Twenty-four hundred years ago, one of history’s most famous thinkers Plato, said life is like being chained up in a cave limited to watch shadows flitting across a stone wall. Beyond appearing quite morbid, what exactly did he mean? Alex Gendler unravels Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, found in Book VII of “The Republic.”
Plato is a Greek philosopher, who lived from 427.BC. to 347.BC. He was a student of Socrates.
Plato greatly influenced the history of western civilization. He is well known for writing the book “The Republic,” where he describes a utopian image of an ideal society that would be run by philosophers. Plato even established the first institution, “The Academy.”
Plato showcases his knowledge through the cave allegory. You can find this in the seventh book of “The Republic.” Plato tells us to imagine a cave where people are chained so that they can only see the inner wall they are facing. They can’t see those next to them, and they can’t see the cave’s exit that is right behind them. A campfire lightens the cave.
Behind these people, others are walking by carrying statues of men and animals.
The chained ones can observe the reflections of the men and animals because of the campfire. Some others behind the cover are speaking to each other while the others remain silent.
The chained ones perceive this as the shadows being real and talking. They have nothing to do other than talk about the shadows and guess which shadows will pass next. Those who guess correctly get more acclaim compared to the others.
According to Plato, we believe and think that we see the reality after watching the shadows on the wall. He says that if we were to release a chained one allowing them to face the light coming from the cave’s exit, the sunlight would cause pain because this person is used to the darkness. A clear vision would be impossible. If ever they adjusted to the light and witnessed what was actually occurring behind the cover, they will be enlightened. A revelation of the delusion occurs.
The cave allegory represents the life of an individual. Leaving the cave means that the soul rises into the world of ideas. Plato questions what the result would be if a released one tried to explain the real truth to the chained ones. The chained ones would declare that the enlightened one is mad. Even if the enlightened one tries to release the others and take them all out of the cave, it will only lead to the death of the enlightened one.
Plato used this metaphor to refer to the fate of Socrates because he was charged and executed by the Athenians.
What we can gather from this: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave serves to exemplify that things are not always as they seem. Perspective changes everything.
When we allow ourselves to be chained and confined to perspectives, ideologies, religions, and doctrines, we are robbing ourselves of experiencing our highest truth.
Plato’s metaphor is a lesson in exploring our limits, pushing past societal barriers, and continue to learn about ourselves and what this human experience means to us as individuals. To question reality and order is to be human. It is what helped us grow and develop as a species over the centuries, and it is undoubtedly a trait we must never lose.
Featured image credits: 4edges, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons