Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has managed to remain relevant for well over two millennia. The story comes from the philosopher’s most famous book, Republic. In it, the philosopher contemplates the nature of our perceptions and the limits that are placed on them by our environment. Generally, commentary on the allegory discusses either epistemology (how we come to know things) or politics, but we’re going to take a different approach to the tale. The Cave, in my belief, represents the most fundamental question- how can we lead others to the Truth?
In the allegory, Plato proposes that there are a number of people chained to the wall of a darkened cave. These prisoners have been there from the moment of their birth, and they are constrained in such a fashion that they are unable to look anywhere other than directly ahead. Behind the wall, there is a fire which projects the shadows of figures. These shapes are held by people who are walking back and forth and chattering amongst themselves. It’s a bizarre puppet show, to be sure.
Plato concludes that, because the prisoners have never seen anything else, they will inevitably attribute the noises to these shadows and assume that the shadows are reality.
Now, imagine one of these prisoners is freed. He looks around and sees the fire, which hurts his eyes. Because he doesn’t know any better, he would be unable to believe that the fire is real. Plato believes that the pain of this would cause him to run immediately back into the prison he is accustomed to. He then suggests that someone comes to drag the prisoner out of the cave and into the light of day. At first, the man would be blinded by the light of the sun, although slowly his eyes adjust until he is able to look directly into the sun and think about what it is.
Having seen the world for what it truly is, Plato then postulates that the former prisoner now returns to free his brethren. Because his eyes had been adjusted to the sun, he is now blind in the darkness, and the other prisoners believe that he has been harmed by his leaving. Because of this, the other prisoners will kill him for trying to free them from their chains.
The allegory paints a bleak picture to be sure, although we have several real-life instances of this to compare it to. This allegory, more or less, explains why so many famous leaders end up getting murdered- the people crucified Jesus, shot Gandhi, and even Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was driven to drink hemlock. Almost universally, we strive to kill those who only seek to show us the Truth.
Let’s break the allegory down into its constituent parts. I will add that in this exigesis, I’m going to be using Plato’s allegory as a means to examine our world rather than to determine what Plato may or may not have meant.
We are the prisoners, and the chains that hold us are our innate ignorance of the true nature of the world. The shadows on the wall are our false views of the world that come from our lack of ability to question our state. The metaphor supposes that we are confined at the whims of those conducting the puppet show, but I believe that they, too must be operating under the influence of some other form of ignorance. I generally doubt that most people are motivated by pure malice, so presumably these are people that have a degree of knowledge about the outside world and are trying to convey it to the prisoners.
Who are the players in the puppet show in our world, then? There are many- priests, politicians, scientists, philosophers- anyone who seeks to show the ignorant the facts of the world. However, this approach is inherently flawed- the shadows are the ideologies created by these limited approximations of the Truth. The fact is that the prisoners are the only people capable of freeing themselves, and as a result, trying to show people what reality is will never be a sufficient replacement for the direct experience of reality.
This is why the people who attempt to free the prisoners of their ignorance are made to be martyrs- the pursuit of truth is inherently painful. Before we develop knowledge of our Self, we treat our flawed worldviews (the shadows on the wall) as something that’s actually real. We literally cannot tell the difference between a (perceived) attack on our thoughts and an actual attack on ourselves. As a result, we become just as defensive to protect against the death of our petty ego, because we see it as an actual death.
Think about the nature of pain- we have the sensation to detect threats to our life, and somehow we have evolved to attribute that sensation to our thoughts as well. This is cognitive dissonance, which for some reason has helped our species to survive in the world. We all hate to be wrong, and the realization that we are wrong causes our old view of the world, our old self, to die. Because these thoughts cause us mental pain, we effectively treat them as a physical threat. If the source of this pain is a person, we kill them before they can kill our petty ego.
I will clarify something here- the petty ego is different from the Ego proper. Imagine the petty ego as one’s identification with the belief that a sports team is good (and the subsequent anger expressed when someone criticizes the team) versus the Ego proper, which is one’s core, immutable personality that are consistent over time. Obviously one would treat attacks to these two parts of one’s self the same way. However, the reason that these are distinguishable is that one can be changed and one cannot. This distinction is important because it allows us to reconcile the notion of the religious and eastern philosophical traditions that the ego is bad with the more modern western notion that the Ego is a good thing. I am currently working on a more complete discussion of this topic and will link it here when it is finished.
This leaves us with the most important question- how can we lead others to the Truth? Obviously simply presenting a worldview doesn’t work- that method ultimately devolves into the ideologies of the puppet show. Worse still is the attempt to free people by force- I, for one, have no desire to be a martyr, and presumably you do not either, dear reader. Martyrs simply end up used as ideological puppets in the show to try and enlighten the prisoners.
So what are we left with? First- we, ourselves, must have the desire to question the nature of our reality- which I believe is the root of true self-consciousness. A person who does not actively question their reality is, in some sense, not fully conscious. How many times have you seen someone actively engaged in behaviors that cause themselves pain, without any awareness of this fact? That’s the grand irony of the situation- we fear the pain of waking up when it’s staying asleep that really hurts.
However, what is the origin of the desire to question reality? Where does the spark of doubt come from, and how do we convey that to others without attempting to force them to see? This is the fundamental question that drives myself, and it is this question that this site ultimately exists to attempt an answer to. Theoretically, there has to be some combination of words that, when seriously reflected on, cause one to begin to break their chains and wake up. I believe this is the thought behind prayers, mantras, and koans, but that’s a topic for another day.
With that, I leave you with the same question that I have.
Until it is answered, may we all be led from ignorance to the Truth.