Recovery: Climbing out of Plato’s Cave

Plato's Cave

By Peg O’Connor

Originally published on January 8, 2012 in the New York Times.
Reposted with Permission.

Philosophy is one of the oldest areas of inquiry. Out of control behavior fueled by alcohol and other drugs is one of the world’s oldest problems. What could these old timers offer each other? Philosophy has a long, stable relationship with reason and more specifically, the relationship between reason, emotions and the will. Addiction seems to involve a total abdication of reason, a messy tangle of emotions and a lack of will.

I introduce the notion of addiction as a subject of philosophical inquiry here for a reason. I am a philosopher, yes, but I am also an alcoholic who has been sober for more than 24 years ― only the last four of them as part of a recovery program. I am often asked how I got and stayed sober for those first 19 years; it was because of philosophy, which engendered in me a commitment to living an examined life, and gave me the tools and concepts to do so. My training in moral philosophy made it natural for me to wrestle with issues of character, responsibility, freedom, care and compassion in both work and life.

Philosophy has always been about the pursuit of knowledge, but one that included the higher aim of living a good and just life. This pursuit has involved examining the nature of just about everything. Socrates’s guiding question was “what is it?” The “it” in question could be justice, piety, beauty, courage, temperance, or knowledge. For Socrates, these are the crucial virtues around which life should turn. Socrates’s agenda was to draw the line between what appears to be just or pious and what justice or piety really is. In the person of Socrates, Plato provides the powerful tools of conceptual analysis and allegory that can be fruitfully applied to the questions about addiction.

In his pursuit of knowledge about the nature of virtues, Socrates first had to debunk popular opinions about them. The debunking took the form of a dialogue but in reality more closely resembled a cross examination. Socrates looked for the essence, necessary property or ineliminable trait that made particular acts pious or just. Socrates interrogated every definition offered to him by asking for examples, pushing and pulling against those definitions, turning them inside out and upside down, stretching that definition to see if weird things followed, exploring what follows when a particular definition is put into practice and excavating hidden assumptions behind those definitions.

This isn’t exactly glamorous work but it is vital in the pursuit of knowledge of any sort. This kind of work prompted the 17th-century philosopher John Locke to describe himself as an under-laborer, clearing away the rubbish that gets in the way of acquiring knowledge. We now call this work conceptual analysis, one of the most powerful tools a philosopher has to wield.

How might philosophy approach or provide us with a better understanding of addiction? Socrates would ask, “What is it?” He would not be alone. Psychiatrists, psychologists, chemical dependency counselors and people in recovery programs the world over are constantly asking this question. Neuroscientists have now entered the fray, searching for both the cause and effective management of addiction. Yet there is no consensus. Defining addiction remains an area of heated debate.

Yet despite differences of opinion, most of us can recognize — and through recognition, perhaps better understand — certain behaviors and situations in which “normal” use of alcohol or other drugs turns to destructive dependency.

A sort of recognition may be found in examining allegory, in this case, a very familiar one from Plato. Allegory — a story that functions as an extended metaphor and has both literal and figurative meanings — is clearly not science. But it does offer the potential for a sort of insight that conceptual analysis can not. An allegory allows us to unpack many of those dimensions that escape more scientific description. With the cave allegory that Plato offers in the “Republic” to draw the line between appearance and reality, we have a potentially powerful tool for understanding the crisis of the addicted person. Briefly, Plato’s allegory is this:

There is a cave in which prisoners are chained facing a wall. They cannot move their heads and therefore cannot look sideways or behind; they only can look forward. Behind them are a burning fire and a half wall where puppeteers hold up puppets that cast shadows. To the chained men, the shadows are real; they have no conception of the objects that cause the shadows. Appearance is mistaken for reality, and thus there is no real knowledge.

Now imagine that the prisoners are released from their chains. They look behind them and see the objects that caused the shadows. Most likely they will be confused and horrified and unwilling to accept that these objects caused the shadows. Imagine now that the prisoners start to leave the cave. They will be painfully blinded as soon as they encounter light. Once their eyes begin to adjust, they will be confronted by a harsh bright world with a whole host of horrifying objects. Some of the men will flee back to the safety of the darkness and shadows, valuing the familiar more highly than the unfamiliar. Anyone who returns and tells his friends who are still enchained what he has seen will be regarded as a nut lacking any credibility. Other men, once their eyes have more fully adjusted to the light, will want to stay above ground. Such people come to realize that world of light is the real one where genuine knowledge is possible. One further point to consider: some of the people who have seen the light of truth and reality need to go into the cave to help those who are still enchained to leave the cave. This is the philosopher’s burden, according to Plato.

This allegory is richly wonderful for understanding addiction, relapse and recovery. Most people who become addicted become enchained to their drug of choice. The word “addiction” comes from the Latin verb “addicere,” which means to give over, dedicate or surrender. In the case of many alcoholics, for instance, including my own, this is just what happens. What had perhaps started as fun and harmless use begins to grow troubling, painful and difficult to stop. The alcoholic becomes chained to alcohol in a way different from others who “drink normally.”

In various scenarios of addiction, the addicted person’s fixation on a shadow reality — one that does not conform to the world outside his or her use — is apparent to others. When the personal cost of drinking or drug use becomes noticeable, it can still be written off or excused as merely atypical. Addicts tend to orient their activities around their addictive behavior; they may forego friends and activities where drinking or drug use is not featured. Some may isolate themselves; others may change their circle of friends in order to be with people who drink or use in the same way they do. They engage in faulty yet persuasive alcoholic reasoning, willing to take anything as evidence that they do not have a problem; no amount of reasoning will persuade them otherwise. Each time the addict makes a promise to cut down or stop but does not, the chains get more constricting.

Yet for many reasons, some people begin to wriggle against the chains of addiction. Whether it is because they have experiences that scare them to death (not uncommon) or lose something that really matters (also not uncommon), some people begin to work themselves out of the chains. People whose descent into addiction came later in life have more memories of what life can be like sober. Some will be able to turn and see the fire and the half wall and recognize the puppets causing the shadows. Those whose use started so young that it is all they really know will often experience the fear and confusion that Plato described. But as sometimes happens in recovery, they can start to come out of the cave, too.

The brightness of the light can be painful, as many alcoholic or drug dependent people realize once their use stops. Those who drank or used drugs to numb feelings or avoid painful memories may feel defenseless. This is why they will retreat back to the familiar darkness of the cave. Back with their drinking friends, they will find comfort. This is one way to understand relapse.

Others will make it farther out of the cave and have their eyes adjust. They will struggle to stay sober and balanced. So many of their old coping behaviors will not work, and they are faced with a seemingly endless task of learning how to rebuild their emotional lives. Some will stay clean and sober for a good while and later relapse. People relapse for all sorts of reasons, and often these have to do with old patterned ways of thinking and behaving that make a roaring comeback. When people who have had some sobriety relapse and go back to the darkness of the cave, they may be met with derision ― an “I told you so” attitude.

Those who do make it out of the cave and manage never to relapse again are few and far between. They know just how precarious their sobriety is and what they need to do to maintain it. People with long-term sobriety are often the ones who need to go back down into the cave, not as saviors, but for their own survival. People with years of sobriety often say that newcomers help them to stay sober because their pain, loss, and confusion are so fresh. Their stories remind old timers of enchained life in the cave. Old timers can share their stories too and in the process show them different ways to be in the world.

Of course, our stories are real and deeply personal, but like allegories they can wield a transformative power. Transformation can come from many sources, including some of the earliest and most profound investigations in philosophy. Plato’s cave, Montaigne’s cat, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, Nietzsche’s myth of eternal recurrence, Wittgenstein’s fly in the fly bottle, and feminist conceptions of self-identity — to name but a few — are ready companions in the pursuit to understand the complexities of addiction, relapse and recovery.

Peg O’Connor is a Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.  She sobered up quite by accident and with the aid of philosophy. She understands addiction as a meaning of life problem and no discipline is as well suited as philosophy to address meaning of life questions. Peg writes a blog on philosophy and addiction for the online version of Psychology Today titled Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken.”

18 Responses

  1. VeganSyd says:

    I love Agnostics!

    • VeganSyd says:

      I appreciate philosophical discussion and ideas from all free thinkers – please continue these thoughtful dialogs.

  2. JHG says:

    While I wholly affirm and personally embrace using philosophical inquiry as a resource in recovery, I have significant reservations about Plato. That is not any more meaningless than the general question about whether philosophy is useful.

    Plato’s philosophy assumes a universal source of truth. One of his legacies is that our understanding of the philosophical discipline is that it is supposed to identify that about which we can be certain, e.g. what the light reveals once we have left the cave.

    The problem I have with that is that expecting to achieve a sense of certainty can be a bigger problem than living in the dark. This is a particularly critical issue for addicts. Addicts tend to be more afraid of real freedom than of “the truth.”

    I believe the reason so many people find AA to be unpromising has more to do with the mere fact that it is so dogmatic than with the particular tenets of that dogmatism. In other words, people resist the idea that all their problems can be solved by buying into a simple set of certainties. A lot of theists have as big a problem with AA dogmatism as do atheists and agnostics.

    And even many of those who give AA a chance can’t make it work because AA’s version of reality does not fit their actual experience. No matter how sincerely they might try to believe in AA’s certainties, they can’t make it work in their own lives.

    A far better use of philosophy than following Plato into a search for certainty would be to explore the nature of freedom. There are plenty of resources available for that.

    The cave metaphor works for me as long as I’m clear that my experience outside the cave will challenge my sense of certainty more than it will equip me with anything I might call “truth.”

  3. Andy Mc says:

    Dr O’Conner,
    Thank you for sharing with us your insightful article. So fascinating to read articles written by a learned scholar affected by our malady.

  4. steve b says:

    Although I read a little philosophy and strive to be rational, it wasn’t philosophy which prompted me to get sober. It was being sick and tired of being sick and tired, and being afraid that alcohol would kill me, which worked the trick.

    I’m pretty skeptical about what philosophers say: If one is religious, this makes me wonder how rational he is if he can fall into the trap of believing and justifying nonsense; and if another one dismisses the scientific method, again I am leery about trusting what he’s got to say. The only modern philosophers I enjoy reading are atheists such as A C Grayling and Daniel Dennett, who are eminently rational and respect science. But I like the philosophical writings of scientist Jerry Coyne best of all. Go to his website Why Evolution Is True and see why I say this.

  5. Joe C says:

    Alan Watts said that mythical language is infinately suggestive. He thought that this story telling tradition had a leg up on depending strictly on a more exacting, more scientific vocabulary. Ketcham & Kurtz say a myth is something that never happened because it is always happening. I can be an egg-head at time; someone can talk of the languge of the heart and I retort that the heart has no languge. Somewhere around an unsolicited explanation of neurotransmitters I both cement how right I am and miss the point, all at once.

    This Peg O’Connor piece reminds me that if understanding the human condition is my goal, I best be as multilingual as possible if I don’t want to habitally be spouting the right answer to the wrong questions.

    l really enjoy the use of this allegory to descibe the relationship between the long-timer and the newer member. The insistence by the longer-clean and sober member that these relationships are a two way street is often misinterpreted as false humility.

    Only four sleeps until We Agnostics & Freethinkers International AA Conference. Looking forward to seeing some of you there.

    • steve b says:

      I think that just about anything expressed as a myth can be stated in plain English. Myths can be fun to play with, but they are unimportant to me.

    • life-j says:

      Joe, isn’t the infinitely suggestive mythical language part of the problem rather than part of the solution, at least for us non-believers?
      The point of myth is to bridge the gaps between incompatibles? Spiritual caulk, like Adam N says.
      Maybe a myth or story like Platos satisfies something for us, but the part it satisfies, isn’t that the part of us that has religious leanings? The part looking for “meaning” where there is none, and we’d rather have that there be meaning than not, even when there shouldn’t be, because there isn’t?

  6. life-j says:

    Glad to hear that your lifelong vocational devotion to philosophy has helped you in your recovery. Many people are not so lucky.
    I think a lot in order to make sense of the recovery process, since most of the explanations in the big book do not cut it for me.
    As for Plato’s cave story, though, I have to confess that your applying it to recovery doesn’t do much for me. More power to you, and to anyone else for whom it clicks and adds to their understanding of recovery. To me it is just one more collection of concepts and stories that don’t help explain much to add to those many concepts and stories in the traditional AA universe that also don’t explain much.
    Explaining things after the fact can be difficult. Here Bill Wilson got to observe that talking with other drunks helped him stay sober, and he got off to what I would call a bad start with his explanations by the fact that Ebbie brought him religion, and he went to the Oxford people, and then he had his hallucinations at Towns.
    And then he wrote the BB trying to make explanations for the fact that his program worked. Instead of drifting in a scientific direction with his explanations he drifted in the god direction. It’s a lot easier, of course to circumvent any scientific challenge with that god did it.
    But it is all stories. And obviously these stories have helped a lot of people. But personally I must say that trying to understand the Plato story so that I can try see if I can make it add anything to my understanding of how my recovery works is a bit like what a Danish saying expresses as “going across the creek to fetch water”.

    • steve b says:

      I think you are right. Bill W misattributed his sobriety to “god,” and from this wobbly acorn grew the the massively incorrect explanation of why AA works.

  7. John L. says:

    Thanks, Peg. I’ve had a love of Plato ever since I took an undergraduate course, “Ancient Philosophy”, under a great teacher, Raphael Demos. The reading list consisted of almost all of the Plato dialogues, the major works of Aristotle, and Lucretius. I hadn’t previously connected the Allegory of the Cave with recovery, but you make a good case. We should not fear the light of Reality, and we should not be afraid occasionally to revisit the cave, to remember what it was like then – the first part of a tripartite qualification.

    In some ways the Cave Allegory seems very modern. Propaganda and psy-ops are ubiquitous – everything from Hollywood movies to the “news” stories in the mainstream media. Do we ever really see the puppets and the puppeteers for what they are? We didn’t invent all of our own delusions. The liquor and therapy industries had a hand, and the culture we live in.

    As you point out, Plato is about questioning facile assumptions, things taken for granted. Why is drunkeness considered to be funny? I remember being horribly hung over and my roommate saying to friends, “John’s shaky today.” Ha ha! I should have stopped drinking then, but I had to go on, hangover after hangover, to where I was fighting for my life in withdrawal, and then it wasn’t funny.

    A bit off-topic, but I gave a sermon (!) once on Socrates, right here: Socrates and the Ladder of Love.

  8. Barbara R says:

    This is why I absolutely love this web site and look forward to each Sunday’s post. You have given me many ways to think about and learn to recover in a language that I understand and can relate to. Thank you all who contribute to this site. Keep it coming!

  9. Duncan says:

    Peg,Great explanation using philosophy. However I wonder why you used a recovery programme if you had already been sober 19 years.

    You quoted:

    I am a philosopher, yes, but I am also an alcoholic who has been sober for more than 24 years ― only the last four of them as part of a recovery program. I am often asked how I got and stayed sober for those first 19 years; it was because of philosophy.

    Are you saying that you would have been drinking if you had not done a recovery programme (which I assume was AA)? It seems to me that this parallels the story in the Big Book,excepting that the man went drinking after 25 years of being sober when he was building up his business. Perhaps yours is a story which should be told. That would send the BIg Book Squad running for cover.

    I know when I got sober I just did not want to drink, but then I did not know how. At least not until the pain began to lessen. By meeting people in AA I finally learned.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you, Peg, for a fascinating read . . .

    As a long-timer, sober in AA a day at a time for over 42 years, I have another reason for going back down into the cave with newcomers – I get to re-experience the awe and wonder and mystery of my recovery blossoming anew in them. I am reminded to be exceedingly grateful for my recovery, when I experience newcomers expressing gratitude for theirs. Whether objectively “real” or not, my higher power speaks to me through their “language of the heart,” which renews and enlightens my ongoing recovery process of experiencing daily reprieves.

    The thought also strikes me that we humans have been gathering around firelight in caves to tell each other stories for comfort, support and serenity since the earliest beginnings of our always-evolving consciousness. It seems to be a essential behavior of what it means to be human. It’s what we do metaphorically when we gather together in AA rooms to share experience, strength and hope, regardless of how sophisticated our knowledge may be, to come out of the darkness of addiction.

  11. Candice S. says:

    In my experience, people often (for the last 2500 years, at least) attribute anything that seems too hard for humans, or too difficult to explain in folk terms, to God. It never was the best solution to difficult problems, and is even worse in terms of theoretical virtues, now, when we have many sciences approaching the problem. But aside from making the turn toward the supernatural, thinking of addiction in terms of any learning, particularly introspective learning, which is what Plato is on about, is extremely helpful. Every perspective that can illuminate something new about addiction is helpful and welcome. It just seems a waste to dead end those insights by directing them toward the inexplicable, unilluminating, and therefore impractical.

  12. Oren says:

    Thanks, Peg. I’d like to read more of your philosophical thoughts on recovery. As an agnostic in recovery for a long time, I’ve taken some consolation from reading the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at times, but never deeply. I hope you write more articles for us.


  13. Jim M. says:

    Thanks for the discussion of the Cave allegory. Enjoyed it. It will speak to many of us, as will the others you mention: Montaigne, Nietzsche, feminist points of view, etc. Don’t forget the one that works best for myself and a lot of others – the ideas of Sakyamuni Buddha on emptiness, perhaps at least halfway antipodal to Plato and his realism. Neither objective nor nihilist, all is empty of existence from its own side, dependently arisen. I have found this a very fruitful way to view my addictions and how I recover.

  14. steve says:

    Having bounced in and out of various flavors of 12-step for decades the topic of godless sobriety has been an important issue to me since the 80s. I’m new here, just discovered the site by attending the WAFT convention and am finding the content here to be very high quality. That said I’m not in disagreement with the Plato’s cave analogy to addiction but suspect that the cave is in fact a better stand-in for the rooms of AA than any time spent drinking or using. I consider both situations to be chains of some sort but the key 3rd-party actors from the story that are missing from the delusion of addiction are the puppeteers who cast the shadows. If anything I am both puppeteer and prisoner when in active addiction, and I walked into the addiction cave on my own largely to escape the uncomfortably random wide-open reality that is supposed to be so unfamiliar to those exiting the cave in Plato’s allegory. The 12-step cave however is one I truly was forced into by the authorities and the puppeteers in there weren’t any part of me. Nor did I ever agree with or want to keep watching the awful and superficial shadows of Bill Wilson’s religious dogma flickering on the wall before me. I still don’t believe any of it, from disease concept to spiritual cure, and none of it has anything to do with my choice to stay sober today.

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