First Principle- Part 3

Stories in Everyday Life

As we grow up and move out into the world, we do so with a partially-formed worldview. We try it out, operationalizing in our newly independent lives this set of mental pictures and narratives that explain what we are encountering and how we should engage within these encounters. Trial and error further develop our worldview, but we also learn that there are differences between our own worldview and those of others. These differences may be slight or so substantial that we can’t even recognize the world at all in another’s view of it. These differences are an indication of the most significant aspect of a worldview. That is that a worldview is a story (encompassing a set of stories) that serve us in our day-to-day functioning. The stories are used to inform our values, our philosophies, our beliefs, and our actions. They are so embedded in our thinking and operating that it is hard to imagine getting through a day much less our lives without our stories about why things are the way they are and how we should behave accordingly. Our stories are so transparent to us that they have become the factual truths of our existence and thus we no longer recognize them as stories. But all views we hold are stories, including this one.  

Because stories form a worldview, there are no stories that stand alone. Every story exists in a larger framework of stories and it is only our lack of recognition of them as stories that gives us the sense that we can extract any one story from the others as if they were discreet “facts” standing alone on their own observably true merits. But all of this is an illusion as stories exist only in the mind (which is also a story). We create our worlds with stories about stories about stories. It’s actually impossible to imagine how we could even have a “world” otherwise. Our ability to create our world from stories is one of the defining abilities of being human and it plays no small role in our progress through history.

Paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and senior paleontology editor at the science journal Nature, Henry Gee posits that humans have at least two remarkable abilities, the first of which is the ability to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition underpins all acquisition of knowledge and understanding as we observe, categorize, make inferences, and discern order. Our second remarkable ability is that of telling stories. In The Accidental Species, Gee writes, “not only are we good at spotting patterns, even if nonexistent ones, we tend to weave them into tales as ways of making sense of what might otherwise be sets of disconnected and therefore worrying phenomena. This ability is so ingrained that it even haunts our subconscious. Things that go bump in the night are seamlessly woven into the stories we tell ourselves in dreams. It is easy to see how our ancestors, living much closer to nature, the unknown, and the reality of sudden and unexplained phenomena than we do nowadays, would hear thunder in the mountains and console themselves with stories of angry gods. And because storytelling is what we do, even without conscious intervention, it’s easy to underestimate how the power of narrative undermines our efforts to make sense of the past, in any clear, cool, or rational way.”

Stories inspire a sense of wonder in us. This begins in childhood but is never-ending throughout life. Stories are told through myths and legends, theories and histories, schools of thought and ideologies, dogmas and religious doctrines. They are the content of fairytales, poems, ballads, operas, and ballets. And they can be written, sung, spoken, danced, sculpted, carved, chanted, painted, or filmed; we find them in novels, hymns, movies, documentaries, petroglyphs, and cave paintings. All are the stories of Homo sapiens, the stories we employ to create our world.

Stories initially formed the explanations of what is and how things came to be. These stories gave meaning to everyday life but also provided religious significance to what was observed as being beyond the quotidian. Thus stories became the myths and legends that were used to convey values and cautionary tales, meant to entertain as well as to explain. Mythology stems from the Greek words mythos and logos, mythos meaning “the story of the people” and logos meaning “the word”—taken together, “the spoken story of the people.” And, of course, well beyond Greece all people had their unique mythologies. We see it as a mythology in hindsight, but at the time in which it was an active belief system, it dictated people’s religious beliefs, their hierarchical structures, their social and individual codes of morality and values. Because the term comes from ancient Greece, we tend to think of it as corresponding primarily to ancient civilizations, but in fact, the basic principles applied around the earliest campfires in which stories could be communicated between people. But it was at this time and in this place in the Western world—in Greece in the sixth century BCE—that there was a reflexive turn, a movement in thought when the story went from being one about what was happening to us as humans, to one that was happening within us.

Around the time of the pre-Socratics, thinking in Greece was making a major evolutionary change as it moved from the myths of poets like Homer and the morality tales of the gods to questions about the nature of reality. Much of the pre-Socratics’ thinking is lost to us but we know that they focused on the elements rather than the gods. It was in this same period that Democritus put forth his idea of atoms as the most fundamental unit of anything. These tiny particles were thought to be both imperishable and indivisible, as well as of infinite variation in size and shape. This was an idea much debated and revised, even 500 years later when, in his De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), poet-philosopher Lucretius instructed us that all is atoms and void, atoms and void and nothing more. 

Bucking the pre-Socratic desire for a stable set of fixed principles upon which to build an understanding of reality, Heraclitus contended there is no stability, only relentless, unending change. We take from the fragments that remain of his work one of his most well-known expressions: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” The only constant for Heraclitus was the Logos, here meaning the Word or Spirit. Historian Arthur Herman explained that Heraclitus saw the Logos “as a kind of spark or breath (psyche in Greek) that resides in each of us as individuals and also permeates the world,” such that by following it, we can attain peace. Heraclitus found the true nature of reality to exist in the realization that the material world is not reality but “merely the playing out of opposites.”  

When Socrates entered the debate, he changed the primary question from What is real? to What am I? If we are to “know thyself,” then what is the self? Who is the observer of the material world, the one who engages with the world and with other beings? Socrates answers that it is psyche, but the way he uses the word here is as “soul.” Herman explains that Socrates meant this self that is a soul to be “something that exists apart from my body, which was the true seat of normal waking intelligence and moral character: ‘my’ fundamental identity, in fact.” In a world that still had as its principal quest the nature of the physical reality of the material world, Socrates’ emphasis on the individual’s internal soul was a significant departure.

More recently, psychologist James Hillman made the soul the focus of his work as he stressed its preeminence in our own development as humans: “[B]y ‘soul’ I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy—that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical,…that unknown component, which makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, has religious concern [deriving from its special relation with death].” Socrates’ idea of equating being human with having a soul leads us down the pathway that seeks the true nature of reality. And here Socrates marries the ideas of Heraclitus and Parmenides so that we have two realities—Heraclitus’ world of constant change that we experience in our everyday life, and Parmenides’ world of Permanence that we come to know not through our sense-experience but through our thinking, our reason. Socrates sees the soul as bridging these two worlds.

In Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, he eschews the bridge and invokes the image of a cave to tell his theory about human perception, about how we think about what we take to be real. For Plato, what we gather through the senses is only a very limited view of reality, fraught with error and illusion as he claimed that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion and that, in order to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical reasoning. And this method is precisely what Socrates taught in the streets of Athens as he showed its reputedly most knowledgeable citizens how little they actually knew relative to truth and wisdom. Plato wrote the allegory of the cave to illustrate Socrates’ point in this regard, and also to illustrate his method for redress. 

The Allegory of the Cave

First, Plato has Socrates ask his young follower Glaucon (actually Plato’s brother) to picture people living in an underground cavern with a long entrance that is open to the light for its entire width.{1} For the entirety of their lives, these people have been chained at the legs and neck in such a way that they must remain in the same spot and always looking forward. Behind them, there is a tall fire constantly burning, with a kind of road between this fire and the prisoners. The fire and the road are in a higher position than the prisoners and there is a low wall along the road. Other people regularly traverse this road carrying implements that rise above the wall. They also carry human images and shapes of animals wrought in stone and wood. 

(source: photo by Ksenia Kudelkina on Unsplash)

Sometimes the people carrying things on this road are speaking and sometimes they are silent. With this image fixed in his mind, Socrates asks Glaucon whether he grasps that all the prisoners can see and experience are the shadows cast on the cave wall by the fire illuminating the activity on the road behind them and the voices they sometimes hear from that same road. He also asks whether he imagines that in naming what they saw they were naming the passing objects, and likewise for the sounds. Glaucon affirms and Socrates sums up that then in every way the prisoners believe reality to be one and the same with the shadows of the artificial objects. This is reality for it is all they have ever experienced.   

But, suppose that one of the prisoners was freed from the chains, stood up, turned around, and lifted his eyes to the light. All of these motions caused great pain after so many years in the opposite position. Most difficult of all was gazing into the searingly bright light of the intense fire after a lifetime in darkness. When he was finally able to see the objects whose shadows he had previously been observing on the cave wall, the images and shapes wrought in stone and wood seemed far less real to him than what he had grown up observing on the wall. The freed prisoner’s immediate inclination was to flee from the overly bright light and unreal objects, back to the world he knew and was comfortable with. But he was instead dragged up the steep, rough ascent and pushed out into the brilliant sunlight.

(source: photo by Kat Smith on Pexels)

All was pain and unpleasantness at first but eventually, his eyes and body became accustomed to the light and new position. At first, he could only look at shadows and reflections for these are what had been real to him, but after a time he could also begin to see things as they are, including the sun itself and all that it provided. Of course, he soon pitied his fellow prisoners and went back down to tell them what he had discovered. His eyes could not adjust to the previously familiar darkness and the other prisoners laughed at him and said he had ruined his eyes on his journey up into the outer world. Socrates even suggests that if they could they would kill him for his outrageous suggestions about their world.

The allegory of the cave in the Republic has been told and retold, studied and taught, for 2500 years as the presentation regarding perceptions of reality is so clear and compelling. As any of us would do, the prisoners have co-created a world through the stories they have shared with each other about the shadows on the wall before them. When the freed prisoner first turns and faces the firelight, it represents the alternative reality that is often so challenging to look at and he wants to turn away. But I want to suggest that this “reality” too is a story and Socrates has only suggested that it is “the truth”, i.e., the better story. 

All realities are stories, and looking at them from one to the other—from one worldview to another—is still a challenging process. The ascent up into the sunlight by the freed prisoner is indicative of the attainment of an even greater understanding, and it is not hard to see that this can be the case with stories as well. There are facile stories that just help us get through the day, and there are deeper stories that require greater reflection to understand. The latter may have a more profound effect and alter our whole worldview to some degree. In the end, all of our stories and the deepest understanding still lead to the same place. 

Ultimately, Plato has Socrates arrive at a higher, more absolute truth, a higher form of knowledge, which is about the universal standards of Idea or Form such as Beauty or Goodness. I am putting forward that these Forms are still human stories and when we are fully in the light, we see through them as well. Socrates has anticipated this last move when he sends the freed prisoner back down into the cave out of compassion for his fellow prisoners. Of course, they are threatened by the new, strange story he tells them. They don’t want to leave their comfortable story, even if it is one of delusion (which they remain unconvinced of). They don’t want to question these beliefs and develop a differing worldview, as the freed prisoner did. Socrates is making an additional and crucial point here as he juxtaposes the freed prisoner’s experience of a different way to perceive the world against the reticence of the remaining prisoners when simply told of a new way to perceive things.

The First Principle- Part 4 will look at our reticence to let go of our current stories even when they have ceased to serve us.


1- Given his time, of course Plato refers to the cave inhabitants as “men,” but for our purposes I will extend the reference to include all people.


Gee, Henry.  2013.  The Accidental Species:  Misunderstandings of human evolution.Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Heraclitus.  2001.  Fragments:  The collected wisdom of Heraclitus.  New York:  Viking.

Herman, Arthur.  2013.  The Cave and the Light:  Plato versus Aristotle, and thestruggle for the soul of Western civilization.  New York:  Random House.

Hillman, James.  1997.  Re-visioning Psychology.  New York:  Harper & Row.

Lucretius.  1977.  On the Nature of Things.  (Frank O. Copley, Trans.). New York:  W. W. Norton & Company.

Plato.  1961.  Republic.  (Paul Shorey, Trans.). In Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns(Eds.), Plato:  The collected dialogues (pp. 575-844).  Princeton, NJ:  PrincetonUniversity Press.

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