To See or Not to See, That is the Question: Basic Reality and Simulacra in Plato and Baudrillard
Author’s Note: This was my first essay for my “conspiracies in literature” class. The subject matter, philosophers’ ideas on reality, was very complex and as a result this is not my favorite essay because it’s a little vague. Still, we have to start somewhere
If one asked the question that begins Queen’s 1975 song “Bohemian Rhapsody” to both Plato and Jean Baudrillard, “Is this the real life/is this just fantasy?” both philosophers would agree — neither. The goal of their works, the Republic and Simulacra and Simulation respectively, is for the reader to name their current reality as what it truly is: a mere reflection of what true reality is, a collection of false images, or hyperreality. Their thought processes are inverses of one another but with the same conclusion: Plato moves from the representation, or simulacra, the image of something that can come to replace it, to the referential, the thing itself which is replaced once it disappears, and Baudrillard does the reverse. Furthermore, they also differ on whether finding that reality, if possible, would be objectively good. Although both Plato and Baudrillard agree that a true reality does not currently exist, they disagree over whether one could exist and whether finding it would be truly beneficial.
At the outset of each of their works, Plato and Baudrillard postulate that we are currently living in hyperreality, where representations have become simulacra and effectively replaced referentials. Plato uses a cave allegory to express how our reality is unreal. He describes a world in which prisoners in a cave, because of a lack of knowledge of the real world, think that the shadows they see projected on the cave wall from statues being carried behind them are the actual statues. When Glaucon is confused and remarks how strange the prisoners are, Socrates replies “They are very much like us humans.” In our reality, although we might think that we are Socrates and Glaucon, who have knowledge of the cave and its falsity, Plato argues that we are actually the prisoners, presented with images and using our existing knowledge to create a fake reality that explains what we see. In these ideas, Baudrillard agrees with Plato. In Simulacra, after describing how a representation can come to replace a referential, he presents the reader with a modern day example: Disneyland. Calling it “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation,” Baudrillard reveals his belief that our reality today is hyperreal, a simulation, or pretense of something nonexistent as real, of actual reality when he writes that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.” Disneyland is the equivalent of the cave. In both, although we believe that what we are seeing is “true reality,” it is merely a representation.
In order to arrive at that conclusion, Plato and Baudrillard have opposite thought processes. Plato starts with the cave, the representation, before moving to the sun, the referential. The structure of the Republic reflects this process: the prisoner starts out in the cave, before seeing the light in the cave, then venturing out of the cave to see regular objects, then the reflections of the sun in puddles, before seeing the sun itself. Plato presents these steps of liberation as painful — the former prisoner constantly questions what their reality is and at first is blinded by the sunlight. Baudrillard takes a different approach. Unlike Plato, he presents the progression from the referential to the representation. At first, he writes, the image “is the reflection of a basic reality” before it “masks and perverts” that reality and even the “absence of a basic reality.” In the final stage of a referential becoming an image, or the statues being carried to the shadows reflecting on the wall of the cave in Plato’s metaphor, the representation “bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.” Although he presents the same steps (albeit in the reverse order) to get to a basic reality as Plato, Baudrillard dehumanizes this process by stating it plainly instead of writing about it within the context of an allegorical story. However, both thinkers disagree over whether that “basic,” or true, reality can exist today and whether finding it would be worthwhile.
While Plato argues that the true reality does and will always exist, Baudrillard argues that humanity has reached a turning point in which there is no longer a “real” reality. Plato’s version of a true reality is the sun. He writes that the sun “is that which governs whatever there is in the now visible region of sunlight,” and that it is “also the cause of all those things that the people dwelling in the cave have before their eyes in some way or another.” To Plato, the sun is an objective reality that will always exist. No matter how much the people within the cave believe that their experiences are the true reality, when the prisoner returns back into the cave, he does not return to the belief that the darkness is reality. He retains his knowledge of the true reality — Plato calls his eyes “ruined.” Baudrillard, conversely, argues that in our modern world, the sun no longer exists — too many layers of simulacra have replaced it. If a basic reality existed today, in the Disneyworld example we would easily be able to strip back the theme park’s meaning and draw a line between childishness and maturity. However, Baudrillard cannot, writing that ultimately, “The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real.” Even if a true reality did exist, the layers of simulacra within Disneyland have made it so that we will never again find it. Even if we could find a basic reality, Plato and Baudrillard, although similarly agreeing on the destructive potential of enlightenment, disagree on whether that destruction would be objectively good.
In both of their works, Plato and Baudrillard acknowledge the power of destroying simulacra but have different opinions on the benefit of doing so. Plato argues that becoming enlightened, or seeing the sun, is objectively good. After Glaucon tells Socrates that he believes the freed prisoner would feel pity for the unenlightened, Socrates asks him whether the prisoner would want to return to how they were before they saw the sun. To that question, Glaucon replies “: I think that he would prefer to endure everything rather than be that kind of human being.” To Plato, someone who sees the sun is “lucky” and above the rest of ignorant prisoners in the cave. Therefore, seeing the sun and realizing true reality must be good. However, Plato also realizes the danger of revealing the true nature of the cave to others. When Socrates presents a situation in which the prisoner who saw the sun has to explain the cave to the other people living within it, and asks if the prisoners would kill the enlightened man, Glaucon replies “They certainly will.” Baudrillard agrees that the destruction of simulacra is dangerous, citing many religions’ refusal to create images of major figures as an example. If representations and their nature of obfuscating true reality was not dangerous, then religions would not have these laws. However, Baudrillard writes that religious institutions “sensed the omnipotence of simulacra, this facility they have of erasing God from the consciousness of the people, and the overwhelming, destructive truth which they suggest: that ultimately there has never been any God; that only simulacra exists.” The annihilation of representations, like the freedman attempting to tell the prisoners the truth of the cave, threatens power structures and ways of life. However, unlike Plato, Baudrillard again uses real-world examples and an authoritative tone to avoid a moral judgement on whether the destruction of these systems, and true enlightenment to a godless world would be objectively good — he simply states that it would happen.
Plato and Baudrillard’s opinions are more alike than they may seem upon first glance. Although their methods to coming to reality are the opposite, both thinkers still take the same steps. Furthermore, even though they disagree over whether a true reality currently exists and whether revealing that reality to the public would be beneficial, Baudrillard often skirts around the questions Plato asks and answers questions about reality and simulacra of his own making. However, upon comparing these two works, one truth becomes clear: that there is no one truth, at least not anymore.