Regarded to be one of the most influential works of the Greek philosopher, Plato; the classic book - The Republic is a brief account of Plato's major philosophical assumptions. Plato's allegory of the cave is an excerpt from the same book and it is said to be an exceptional portrayal of human condition. Plato, in this excerpt has presented a fictional dialog between Plato's teacher Socrates and Plato's brother Glaucon. It is this conversation that leads to some timeless wisdom and deep philosophical interpretations. Since centuries philosophers, historians, theologians, spiritual seekers, logicians and sociologists have been trying to dig deeper into the myriads of interpretations this single allegory has the potential to produce.
The Allegory of the Cave Explanation: Three Phases
Plato's allegory of cave can be studied and critically analyzed in three steps. The first one is when Socrates discusses Glaucon regarding the life of prisoners inside the cave and their illusion of reality, the second is the case, if the same prisoners are released from the cave and lastly, he discusses the possibility of the free prisoner returning of the cave. Through this allegory, Plato tries to highlight the relative ignorance that the humanity is accustomed to live and is so addicted to it, that even in the light of truth, the ignorance seems secure, safe and it is difficult to tread other paths, that are guided by light (truth).
1. Inside the Cave: Synopsis
In the beginning of the allegory, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a situation in which a cave is inhabited by several prisoners. All the prisoners have been chained down since their childhood and it is impossible for them to even move a muscle. Not only the arms, hands and legs of prisoners are immobile, even their heads have been fixed. All they're able to do is to gaze in the front wall. Located behind the prisoners is a fire and between the fire and prisoners is a walkway. On this walkway, people walk carrying figures of different types of animals, men and other objects on their heads. Owing to the fact that the raised walkway is between immobile prisoners and fire, shadows of people walking along the walkway are reflected on the rocks in front of the prisoners. It is these rocks where the gaze of prisoners is fixed constantly, as they're chained down completely. Further, even the echoes heard due to the walking of people are perceived by prisoners as the noise produced by shadows. In the cave, the prisoners play games and awarded honors amongst themselves to those who are able to best guess the next shadow reflecting on the rock.
According to Socrates, for prisoners the shadow won't merely be a reflection of reality. It will indeed be a reality because that is all they have seen since their growing years. In life, we human beings have a similar conceited mentality or narrow mindedness about beliefs, ideas and thoughts. Most of us are prisoners of our own self made thoughts. What an individual perceives to be the truth and reality may be a completely different realm of reality for another person. Socrates tries to put emphasis on the fact that we all suffer from relative ignorance. Society and its members are generally blinded by their own sets of beliefs and ideologies. They rarely try to observe the reality by being in others shoes. Similarly, Socrates also wishes to highlight the fact that merely coming into this world, attending college, getting a job, marrying and later sending our children to school might just seem the perfect reality of this life. However, that reality is also an illusion as life has more deeper and far more comprehensive meaning. So what we may logically feel to be the center of our existence and reality, is certainly a part of the larger illusion. It is towards this fact that philosophers have tried to shift the attention of common man since centuries.
2. Release from the Cave: Synopsis
In this segment of conversation, Socrates asks Glaucon to assume that one of the prisoners is released from the cave by a man into the broad day light, in the sun. He then raises various questions that will confront the prisoner. Will the prisoner be able to accept the light after having lived in darkness? Will the actual people walking in the walkway make him realize that what he saw as shadows was just a reflection of reality? Wouldn't the prisoner find it distressing to leave his own territory, which he perceived as the ultimate reality?
Having accustomed to his lifestyle since childhood, the prisoner will find it extremely difficult to break free from his territory. His initial response will be of denial and fear. He will be afraid of accepting the transformation from darkness to light. It is the same with societies and individuals. It is quite difficult to accept change, especially, if it brings with new ideas that will completely replace the old ones. When we are asked to think and follow the less trodden path, be it in spirituality or in professional life, we are confronted with our own fears of security and mental peace. To accept change is difficult, to break free from the mere reflection of reality is tough. Individuals who only regard materialistic life as the ultimate might perceive as that to be the only reality. But life, as well know has different realities. What we focus our attention towards, is reflected back to us. But this doesn't mean that other realities cease to exist. They're there, always, it is only that our focus shifts from them to more tangible gains. Just like the cave prisoner, we're often afraid of taking a road less traveled, of accepting a change, though it might be for our good. All this is because, our ideas and thoughts limit us and we only imagine or feel it to be the reality. Even if someone tries to free us from those boundaries in a world of new possibilities, new realities, we would like to return to our past state, for false sense of security. This segment of allegory also reflects the general treatment meted out to philosophers and thinkers. Society has always been averse to the ideas of thinkers and philosopher initially. It is only after years and decades that historians have been able to filter the rich wisdom and priceless virtues from writings of great philosophers. Just like the prisoner when taken out of the cave, might react dangerously, the society goes against people who try to show them a reality that is different to the daily living. Galileo was killed because he tried to present a reality that was taken as anti religion and anti Christ. Similarly, any thinker who goes against the established norms of society, faces criticism and denial.
3. Return to the Cave: Synopsis
In the last section of Plato's allegory of the cave, Socrates asks Glaucon to reconsider that the prisoner returns to the cave. Now will the reaction of prisoner regarding the place and his friends be same, as it was while he was chained down in the cave? Will he be able to breathe free in the underground cave, when he has seen a reality more enriching than the darkness in the cave?
In the last piece of allegory, Socrates tries to reflect to a very basic fact that once we see the ultimate truth of any concept or rather life, we experience a freedom and liberation, totally different of our past. In the initial state, the prisoner was negative about the new life he got, about the new reality he saw. However, as his fear vanishes and he is able to experience the world in sunlight, he is able to see a totally different world with many more living beings and features that he did not see in the cave. He is simply enlightened to see a world that is completely different from his cave. His assumptions that what he saw as reality in the cave is broken. He feels a new sense of life and meaning. Now, in this case, if the prisoner tries to go back to the cave and tell his friends that there is a different world out there, won't they consider him to be corrupt or changed? Even if he tries to live there, will be able to play their games like he used to do before? He has seen a different reality now, and he knows the cave life was false, a mere reflection of reality. If he stays there, would he be able to accept the present reality? And what if the prisoners kill the man who freed him, won't they kill the prisoner also? After all, they are too comfortable in their own skin to accept any change, as that is the reality for them. While the prisoner who has seen the outside world might have a different experience, now, the reality for other prisoners still remains the same.
Hopefully, the interpretations of cave allegory given in this article must have given you a deep insight about the analogies used by Plato. By using elements like 'cave', 'prisoners', 'shadows', Plato has been able to highlight the most crucial lesson philosophers, religions and spiritual thinkers have been trying to give to humanity since ages; that is, the ultimate truth and reality is rarely pursued by societies and individuals. What most of us are able to perceive are the imperfect, distorted and tampered reflections of reality. As per Plato, true knowledge can only be gained by ascending from the lowest level (darkness of existence, ignorance of reality) to gradually going higher (coming out the cave, experiencing a different life) and then spreading that experience to the peers (return to cave, to spread the knowledge).
If we have to put the allegory of the cave meaning in few sentences, it can be said that in society, we generally follow the crowd. Whatever is true as per the norms of society is regarded to be the ultimate truth. However, Plato tries to free us from this crowd mentality and asks us to question a life that is beyond the security of kids, marriage, career and daily chores. Knowing the truth through our own experiences is quite different than blindly believing the crowd. Share your views regarding the cave allegory in the comments section below. We would love to share your insights with millions of readers across the globe, regarding this greatest analogy.