The allegory of Plato’s Cave was my first introduction to the ancient philosopher’s teachings, and in fact to the world of Ancient Greek thought. The relevance of the tale to modern society I found to be very compelling - the allegory speaks truths about the universal human condition in a way that transcends time. Before delving into my own interpretation of it, I will give a brief overview of the story, which can be divided into three main parts.
Part One - Imprisonment
Three men have been kept imprisoned in a cave since birth. They are chained by their legs and necks and forced to only look at the wall in front of them, where shadows are cast from a fire behind them. These shadows, they believe, are the beginning and end of reality.
Part Two - Departure
“They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their head all the way around.”
It is interesting to note that their legs and necks are bound in chains - but not their hands. One of the prisoners realises this one day and unties his chains. He looks around and sees the fire, its brightness hurts his eyes. Following his curiosity, he notices a spiral staircase which appears to be going out of the cave. He ascends the staircase and goes outside. At first, the light from the sun is so bright after the darkness of the cave, that he cannot see. Eventually, his eyes adjust and he sees colours, birds, trees, reflections in the water, all the beauty of the world we know. He is amazed at this bright and colourful world and wants to return to his fellow prisoners and bring them out of the cave.
Part Three - The Return
The freed prisoner returns to the cave in order to tell his friends what he has seen. The prisoners do not believe him, they think that his journey out of the cave was dangerous and has harmed him in some way. They are not interested in following him out of the cave, content with their existence living in shadow. Plato warns that, fearing his madness, the prisoners may turn on the freed prisoner and kill him. We can compare this to the story of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, who was condemned to death for, according to the Athenian state, spreading dangerous ideas and corrupting the youth with his philosophy.
This ancient allegory holds many lessons for the modern reader. We could look at it from the perspective of a stereotypical life lived on autopilot - commuting to work, coming home to the TV, sleeping and starting over again. Living for the weekends where disposable income will be spent in shopping malls or bars, chasing moments of escape. Not that these activities in themselves are bad, only if they are done without intention or a sense of purpose. But it is certainly true that many people go their whole lives without curiosity, without looking inwards at all and asking themselves what fulfils them. For some, these questions may come towards the end of their lives. For others, not at all.
On a societal level, we are increasingly placing more of our identity and time in social media and technology. Our screens are progressively taking over more and more of our lives (I say writing this, while looking at one of my screens). Again, technology has given humanity some wonderfully progressive tools, we have a world of knowledge at our fingertips and the ability to connect with people from all over the world. But, as with most things, it is not without its darker side. Could we be heading down a route where, one day, the ‘real’ world as we know it will be forgotten, behind the veil of virtual reality? These possibilities are important to keep in mind, as we collectively embark on a journey of technological advancement at great speed.
For those who, like myself, love an abstract idea, we can contemplate if there is more to our physical existence than the human eye can see. Is it possible that there are more layers to ascend to beyond the world outside the cave? Beyond the light of our sun, could there be a realm very few ever see in their lifetime that cannot yet be scientifically proven? Many people have reported such occurrences during near death experiences, or through transcendental tools and practices. If we each had such an experience, or awakening, even just once in our lifetime, could the collective perspective change to a life filled with more wonder, lightness and joy? Could it enable us to feel less weighed down by the physical realm and better equipped to overcome the problems of our material world?
As with any piece of literature, different lessons and perspectives will resonate differently with each individual. While it is fun (for me, anyway) to muse about these theoretical interpretations, I think the most essential practical life lesson we can take from the allegory is the importance of critical thinking. I believe that we should be in the habit of curiously questioning all the assumptions and beliefs we hold. Always ask ‘why’. This is more important than ever in our age of disinformation and misinformation, which is overwhelming for us all. It should be applied not only to our external environment, but internally too. Why do we think in such a way about something? Is it what we really think? Or what we have been conditioned to think? It is not that we should be distrustful of the media, the information around us, or our own minds – I think this is a dangerous route to go down. We should just remain curious about their nuances. We must recognise that not everything is black and white, we live in a multifaceted and chaotic world which will always have many sides - life and beauty, as well as death and darkness.
The most important thing I personally take from Plato’s allegory is that we should not fear knowledge and wisdom, we should be empowered by it. As the prisoner’s hands were not tied, neither are ours. We each have the ability, with some curiosity and courage, to free ourselves from whatever ‘chains’ are holding us back in life. Curiosity and courage are such important assets to us as human beings. It is curiosity that has, and always will, lead us towards greater knowledge and wisdom - and the courage of those who pursue it. Knowledge and wisdom, in my opinion, are our greatest tools both individually and collectively. To ignore our natural curiosity, our instincts, and to fear new knowledge and wisdom, is to remain chained, to give ourselves up to a life spent in the metaphorical cave. Rather than from a place of fear and darkness, life is much better lived in the light, with openness and wonder. Don’t you think?
My good friend Razi added his own interpretation. He also has many interesting and insightful pieces on his blog: https://atacamar.wordpress.com/
Plato ́s Cave is a clear example of how the question between representation and reality has been a major philosophical concern since Pre-Socratic time. The allegories and myths, such as Plato ́s cave, are multifaceted phenomenon created to provide a reality and a unity to what is transitory and fragmented in the world that we experience, and what is true and eternal in the human condition.
In that sense, by teaching the virtues of curiosity and knowledge, this myth transcends its time and make us question what is the highest (or most pure) state of reality?
In provoking this question, Plato`s Cave myth could not be labelled as “untruth”, “irrational” or a “primitive” story of ancient Greeks and philosophers. It expresses the purest sense of “Art” that can be depicted as an attempt to liberate ourselves from the material limitations and existential constraints in our lives. This Art is like the timeless blood memory that binds our human race and offers a beautifully concise summary: as opposed to the discoveries of science that one day will change or perhaps be obsolete. Mythical Art is eternal because it reveals our inner landscape, the depth image of humans.
To analyse and reveal our inner landscape, which in turn could enable a perception of a new reality or the discovery of the “world” (as at the moment when the prisoner goes out of the cave), many practices can be followed. You mention the immanent quest of meditation, yoga and oriental philosophies that can show paths in the direction of self-revealing and awareness. Also, with the help of psychotropic substances, a human can use them as catalysers to enlightenment. Yet, opposite side-effects are possible in the quest of self-discovery in both cases.
As in the case of death and darkness opposite to life and beauty, there is no definition or precise degree in the pure state of reality described by Plato in this myth. In other words, the allegory cannot be taken rationally to conceptualise what is or what is not the true reality. However, philosophers have taken this interpretation since the Renaissance and the positivism in Science imagining that they have found the right path and the solutions to the imperfections of our world. But those attempts have shown also that the cave is deeper than we thought.
Today, immersed in an ambivalent reality, and attached to faster social changes where information and disinformation abound, what is the lesson of Plato ́s Cave?
In seeking reality in different paths, can we say that a unique or only truth is dead? Is there an ultimate state of reality? There is reality at all? Is it more important for the individual attempt to seek our particular realities than collective ones?
Clearly, Plato was not concerned in offering an ultimate answer to those questions (even if he used this allegory to construct his theory in ideal forms that could guide us to improve reality). Thus, when you mention that the most important thing you take from Plato’s allegory is that we should not fear knowledge and wisdom, we should be empowered by it, you offer a direct and intelligent interpretation to those questions. Maybe we never will know about what is reality really is, but we can try it in many ways and following different purposes. The main point perhaps is not discovering reality itself as a unity, but realising and experiencing its different forms, manifestations and phenomena in our lives. In that sense, it is true that we each have the ability with some curiosity and courage, at least until a certain degree, to free ourselves from whatever ‘chains’ are holding us back in life.
To explore this idea more, TedEd have a great animation about this allegory. You can also read the original tale in Plato’s book, The Republic.