To be awakened from the dream of human existence is thoroughly unpleasant and deeply disturbing for all who are not spiritually fit as a fiddle – since we are being awakened to our unconscious complicity in the hypocritical savagery and camouflaged cupidity that secretly drives and rules the “fallen world.” This realization is terribly painful and deeply humiliating – and only the strongest and most honest persons can sustain their awareness of this profoundly unflattering fact about themselves – and about our species, generally. A powerfully articulated account of this particularly unflattering insight is provided in Freud’s late essay, Civilization and its Discontents.
Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing, after all, to feel like an alien among cannibalistic sleepwalkers. If virtually everyone around you is deep asleep or dreaming and you, alone, are awake – it stands to reason that you might very well feel estranged from these snoozing and snoring others. And it makes sense that, under such conditions, you might also feel both vulnerability and a sense of responsibility for the sleepers and dreamers all around you. This pretty accurately describes my perception of those around me – as well as my sense of my peculiar relationship with them. Their somnolence and their enmeshment in dreams cuts them off from me and my sobering perceptions of our actual predicament. Their sleep shields them from consciousness of this predicament while I feel all the more alone, precisely because I have few reliably wakeful allies or companions with whom I can profitably explore our shared, actual predicament.
It has long since been absurd for me to measure and assess my life and my thoughts/perceptions by their collective standards and values. That leads nowhere but to bitter disappointment and despair. I can feel that old context or frame of reference gradually melting away – decomposing and collapsing. And with it, my former sense of personal identity – which was, all along, correlative or interdependent with that crumbling context – the context of human somnolence in dreams.
In Plato’s allegory, the philosopher who returns to the dimly-lit cave full of ignorant and deluded prisoners is transitioning from a natural standard (the sunlit realm above the cave) to an ethnocentric, merely cultural-conventional set of standards. It is not a difference in degree here, but a difference in kind – just as there is a difference in kind between a live animal and a stuffed one, or between an actual human being and his reflection in a mirror. This corresponds to the epistemological-ontological difference between waking experience and dream experience. The awakened mind sees things as they are while the dreamer sees only dreams and imagined creatures. The philosopher who returns to the cave makes a serious – and perhaps avoidable – mistake when he consents to the prisoners’ demand that he “form judgments about those shadows (on the cave wall) before his eyes have recovered (from his ascent to the sunlit surface above).” (517a) He would be wiser, no doubt, to undergo the necessarily painful sacrifice of his former cave-vision and cave-attachments and cleave to the natural, sun-illumined vision into which he has been initiated upon forcibly removing himself from the cave-prison. One must always view the shadows on the wall ironically, skeptically, disbelievingly.
This bold and courageous move (into the natural light of real, as opposed to culture-circumscribed, perception and understanding) involves a conscious repudiation of all claims of binding authority alleged or asserted by any culture, any religion, any system of philosophy – past, present, or to come.
The philosopher does not leave his original cave and become initiated into the free and true perception above-ground only so that he can turn around and search out another, more accommodating cave with slightly more enlightened convicts and shadow-mongers. No, he buckles down and undergoes the trying and lonely ordeal of relinquishing his former ties and attachments to cavemen, cave women, cave wisdom, and cave entertainment.