Thanks to my spouse, I recently discovered the excellent podcast “Philosophize This!” The episodes are easy to follow, informative, and humorous – and they remind me of my college political science classes, which I loved. (I attended my 20th Vassar College reunion in early July, so I am admittedly a bit nostalgic.)
Today, I was listening to Episode 4, on Plato, his ideal republic ruled by a philosopher king, and the theory of forms as described in the Allegory of the Cave.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Imagine that you have lived all your life as a prisoner in a dark cave, and are able to look only at the back wall of that cave. At the mouth of the cave – behind you – is a source of light. Occasionally, someone holds up an everyday object (a tree, a dog, etc.) between the light and you. Because you are facing the wall, all you have ever seen are the shadows cast by these objects, rather than the objects themselves.
If you were able to turn around, your eyes would strain at the light, the object would make no sense to you, and you would likely turn back to the wall to look at what is familiar, i.e., the shadow.
Now imagine that one day you were able to escape the cave and see the objects for what they actually are. You could only do so by thought and reason, as the objects themselves would hold no meaning. Plato believed that the entire world consists of “shadows”, and that philosophy and the quest for knowledge are an attempt to see things for what they really are.
An Allegory for Conflict
This seems a fitting allegory for conflict as well.
More often than not, conflict arises when trust has been eroded between the disputants. Each may accuse the other of lying and twisting the facts. Each party to the conflict focuses on the familiar, which may prevent them from finding a path forward. Each participant’s truth and narrative of the dispute is different.
As a third-party neutral I am in the unique position of hearing all the narratives, often including information that one party has not shared with the other. A successful mediation is one in which all participants feel heard, allowing them to share information, use thought and reason to begin to see the bigger picture, and realistically consider their alternatives. Occasionally, mediation may even lead to better understanding between the participants.
Perhaps, then, mediation can be described as a tool to guide the parties to see beyond the shadows and discern the possibilities for resolution.