“We men are in a kind of prison” Phaedo 62b Socrates.
Oddly enough when Socrates said this he was in prison shortly before his forced suicide by drinking hemlock. But this wasn’t the prison Socrates was referring to. The prison we all occupy is made up of our desires, emotional states, ideas, limited sensibility, and the fact that we are in no way equipped to know what lies outside the prison.
The fact we live in a prison is conveniently ignored by people with pretensions to knowledge of what lies outside the prison – spiritual folk and some philosophers come to mind. Unfortunately, the subtleties of our situation seem to miss most people of this nature. For example, the fact that our mind works in a very definite manner, conditioned almost exclusively by evolutionary forces, means we see and understand the world according to the ideas and sensations that have served us in surviving. But for goodness sake do not believe we have the means of knowing “the truth” as we view the world from ideas and senses that are concerned with survival and have no correlation with the truth if indeed there is such a thing.
Obviously, our prison also consists of our emotional states. These can be stubbornly persistent, as in the case of resentment or anger. It is not uncommon for a person to live their life under the influence of one particularly dominant emotion such as anger, and for it never to be resolved. As with the limits of our sensibility and ideas, so emotional bondage contributes to the building of our prison walls.
The obvious question to ask is whether there is an escape from this prison – the answer to which is “sort of”. By observation, we can come to know our prison very well and by inference what is outside the prison – the exclusion of all of the stuff that is inside it. Many traditions seem to think it’s a good idea to fight against our imprisonment, but this just makes the walls thicker. We would after all be employing the same structures that imprison us to try and make an escape. It’s not going to work.
The best we can hope for is that we come to fully understand, and at the same time become indifferent to the structure of the prison cell walls and floor. This is not as easy as it sounds because of the horrible fact that the person who tries to achieve these ends is the very same person that provides the material for the cell walls. Even so, it is possible, although just behind the surface coating of the cell walls lie innumerable demons. The alternative might be to unconsciously suffer the consequences of prison life and hope things turn out for the best.