Plato: The Allegory of the Cave

Behold! Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them. Being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow it’ the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Not all in a moment, he said.

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them? 

***

As John leaned back he asked, “What did you think about this one in particular. Doesn’t it feel faintly familiar?”

Leaning my head back in confusion and curiosity I ask, “What do you mean, are you talking about the prisoner’s delusion?”

“The allegory of the cave, we’ve all been there. We could be in a dark flat or in a palace wearing a black top hat, it doesn’t make a difference, because you still could be living in ignorance. That’s what the deepened darkness is about. The question is whether you can get out.

For Plato, being in the depths of the cave meant we’re bound to our bodies, which means we are bound only to what our senses can expose. Meanwhile, the prisoners miss the very point of life, that life has a point. The darkness is ignorance and the faint flit of ill dissonance. Then one of the prisoner’s shackles are released, I can only guess that it’s Socrates, and long and arduous is the journey up the divided line from the flotsam and jetsam world of mere materiality to a higher plane away from the night, where upon exiting the cave he is blinded by the light. His eyes dilate as they adjust. Then, he is able to see what has real existence. There is a divided line which wrestles with the mind. The cave represents material in motion, like the flotsam and jetsam of modern physics describes. Outside of the cave, away from the slaves, is what the wise prescribe. It’s the world of undying and unchangeable being, of eternal and fixed forms, of universals such as Justice, Beauty, and Truth, where here on earth we can only try to perform. The greatest form is the Good.”

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