Human Beliefs in "Allegory of the Cave" and "The Love Song of J. A. Prufrock"

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In the fast pacing world of that of the 21st century, our reality- ranging from political biases to personal choices - seems to be influenced by external factors in order to blend into society, and we tend to feel imprisoned. Our mind filters information we receive using our belief system. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and T.S Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” both question how human beliefs and perceptions shape reality and define freedom and happiness through a lack of enlightenment or struggle with one’s psychological issues like paranoia, anxiety, and depression that result in pessimism and a cynical perspective towards life. Being a young woman in Pakistan, these texts are relatable for me as my reality is shaped by norms and rules set by “people” who outline independence for women, as well as the rights and wrongs.

In “Allegory of the Cave”, Plato argues that the truth we perceive is a very small part of the actual reality and it is because we solely depend on our senses. He criticizes naïve realism and discusses imagined reality versus the truth. According to the Law of Beliefs, “Whatever you believe, with feeling, becomes your reality. Whatever you intensely believe becomes your reality. That we have a tendency to block out any information coming into us that is inconsistent with our reality” (“Your Belief Becomes Your Reality”). Hence it is the observer who creates his reality, whether it is the truth or far from it. Plato suggests that such beliefs and assumptions that paint the reality of ignorant men are often influenced by preconceived notions and in a broader sense, societal norms. He presents a picture of, men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by fetters from turning their heads.

These men are caged, and being made to see one version of reality, the shadows projected on the wall due to the fire burning behind them. For them, these shadows are actual objects, and this illusion is reality. These men are imprisoned by their limitations to perceive the truth, and when presented with it, they often tend to become hostile and ignorant since the presumed truth an outsider states goes against their version of reality and hence their beliefs. Men that lack “spiritual enlightenment” and the determination to look for the truth, make such comfortable illusions about their reality. Hence, if reality is a product of one’s imagination, then we question, what is freedom? Freedom too is an illusion dependent on our version of reality. For the men, being chained and categorizing shadows as objects are normal and free, and the idea of breaking chains is an act of imprisonment. 

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In contrast to Plato’s definition of reality and freedom, a different aspect is seen in T.S Elliot’s “The Love story of Alfred Prufrock”. Instead of being a prisoner of ignorance, he is a prisoner of his mind. Through a sense of disillusionment, we conclude that he appears to be past the materialistic world Plato talks about but is now held by his insecurity, which ends up shaping his reality. The refrains in this text reiterate and underline his feeling of helplessness and failure. The solemn imagery in the text gives us an insight into Prufrock’s battle with his psychological issues, as he paints the world as an unhappy, lonely, and empty place, “oyster-shells”, “sawdust restaurants”. It is his social and sexual anxiety that prevents him from asking the overwhelming question and bounds him to view himself as an outsider, an external entity, “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?”. “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”, he asserts that everyone puts on a mask and no one is their real self. They prepare themselves beforehand and as a result, the true self/ reality is altered and manipulated by expectations of the faces they’re about to meet. Elliot defines Prufrock’s character as someone drowned in an inferiority complex and this adds to his suffering. It is this perception of his that lowers his self-esteem and prevents him from confessing or talking to the woman he loves He reduces himself to an animal, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws” wanting to be alone at the bottom of the ocean and later as a side character in his own narrative, “the Fool”, where he is neither important nor worthy. Prufrock realizes that he is alone and caged nonetheless is in denial and refuses to accept it. “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” further shows how he is incapable of acting as a decisive individual and has to repeatedly question himself. A mental strength author stated,

Your thoughts are a catalyst for self-perpetuating cycles. What you think directly influences how you feel and how you behave. So if you think you’re a failure, you’ll feel like a failure. Then, you’ll act like a failure, which reinforces your belief that you must be a failure (Morin, “This Is How Your Thoughts Become Your Reality”).

Prufrock imagines the world through a dark, negative lens, fed information by all the complexities of his mind which is the crux of his unhappiness, yet blames the world for corrupting his reality.

Though Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” was written 2400 years ago, it is still relevant in today's, modern world for a young adult like me. Much like the prisoners in the cave, I too, am a prisoner to set trends and societal norms. T.S Elliot’s “The Love story of Alfred Prufrock” highlights the invisible ropes by which we limit ourselves. I am bound by internal and external social control, be it laws, rules, institutionalized structures governing us, or my self-consciousness, culture, and values... I follow the majority consensus, in order to fit in when in reality these are all shadows, tainted realities. We are programmed to think in a certain manner and all those who question it are thought of as outcasts or crazy much like the prisoner who broke free and came back to spread his knowledge to the others. While both texts are applicable, another ideology that holds Pakistani women behind is the system of, “What will people say”, a socially acceptable reality. Unconsciously, this ideology has been built and engraved in our minds. Before every decision, it is important to consider this question as a high priority. Being a victim of this myself, I can show the reality it paints for us. It’s like a heavy boulder on your shoulder- the fear of public opinion- which has not only led me to social anxiety but held me back from my own personal desires. One of the few personal examples would be the stigma attached to wearing dark lipsticks before marriage, “Young girls of noble houses don’t wear such dark, prominent colors”. The world then seems like a selfish place where social obligations take over personal wants and corrupt reality making it unappealing, merely because of a social belief that set the standard of “right” and “wrong”.

Hence, we can conclude that beliefs and assumptions create and manipulate our view of reality. Our subconscious mind has an important role to play in altering our perception. While some beliefs limit our approach to the world, hinder our experiences and imprison us, some tend to have a positive influence, much like the scientifically proven Placebo effect. If we control our beliefs, we can use them to mold an effective positive version of reality. It is important to challenge our beliefs and question the preset notions and try to find the truth on our own.

Works Cited

 

  • “Your Belief Becomes Your Reality.” Brian Tracy’s Self Improvement & Professional Development Blog, 12 May 2015, www.briantracy.com/blog/financial-success/your-belief-becomes-your-reality.
  • Elliot, T.S. “The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock.”1915. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock. Accessed 29 January 2020.
  • Morin, Amy. “This Is How Your Thoughts Become Your Reality.” Forbes, 15 June 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2016/06/15/this-is-how-your-thoughts-become-your-reality.
  • Plato: The Allegory of the Cave, P. Shorey trans. From Plato: Collected Dialogues, ed. Hamilton & Cairns Random House. 1963
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