The Greek philosopher Plato presented the “Allegory of the Cave” in his work “Republic.” It is a dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his teacher Socrates. In the Allegory, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave.
In a dark corner of the Cave is a group of prisoners, their Legs, heads and necks chained, forcing them to look only at a wall in front of them. They’ve been in that state since their birth. Their only source of light is a fire, flickering and burning behind them.
Occasionally people passed by the fire carrying various objects and pets; their footsteps, voices, and sounds echoed throughout the Cave and cast shadows on the wall that the prisoners were forced to look at.
The prisoners only ever knew the shadows and the wall, for they couldn’t even turn their heads. With time the prisoners named and classified the shadows, calling a dog’s shadow a dog, and a book’s shadow, a book, believing they actually perceived the real objects.
The prisoners sometimes held competitions among themselves and awarded honor and respect to whoever predicted the next shadow.
Day of Escape
One day, a prisoner is freed from the group. He is dragged out of the Cave and towards the sunlight. He is brought out for the very first time. He experiences immeasurable pain as he encounters the Sun and brightness for the first time. Gradually his eyes adjust.
At first, he begins to see the shadows of things, and then he begins to see the things themselves. He is then told that the things were actually real and the shadows were just mere illusions. He refuses to believe it, as the shadows appear much clearer to him.
Everything overwhelms him, and he is now desperate to return to the Cave as the Cave was all he ever knew. But slowly, he accepts his new reality. He enjoys the green field and the colors of his world. He looks up at the night sky and marvels at the stars and the moon, and one day, he even looks directly at the Sun, the source of everything he has seen.
A Day of Return to Cave
The Sun reminds him of his days in the dark Cave and his fellow prisoners. He thinks of their competitions and their rituals of honor and how he no longer feels connected to their world.
He feels sorry for them, so he returns to the Cave to share information about his new world. As he is no longer used to the darkness of the Cave, he has a hard time navigating and seeing the shadows on the wall.
The other prisoners think his journey outside has made him weak and blind. As he tries to free them, they violently resist, even going as far as killing the person trying to free them.
This allegory can be interpreted in many ways, and over the years, it has been. It has epistemological, political, and metaphysical connotations to it. When you examine it closely, you realize it is incredibly structured and layered.
The Cave represents our everyday reality. Our whole life, we consider what’s being projected in front of us as the absolute truth. We constantly and mindlessly conform to what society dictates, never stopping to examine the reasons behind the events and just believing that the shadows are real.
We never stop considering that the shadows can be manipulated, altered, and presented. We don’t realize we are imprisoned, as we are born into this bondage. The chains that hold us are comfortable, as that’s all we know. We forget to examine our state as we are mesmerized by the shadows and lost in them. But we can seek and see the truth, no matter how difficult that task is. By the very nature of our mind, we possess the ability to transcend.
We possess the ability to be aware of ourselves and our journey and to comprehend the illusions around us. The journey beyond our comfortable everyday existence can be daunting and scary. When one faces reality for what it is, an illusion, it can be harrowing, like the prisoner’s first encounter with the light. Truth always hurts.
What does seeing the truth actually mean?
We live in a material world of constant change and impermanence. It is almost impossible to find true, eternal, and absolute knowledge. Seasons change, mighty buildings crumble, great civilizations come to an end, and people and all living things die. Even our present constantly deceives us.
Our sensory perceptions also let us down from time to time. What looks like an oasis in the desert would turn out to be a mirage. The sweet taste would gradually turn into sourness. It seems that nothing is absolute in our reality.
Plato claims that behind this world of unreliable, deceiving appearances lies a permanent, absolute, and reliable world. He calls it, The World of Forms or Ideas.
He argues that Forms, even non-physical, represent the most accurate reality. He believed that “Forms” are the only object of study which can provide true knowledge.
Now, imagine a Circle. What you are imagining is the ‘Form’ or the ‘Idea’ that Plato describes, the perfect version of a Circle. Drawing it with a pencil wouldn’t be the perfect Circle because it is just an imitation of the form in your mind.
The perfect and the unchanging state of the Circle is its form, and the imperfect representation is what you draw. How good your drawing will be, depends on your ability to recognize the form.
Plato says that the Forms exist in an abstract state in their realm, independent of the minds that conceive it, in a spiritual reality, if you will.
No one has ever seen a perfect circle, but the fact that we can conceive the perfect Idea or Form of a circle means that the Idea of the Circle must exist. Forms are not just limited to geometry.
According to Plato, for every single thing that you are witnessing in reality, for every possible thing, there lies a corresponding, perfect example of that form. Woman, Man, Tree, Cloud, Computer, Ship, Dog, Basket, Door, House can be anything in your reality.
These are examples of independently existing, abstract, and perfect Ideas. So whatever we see in our everyday reality is equivalent to the shadows that the prisoners see in the Cave. Mere illusions!
Plato puts the Forms at the highest level of our reality. He splits our reality into two categories;
- The Visible World and
- The Intelligible World.
The Visible World is the world that is seen but cannot be thought of. It is our everyday existence. The one we unquestioningly consume. He describes this in his Analogy of the Divided Line.
What is Analogy of Divided Line?
Imagine a straight line. The line is divided into four parts –
- A to B
- B to C
- C to D, and
- D to E.
- Visible World
Here, the first two parts, the AB and BC, are assigned to the visible world. AB is where the shadows and the reflections of our physical bodies sit. BC is where the actual physical or material things themselves sit in this category. So, the first half of this line is devoted to our visible world, which we experience daily.
- Intelligible World
But Plato says there is a world beyond what we experience every day, represented by the next half. The part CD is the lowest of the intelligible world, where mathematical reasoning lies. It is the part where abstract mathematical objects such as geometric lines and numbers are discussed, where we assume a hypothesis and move towards a conclusion.
These objects lie outside of the physical world. Even the abstract mathematical reasoning of the intelligible world is less important to Plato. So, his highest place, in reality, part DE, even transcends the reasoning and soars higher than all the hypotheses. Plato calls this stage the Form of the Good. It is the ultimate object of knowledge.
It is not only crucial for a philosopher to understand these Ideas or Forms but also to recognize the relationship between all four levels. Similar to the Sun in our visible reality, which is what allows us to see everything, the Form of the Good in the intelligible world forms the basis of understanding all other forms.
“It is what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower. It is not only the cause of knowledge and truth, it also the object of knowledge.”
But once a philosopher witnesses the true reality and its absolute, unchanging nature, he must also return to the Cave, the reality of illusions, to educate his fellow prisoners and try to set them free, no matter how violently resist.
It is essential to note that Socrates was sentenced to death because of the threat he imposed on Athenian democracy. He taught the young population of Athens the methods of intellectual inquiry. In other words, his death resulted from his attempts to lead people out of the Cave.
Plato also takes the opportunity to use the allegory of the Cave to make a political statement. He says the people who have the ability to step out of the Cave, no matter how painful the journey is, and look directly at the Sun, the true reality, are the only ones that should be able to rule.
Plato explains that only philosophers have the ability to conceive and understand the Forms, so the ideal ruler of people should be Philosopher Kings. Only when such a person comes to power would the citizens of the state have the opportunity to step out of the Cave and see the light.