Plato, Jung, and the Zombie Apocalypse

First of all, I’d like to thank everyone for the response to my first post! Much to my surprise, ‘Philosophy’ was the most voted-on topic in my polling. In my day-to-day life, I’m not used to being around people who feel like they need more Philosophy in their life. Whether you’ve studied Philosophy before or not, I’m gonna try and keep it interesting.

With all that being said, it’s time to talk about Plato, Jung, and Zombies.


Short Form – A Quick Intro to Plato

Plato lived in the 4th and 5th century B.C.E., giving accounts of the teachings of his former teacher Socrates. The reason we attribute these works to Plato and not Socrates is twofold. First, Socrates never wrote anything down himself. Second, we have reason to believe that Socrates never said a lot of the things that Plato said he did. Socrates was killed by the Athenian government for spreading his ideas; Plato therefore had a damn good reason to pretend that his thoughts weren’t his own. Writing in the voice of Socrates gave him both credibility and served to also give him plausible deniability if the police came a-knocking.

Plato’s works consist of dialogues, wherein Socrates has conversations with his buddies on the nature of the universe. A common pattern is trying to find the meaning of a given concept, such as Justice, Love, or Piety. His friends try to explain the concept, while Socrates responds that they’ve only given an example and not a definition of the thing itself. This motivates Plato’s central theory; The Theory of Forms.

illusion
One intro class consisted of like a million examples of ways that your senses are unreliable. Consider yourselves lucky

For Plato, the universe is split into the Sensible and the Intelligible. The Sensible World consists of what we experience through our senses, while the Intelligible consists of what we understand rationally. Plato argues that what we experience in the Sensible World is unreliable. Our senses can be misled, such as through optical illusions, and can only take in a limited amount of information.

While our limited senses only give us shaky insight into the universe, our rational minds get us to true understanding. Luckily for us, everything that we can find in the Sensible World also corresponds to a sort of ‘soul’ or ‘blueprint’ in the Intelligible World. These are called the Forms.

These Forms are perfect and eternal, existing regardless of our experiences. When you see a circle in the Sensible World, that circle is actually participating in the Form of circularity contained in the Intelligible World. There’ll always be circles in the real world, all varying in how circular they truly are. A wheel and a clock are each different, but each participates in the same Form to a certain degree. They correspond to an eternal unchanging blueprint of what makes something a circle.

CIRCLES.png
I spent real minutes of my life drawing this

This is easy to see with things like shapes and mathematical truths, but other things have Forms too. There’s an ideal Form for Justice or Piety or Friendship, and actions will participate in various imperfect degrees to these Forms as well. Repaying your debts to someone isn’t Justice itself, but it participates in the Form of Justice, along with other actions.

Knowledge comes from looking past the imperfect and unreliable Sensible World, and instead coming to understand the Forms themselves. For Plato, the Philosopher’s aim is to get better and better at recognizing what things are purely subjective by refining our understanding of the Forms. Once we’ve grasped the Forms, we can use that to guide our lives and societies.

Plato’s Theory of Forms has been incredibly influential. His student Aristotle used it as the basis for his philosophy, which in turn served as the model for scientific knowledge for literally millennia. The idea of the Sensible and Intelligible World influenced philosophers such as Locke and Kant. It should be unsurprising then, to find pieces of Plato in other fields as well. For instance, we can find echoes of Plato in…


My DJ Name: Jung Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung was a psychologist active in the 19th and 20th centuries. A contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Jung took a more spiritual view compared to Freud’s focus on developmental psychology. Of particular note is his concept of the collective unconscious, the notion that we human beings share a common ground in the realm of thoughts. No matter how we try to escape it, we have all inherited the same concepts. We can’t escape from them, as they form the basis for all of our knowledge. Jung believes these primordial images, called Archetypes, inhabit our collective unconscious and represent humanities history of learned behaviour. These Archetypes serve as helpful reference points when we interpret the world. When we see a figure, such as in a story, we can recognize what role they serve. Are they the Hero or the Trickster? Predator or Caretaker? King or Fool?

Jungian Psychology borrows a lot from Plato’s Theory of Forms. They both claim that we have access to these blueprints from which we draw information. Each also states that all thought conforms to these blueprints, whether they be Forms or Archetypes. They also give us the tools to make sense of seemingly varied and disparate situations, claiming that the commonalities amongst things are no coincidence.

However, the two theories differ in that Forms are eternal and unchanging, representing objective truth within the universe. Archetypes, on the other hand, contain the sum of all inherited and acquired human knowledge, representing our shared experiences and common psychological ground. Forms never changed, while Archetypes could conceivably change over time as more information is added to humanity’s knowledge bank. While Plato thinks we need to work and inquire to truly understand the Forms, Jung believes that the knowledge imparted to us through the Archetypes in the collective unconscious is always with us, colouring our every thought without a need to consciously seek it out.

It’s important to note that Jung is not an evolutionary psychologist. A modern-day psychologist would likely claim that our genes have made us predisposed to act in certain ways because they make us more successful, and this inherited knowledge is coded within us just the tendency or capability to think in a certain way. Jung thought of the collective unconscious as a more spiritual entity, a mysterious force that pervades our every thought. The Theory of Natural Selection was rising in prominence at the time, but Jung’s framework does not make explicit reference to it.

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While it’s a psychological theory, Jung’s theory of Archetypes has also been enormously influential in other fields. In the mid 20th-century, Literature Professor Joseph Campbell published “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In it, he boiled down various mythologies and stores into certain key elements. Of particular note is the idea of the ‘Monomyth’ or ‘Hero’s Journey’. The typical hero story involves the same elements, just dressed up in different details. The stories of Star Wars, The Hobbit, and even the story of the Book of Exodus each seem different. Yet each involve an individual receiving an important destiny, being called into action by a mentoring figure, and ultimately receiving deeper wisdom and bringing peace back into the world. Showing how each culture’s mythologies are based on the same Archetypes can lend credence to the idea that humans operate with the same inherited blueprint.

Every Hero in the classic story comes to face their shadow, the Jungian Archetype representing what we all reject about ourselves. For Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader represents his inner rage and his familial ties to the Dark Side. For Bilbo and Frodo, Gollum represents what will happen to them if they keep using the One Ring. For Moses, dealing with the Pharaoh means seeing how he used to think and treat people before God spoke to him. The struggle with one’s shadow is emblematic of humanity’s struggles. We try to define ourselves, projecting a persona to the world that’s devoid of our darker side. However, our understandings are built upon our collective unconscious. Trying to deny these parts of ourselves, Jung believes, are what makes us sick. Maturation often involves trying to break from the primal precepts of the collective unconscious, but the healthy self comes to accept even the bad stuff about themselves that they deny.

shadow
Same story, different characters. Also the best and worst collage I’ve ever made.

Whether or not you agree with Jung’s collective unconscious, this is a really compelling analogy. We can’t fully escape the lessons we’ve been imparted from the very beginning. Responsibility comes from recognizing that these biases exist and that they colour all of our thoughts, rather than pretending we have done otherwise.

While we can’t escape thinking in terms of Archetypes, that doesn’t mean the Archetypes themselves cannot change. Unlike Platonic Forms, because they exist in the collective unconscious, and are therefore as a result of human understanding, the interpretation of Jungian Archetype’s can shift with the times.


Leaving Us In Shambles – Why Zombies?

Before exploring how Zombies have been used throughout the years, it would be best to first explain why they’re so darn scary in the first place.

We’re grown up to be afraid and grossed out by death itself, and their shambling movements are similarly unnerving. The Uncanny Valley theory states that we have a deep aversion to things that manage to be very similar to normal humans but with something slightly off. Think of early CGI human characters. They gross us out in a way that other animated characters do not.

The ‘Uncanny Valley’ was first used to describe why robots that almost appear human are so disturbing

As a side-note, the Uncanny Valley has been used to explain ableist discomfort when presented with people with physical abnormalities or mobility impairments. According to this theory, these subtle divergences from our typical experiences cause us discomfort. On some level, being presented with disfigurement or disability in this way makes us fear our own injury or disease, resulting in disgust or avoidance.

I’m not personally attached to this theory, so if there’s any big problems with it let me know and I’ll be happy to revise this post. I mean only to bring it up to give a plausible explanation as to why Zombies are so unnerving. For the most part, they’re humanlike. Zombies appear like typical humans, but not entirely. Their motions seem stilted and awkward. The sounds they make resemble speech, but are simultaneously far from it.

Zombies also represent fear through the situations they put us into. Many stories deal with having to kill the Zombified-version of a loved one, sometimes even before they have transformed completely. People know what they have to do in the situation, yet are often unable to do so and they ultimately get killed as well.

Zombies, as an Archetype represent our discomfort when presented with the uncanny and our lack of confidence in our ability to act on our moral judgements. This is why Zombies are scary. But that’s not all that’s at play.


Ain’t That Some Shift – Evolution of the Zombie

The way our Zombie Archetype have been dressed and presented is also very telling of what our society is afraid about. By putting Zombies into a story, we can create an association between a certain topic and our fear of Zombies. In other words, Zombies are a convenient vehicle to communicate other fears we have. This can be plain to see when we examine what Zombie movies have told us to be afraid of.

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The earliest American Zombie stories, in the first few decades of the 20th century, presented them as the work of Haitian Vodou. The fear was that these ‘evil’ islanders would revolt against American colonists and corrupt otherwise ‘innocent’ white people into serving as their magical slaves. These Zombies weren’t so much risen-again dead people so much as they were mind-controlled. Here, the Zombie mythology was clearly preying on Racist fears and classical tropes of ‘pagan spirituality’ and ‘evil savages’. Zombies were an analogy for how corruption could spread from these so-called primitives. While they looked human, they were not to be empathized with or trusted.

28daysModern Zombie stories, on the other hand, usually present Zombies as the result of a virus or infection. Disease has always scared us, but this disease was exacerbated through the outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, and H1N1. These disease came upon us quickly and mysteriously and affected large swathes of the population. Normal methods of disease transfer are not very captivating to the imagination, but a Zombie’s bite is a clear and present way of communicating the threat. A fear of genetic modification and a government’s inability to respond to biological threats motivated a shift in our Zombie mythology. Now, Zombies are hardly ever the result of a wicked witch or nuclear fallout, because these fears no longer grip the majority of society in the quite the same way as the fear of these outbreaks did.

While the presentation of the Zombie Archetype have changed, the core feelings have remained the same. Whether they were presented as the result of Racism or disease, the emotions they evoke in us are still ultimately couched in some basic part of the human condition, by virtue of their supposed existence within our collective unconscious. We then use this association with fear to highlight our fear of other topics of the time, whether that be Racism, Disease, or Smartphones.

In a future post, I’ll explore how rather than just getting dressed differently, some Archetypes can be subverted and change meanings entirely. So stay tuned for “Mythology and Misogyny – The Witch”

 


Acknowledgements

I wasn’t born with all of these thoughts in my head, unless you believe either of the thinker discussed in this post. With that in mind, I’d like to thank those who’ve taught me or introduced me to the concepts I discussing today.

Thank you to Mr. Blair (The Abelard School), Dr. Johnstone (McMaster University), and Dr. Gerson (University of Toronto) for their work in teaching me Plato in various Forms throughout the year.

Thank you to Mr. Maharaj (The Abelard School) and Dr. Allen (McMaster University) for introducing me to Jungian Psychology.

Thank you to Richard Kirwin (Royal Ontario Museum) and YouTube channel Extra Credits for teaching me the finer points of Zombie Mythology.

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