Jon Hamm Narrates a Modernized Version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Helping to Diagnose Our Social Media-Induced Narcissism

The Matrix gave a gen­er­a­tion or two rea­son to recon­sid­er, or indeed first to con­sid­er, Pla­to’s alle­go­ry of the cave. That era-defin­ing block­buster’s cav­al­cade of slick visu­al effects came deliv­ered atop a plot about human­i­ty’s hav­ing been enslaved — plugged into a colos­sal machine, as I recall, like an array of liv­ing bat­ter­ies — while con­vinced by a direct-to-brain sim­u­la­tion that it was­n’t. Here in real life, about two and a half mil­len­nia ear­li­er, one of Pla­to’s dia­logues had con­jured up a not-dis­sim­i­lar sce­nario. You can see it retold in the video above, a clip drawn from a form as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry as The Matrix’s was of the late 20th: Legion, a dra­mat­ic tele­vi­sion series based on a com­ic book.

“Imag­ine a cave, where those inside nev­er see the out­side world,” says nar­ra­tor Jon Hamm (him­self an icon of our Gold­en Age of Tele­vi­sion, thanks to his lead per­for­mance in Mad Men). “Instead, they see shad­ows of that world pro­ject­ed on the cave wall. The world they see in the shad­ows is not the real world, but it’s real to them. If you were to show them the world as it actu­al­ly is, they would reject it as incom­pre­hen­si­ble.” Then, Hamm sug­gests trans­pos­ing this rela­tion­ship to real­i­ty into life as we know it — or rather, as we two-dimen­sion­al­ly per­ceive it on the screens of our phones. But “unlike the alle­go­ry of the cave, where the peo­ple are real and the shad­ows are false, here oth­er peo­ple are the shad­ows.”

This prop­a­gates “the delu­sion of the nar­cis­sist, who believes that they alone are real. Their feel­ings are the only feel­ings that mat­ter, because oth­er peo­ple are just shad­ows, and shad­ows don’t feel.” And “if every­one lived in caves, then no one would be real. Not even you.” With the rise of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion in gen­er­al and social media in par­tic­u­lar, a great many of us have ensconced our­selves, by degrees and for the most part uncon­scious­ly, inside caves of our own. Over the past decade or so, increas­ing­ly sober­ing glimpses of the out­side world have moti­vat­ed some of us to seek diag­noses of our col­lec­tive con­di­tion from thinkers of the past, such as social the­o­rist Christo­pher Lasch.

“The new nar­cis­sist is haunt­ed not by guilt but by anx­i­ety,” Lasch writes The Cul­ture of Nar­cis­sism. “Lib­er­at­ed from the super­sti­tions of the past, he doubts even the real­i­ty of his own exis­tence” — won­ders, in oth­er words, whether he isn’t one of the shad­ows him­self. Nev­er­the­less, he remains “facile at man­ag­ing the impres­sions he gives to oth­ers, rav­en­ous for admi­ra­tion but con­temp­tu­ous of those he manip­u­lates into pro­vid­ing it,” and depen­dent on “con­stant infu­sions of approval and admi­ra­tion.” Social media has revealed traces of this per­son­al­i­ty, belong­ing to one who “sees the world as a mir­ror of him­self and has no inter­est in exter­nal events except as they throw back a reflec­tion of his own image,” in us all. It thus gives us pause to remem­ber that Lasch was writ­ing all this in the 1970s; but then, Pla­to was writ­ing in the fifth cen­tu­ry B.C.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear John Malkovich Read Plato’s “Alle­go­ry of the Cave,” Set to Music Mixed by Ric Ocasek, Yoko Ono & Sean Lennon, OMD & More

Two Ani­ma­tions of Plato’s Alle­go­ry of the Cave: One Nar­rat­ed by Orson Welles, Anoth­er Made with Clay

Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry Ani­mat­ed Mon­ty Python-Style

New Ani­ma­tion Explains Sher­ry Turkle’s The­o­ries on Why Social Media Makes Us Lone­ly

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Com­put­er Sci­en­tist Cal New­port

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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