Once upon a time there were a group of people imprisoned and living in a cave. They’ve always lived there and they don’t know anything of the outside world. There is no natural light in this cave. The walls are damp and dark. All the inhabitants can see comes from the shadows of things thrown up on the wall by light of a fire. The cave dwellers get fascinated by these reflection of animals, plants and people. Moreover they assumed that these shadows are real and if you pay a lot of attention to them you’ll understand and succeed in life. They don’t of course realize that they are looking at mere phantoms. They chat about shadowy things enthusiastically and take great pride in their sophistication and wisdom.
Then one day quite by chance, someone discovers a way out of the cave. Out into the open air. At first it’s simply overwhelming. He’s dazzled by the brilliant sunshine in which everything is for the first time, properly illuminated. Gradually, his eyes adjust and he encounters the true form of all those things which he had formerly known only as shadows. He sees actual flowers, colours of birds, the lines in the bark of trees. He observes stars and grasp the vastness and sublime nature of the universe. Previously he had been looking merely at phantoms, now he is nearer to the true nature of being.
Out of compassion, this newly enlightened man decides to leave the sunlit upper world and makes his way back into the cave to try to help out his companions who is still mired in confusion and error. Because he’d become used to the bright upper world he could hardly see anything underground. He stumbled along the damp, wet corridor and gets confused. He seems to the others, totally unimpressive. When he in turn is unimpressed by them and insist on explaining what the sun is or what a real tree is like. The cave dwellers get sarcastic at first, then very angry and eventually plot to kill him.
The story of the cave is an allegory of the life of all enlightened people. The cave dwellers are humans before science and technology. The sun is the light of reason. The alienation of the returned cave dweller is what all truth-tellers can expect when they take their knowledge back to people who have not devoted themselves to thinking. We are all for much of our lives in shadow. Many of the things we get excited about like fame, the perfect partner, a high status job are infinitely less real than we suppose. They are for the most part phantoms projected by our culture onto the walls of our fragile and flawed minds. But because everyone around us is insisting that they are genuine, we are taken in from a young age. It’s not our fault individually, no once chooses to be in the cave. That’s just where we happen to begin. We’re all starting from a very difficult place.
An allegory is a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Allegory of the cave was presented by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his book the Republic. It was written to compare the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature. So what does it all mean? The shadows on the wall represent an illusion of reality that the people viewing the wall try to interpret without understanding the truth; that the shadows are only shadows. The viewers of the wall have never actually seen what the objects which cause those shadows look like. To the viewer of the wall, all of reality is represented by the shadows. The whole story is a social commentary about understanding what the true nature of the world is and how many people never see it because of the beliefs of the society they are raised in. If you had been raised in the 13th century, you culture’s world view would have been that the Earth is flat and it was the center of the universe. When Plato speaks of being blinded by the light of the fire or the sun open leaving the cave, he is discussing the way some people will react (sometimes violently) when their cultural world view is challenged to the core of their fundamental belief system. Imagine telling a christian that Jesus is not real nor the son of god or a muslim that their entire religion is just made up by some ancient Arab people. Some people would rather retreat back into the cave than acknowledge that everything they knew all their life was wrong.
We all started in the cave but we don’t have to stay there. The road out is called quite simply, science accompanied by reason and evidence.
Watch the full video of the allegory of the cave by The School of Life here.