Plato, Trump, and the end of truth?

In his book The Republic, Plato famously introduced the idea of the cave. It became probably the most important model of education in the whole of the western tradition.

It offered a stark contrast between fake knowledge and true knowledge. The unenlightened stared at fake images (shadows) while the real objects were hidden from them.

But truth could be found if these prisoners were released and made their way up a steep ascent out of the cave into the ‘upper world’ or into the world of critical thinking. Reason could know the forms or concepts of its own thoughts about the world, just as shadows were only copies of the truth of realm objects. In both cases, fakes are exposed by truth.

Fast forward 2500 years, and fakes and shadows are still with us. But the way to expose them is not as clear as Plato imagined in the cave. In our post-truth age perhaps there is no longer an upper world that people trust. Perhaps the post-truth age, or the end of metaphysics as it is sometimes called, has destroyed any belief that there can be absolute universal truths.

Perhaps some people have exploited this to their own advantage? Perhaps some people encourage cynicism in the idea of truth because it helps them to gain popular support among people who felt, for many different reasons, that Plato’s truths only served the interests of an elite. Trump has shown just what is possible here. Plato’s upper world is the ‘swamp’ and, says Trump, it still needs to be drained.

Add to this, the way that in academia the idea of absolute truth has fallen into disrepute. Grand narratives (big universal truths) have been seen as ways for the powerful to impose their view of the world onto everyone else. In fact, Plato’s upper world has been exposed as hierarchical: human beings above nature, plants, animals; men above women, rich above poor, white above non-white, West above everyone else.

Truth, here, has suffered something of a perfect storm. It has been undermined by populist leaders, and by higher education. Perhaps it has fallen from the heights of its upper world? Or, perhaps, it has been so discredited as to have effectively been walled off. Perhaps now the post-truth age is the age in which the access from the cave to the upper world has been entirely blocked.

This raises deep and important questions, which many people are asking for themselves. How will society manage if there is no longer any collective truth that everyone can agree on? How will anyone be able to decide fake from real, lie from truth, or honesty from deception? Is this now an intriguer’s charter? And is that what 2024, with its wars, and its upcoming elections, and its struggles with AI, and its social divisions, and its immigration questions, has available to it?

Explore these questions at our next free webinar
Free Webinar: Plato, Truth and Trump – Wed 14 Feb

Editor’s Note: when creating images for the next Think Learning webinar, an AI image generator (Midjourney) provided these images of Trump without his name being included in the prompt: