Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 5 — Plato and the Cave (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
5 min readMay 12, 2020


“Notice that reason and spirituality are not opposed to each other here, but are inseparably bound together.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 4:

Ep. 5— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Plato and the Cave [56.45]

  • “What makes something sacred is that it’s an inexhaustible fount of insight and intelligibility that is transformative of us” — Vervaeke speaking of Plato’s writings, suggesting we as a society reevaluate what is truly meant by that word ‘sacred.’ He argues Platonism is the bedrock of Western spirituality.
  • Plato wondered how people could be so foolish as to kill Socrates, as Athens did. That was his crisis.
  • Plato creates the first psychological theory in history. (His psychology is still currently relevant in important ways!) He comes up with a theory about why human beings do foolish things.
  • People are clearly beset by inner conflict (Vervaeke uses examples like dieting or procrastinating — we know what the right thing to do is, but still struggle to DO it and often don’t). Plato has an insight and posits and idea we now find obvious: we have different centers of the psyche: man & monster.
  • Man is the seat of head/reason. It’s the seat of truth/falsity, long-term goals, abstract thoughts, and Monster is the seat of appetite. It works in terms of pleasure/pain, immediate goals, and superficial information.
  • Note that the Monster isn’t necessarily bad, and Plato didn’t think so either. Immediate, superficial information is crucial in life-or-death situations.
  • The Monster makes things salient to you (urgent, catchy, etc.), Man (head/reason) is what you use to understand. The Monster is constantly racing ahead of what we understand. “We’re perpetually vulnerable.”
  • What improves people’s chances of losing weight? They join a group. Why? You’re not a just a biological creature, you’re also a cultural one.
  • Plato compared this to a Lion, since this whole conflict we’re going through is one between honor and shame. Honor is when you feel you’ve been respected by those you consider your peers, shame is when you feel you’ve failed to gain respect. (Guilt is different. Guilt is when you feel you have failed to reach your ideal of what you should be.) The Lion is where Plato talks about the intermediate, socially-agreed upon shared goals between Man and Monster. The medium-term, social goals. (not abstract or superficial)
  • Plato also represents this Lion area as being within the chest (as he did Man in the head. Perhaps because notions of ‘pride’ and ‘honor’ seem to have cultural associations with the chest, and pushing your chest out). The is your thymos — the part of you that is motivated socially.
  • When people are under threat (incl. inner conflict/anxiety), they tend to be more self-centered/selfish. When people are under threat they tend to become more ego-centric, which is adaptive — it aids survival.
  • “I don’t have great claws, I don’t have great teeth… what a silly structure! I’m teetering around on two feel, almost always losing my balance. I can’t run quickly. Everyone can see me from a long distance because I’m towering above the grass. My throat and vital organs are nicely exposed for any predator. This is bad. But you know what I can do? I can get together with a bunch of other human beings and we can get some pointy sticks and some dogs and we can kill everything on the planet.” Our ability to work together has always been adaptive.
  • Hyperbolic discounting/temporal discounting: The more you’re discounting, the less salient something is, the less it stands out for you, the less it grabs your attention. This is why the Monster (immediate, superficial things) grab our attention more and distract us so much, and can override the Man.
  • Why do we have this? Because technically, the less probably an event is the less attention you should give it. This makes logical sense, and is adaptive. Otherwise you’d be overwhelmed by all the possibilities.
  • “Highly anxious people find things salient that they shouldn’t. They find low-probability things too salient.”
  • “The very machinery that makes you adaptive is the machinery that makes you prey to self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior.” (You can’t throw this adaptive machinery away or you’ll be riddled with anxiety. But if you keep it you’ll smoke the cigarette, eat the cake, and do all the things that appear to have low immediate-term consequences!)
  • (This Platonic division is echoed later by Freud in his 3 layers of human psyche: super-ego, ego, and id. And later still with scientific descriptions of reptilian brain, mammal brain, and neocortex. We keep “rediscovering” these Platonic divisions!)
  • Man can learn, and the Lion can be trained. Using the Socratic Method (i.e. dialogue) Man can train the Lion. Together they can contain the Monster and reduce as much as possible the inner conflict, which in turn makes you 1. less egocentric and 2. puts you more in touch with reality.
  • This then makes you better at picking up real patterns in the world, a skill you can then apply on yourself. Better knowledge of yourself means you can better teach the Man, which better trains the Lion, etc. etc.
  • Plato’s famous Myth (or Parable) of the Cave is a way of talking about all this. Notice how self-transformation and getting more in contact with the world are interconnected. It’s participatory knowing. I have to change myself in order to see the world, and then the world changes, so I change myself, and the world discloses itself in a new way, and so on.
  • [I’m omitting Vervaeke’s full description of Plato’s parable, since it’s fairly well known and numerous summaries are available]
  • Clearly, ‘enlightenment’ is not just an Eastern idea. This is a myth of enlightenment. Of coming into the light. The Greek word for this ascent is anagoge.
  • Plato is describing an account of how you can make your lives rationally more meaningful. You can become more fully alive and at peace in conjunction with you coming more and more in contact with the real patterns that make sense of reality. This is what Plato calls wisdom — a fullness of being.
  • It’s also the same myth as the one depicted in The Matrix (1999). The perennial myth of wisdom.
  • “Notice that reason and spirituality are not opposed to each other here, but are inseparably bound together”
  • The structural-functional organization that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s why you can just glue random feathers together in the shape of wings and add feet and a beak and body and tape it together and call it a bird. “Bird-ness” emerges out of how a specific structure functions. Germans has a word for this: Gestalt. For the Greeks it’s logos.
  • You have some sense of what a bird is, what its logos is, but if asked what a bird is you can’t really say. Your grasp of what a bird is is intuitive. Logos isn’t just how a form is integrated, it’s how your mind can be integrated with it.
  • “Logos isn’t just how you know something, but it’s also the pattern that makes it be what it is.” When you really know something you con-form to it. You become like it in some important way.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 6 (Summary & Notes):

List of Books in the Video:

  • George Ainslie — Breakdown of Will
  • Arthur Versluis — Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art



Mark Mulvey

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