected dislocations from reality. This is the reason why my students, when informed of the death of Fr. Hamel, opened their mouths in shock, muttered under their breath, and then promptly moved on with their lives. Yes they responded, but their response was very similar to what I saw on a recent field-trip, when one of their number caught a Squirtle near a water-reservoir. Open mouths, some exclamations, and then each of them peered back into their own devices, to see what they could find. They experienced the little bump of reality, and then they moved on.
Fortuitously, I have been reading R.J. Snell’s brilliant work, Acedia and its Discontents, which helped to explain this disheartening phenomenon to me as I experienced it. Citing Charles Taylor, it describes a plague sweeping the world in which humanity experiences an “utter flatness, [and] emptiness of the ordinary.” This particular expression—that of flatness—aligns itself perfectly with Pokémon Go, because ‘flattening’ is precisely the result of holding up one’s phone to the world. When viewed through the screen, the multidimensional world of reality becomes the 2D flat world of the media. Through Pokémon Go, the ever present screen has taken its rightful place as the constant mediator between the user and reality.
In a world steeped in acedia, everything is boring. We have lost touch of reality, and ordinary is a dirty word. It means dull, lifeless, empty. What we want is the extra-ordinary! We want dynamism, excitement, and adventure. And of course, we should not forget that it is this lie that we often sell our young people: “Go out there and be extraordinary!”
But in a paradoxical exchange, by rejecting the ordinary in the pursuit of the extraordinary not only do we never find the extraordinary, but we begin to hate the ordinary. Snell explains that, in acedia, we abhor “what God has given, namely, reality and the limits of order, especially the limits of one’s own selfhood.” This abhorrence rapidly turns to hatred. In attempting to dominate, control, and conquer everything in a never ending quest for a happiness that is on our terms, we pursue freedom at all costs. Therefore, anything that lays claim to us and has expectations of us prevents our minute-to-minute pursuit of individual and autonomous happiness. Freedom is the ultimate desire. But, as Snell writes, “Our freedom came at a cost: the loss of anything worth living for, and the only remainder is a ‘centring on the self’ [Taylor]. And since the world is devoid of thickness, everything becomes a plaything, something to tame, toy with, lead about on a leash, and discard when we have drained its temporary pleasure.”
Snell’s words were not written about Pokémon, but they describe it perfectly. It is a rejection of reality. It quite literally “abhors what is there and fantasizes about what is not” in a “destructive hatred of whatever particular good is given” by God. The people in the park are not content with the reality that is presented them. The park alone, with its trees, flowers, and grass; its smells and sounds; its open fresh air and its sunshine and clouds, isn’t quite enough. In fact I overheard a phone conversation between a boy and his mother in which he was trying to convince her that he was, in fact, at the park. Such a rarity seemed implausible to her. The fact is, they are at the park because that’s where the Pokémon are. If they could catch them at home, they would.
But Pokémon is not the evil here. It is a symptom, not the sickness. Acedia is a deep and destructive disease that threatens to infect us all. It is the virus of our age, and is so prolific that we don’t see it as sickness any longer. In a world of lepers, leprosy is unsurprising, and health looks strange. While the current trend in sickness may be Pokémon, for decades Sundays have been sacrificed to the flat reality of football, and each night countless millions suffer in solitude while giving themselves to the unreality of online pornography. Acedia, what Kierkegaard called “the despairing refusal to be oneself,” is everywhere. We must accept it is quite likely in us. I know that the more I look, the more I see it in myself.
This refusal to see and experience reality is not only seen in escapes like Pokémon, but also reveals itself in our deadened response to the world’s real crises. For the acedia-sufferer, anything that has a claim on us is repugnant, including our emotional reactions to real life tragedies. Through the constant exposure to stories of the recent atrocities in Europe, the same deadened response is created. Acedia seems to help us to reject the horrors and pain of existence. But in the undulation of life, it is not only the troughs that are leveled, but the peaks as well. We may not feel the dread of terrorism, but we will also never feel the elevation of true unity. It creates a seemingly safe world of illusory freedom, which is flat, stale and empty.
The imagined worlds of escapism have flattened out the tragedies of terrorism and the joys of family so that they have the same impact as finding a rare Pokémon; little bumps in an otherwise empty existence. The remedy for this disease is to be awakened once again to the beauty and transcendence of existence. Reality, in all of its splendor, is outside. Outside the city limits, outside the walls of the skyscraper, outside the four borders of the smart phone, outside of our own minds. You who are well, care for the sick. Administer the medicine. Gift yourselves to others so that they may be awakened to the beauty of the everyday.
G.K. Chesterton is attributed to have said that “the most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” We need to fall in love with the ordinary again. And then we must brave the darkness and enter the cave once more to lead others away from the shadows. It is not won with arguments, neither is it achieved with tolerating their illusions, but rather with being a beacon of true reality. The true joy and peace within us will shine light in the darkness, and fade the shadows into the nothingness they truly are. By our fruits we shall be known.