Across most of the world, any philosophy student worth their salt will be familiar with the work of Plato, in particular his profound Allegory of the Cave in The Republic.
The first encounter I had with this infamous ancient scholar happened when I changed school for Sixth Form, during the first term studying for A Levels my philosophy teacher set me down a path of curiosity and existential crises by introducing us. Thank you, Miss Smith.
As I understand it the Allegory of the Cave is often where teachers of philosophy begin with their students, and it’s a good place to start. There are several different versions to the story, and various interpretations, but the bare bones will suffice for our purposes here.
Plato asks us to imagine a cave within which prisoners are chained up in a line facing the wall, they only have the ability to move their eyes, and have no knowledge of anything else but the cave. I like to imagine a subterranean Cappadocia-esque scene. Behind the prisoners is a low-lying wall, on the other side of the wall there is a path, and beyond the path is a fire.
Every so often someone minces along down the path carrying objects – a vase, a barrel, a sword, etc. – and the fire casts shadows of these objects onto the cave wall in front of the prisoners like shadow puppets. Having no knowledge of anything but the cave wall in front of them, and nothing better to do given they’re chained up, the prisoners play a game where they name the shadows the fire casts of the scenarios and objects onto the wall in front of them – a vase, a barrel, a sword.
To these prisoners – the cave, the wall, the shadows, the game – this is all they know. This is their reality. Plato then asks us to imagine one of the prisoners is freed. Versions differ, but either the jailor drags the freed prisoner out of the cave, or the jail-breaker undergoes a long arduous journey ridden with obstacles, and scrambles their own way out. Let’s call the freed prisoner Dave. Dave from the Cave, or Dave frum down t’cave if you’re local.
Dave moves slowly towards the dazzling light at the end of the tunnel, and once he makes it out of the cave he’s temporarily blinded by the sun. At first Dave clings to the shadows, viewing the tree’s shade as more real than the tree itself.
Eventually the jail-breaker comes to accept the reality of the outside world, and the illusion and shadow which characterised his limited view previously. Dave comes across a pond, or puddle, or some other body of water and is startled to find his own reflection. He notices the reflection of the sun on the water, and realises the illusion he was under – light always casts a shadow. Finally he has adjusted to reality. Dave subsequently goes back to the cave, attempts to free the other prisoners, and then they kill him.
The allegory tells the story of the humble philosopher, and how the pursuit of knowledge and truth is strewn with complications, existential dilemmas, shattering revelations, and even despair. It also tells the story of Plato’s teacher and bosom-buddy, Socrates, who the Athenians sentenced to death for corrupting the youth by making them question things. It is both warning and provocation, the first lesson of a philosopher. Whilst knowledge is power, it’s also a burden. Be careful what you wish for.
Why does this matter to us now in the 21st Century? That’s a very good question, Dave. The simplest answer is: the cave still represents our world. Plato called this the visible realm, or the Realm of Particulars – i.e. the physical world around us, the world we can perceive with our senses, including the social world, the perceived wisdom, and the bureaucracy we create and experience. The prisoners are you, me, and every other human on the planet.
Shifting the focus to a different level, compare the cave to the classroom or the monotony of the national school curriculum. The prisoners are the students, and the jailor who frees them is the odd inspiring teacher, the rebellious artist, or the fiery journalist. For Plato, this was Socrates. For Aristotle, this was Plato. For Alexander III the Great of Macedonia, this was Aristotle.
The shadows on the wall and the prisoner’s game represent the mismatched jigsaw pieces of information and opinion we take for granted as truth (the curriculum, the media). The arduous journey out of the cave is the journey of a philosopher from doe-eyed idealist to panda-eyed nihilist, hopefully ending somewhere realistic. Learning the truth can be traumatic, especially if it shatters a view, attitude, or belief which has been integral to our understanding of the world.
A father, for example, may find it difficult to accept his son is gay because of his delusional self-perception of impenetrable and irrefutable masculinity. “How could this be? Not my son…”, he may shout, he may wail, he may disappear, but eventually after struggling he may come to accept reality. He may not, of course, and if he doesn’t you can always compensate by dating older men like Plato did. That was a joke. I’m allowed because I’m “yes homo”, which according to modern logic entitles me to more rights than you.
It’s interesting to note how this relates to the much younger Christian adage that hard work and suffering lead to purpose, success, and paradise. Plato’s ideas get a bit meta from here on in, and to be honest in order for you to truly appreciate them I’d recommend getting reasonably stoned. If you want to save your trip to fairyland for later, however, continue reading. Yes, Plato was a fairy, I cannot overstate this.
The reason this allegory is still so important is its universality. The same struggle lies ahead for everyone who dares to question, everyone who has the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to think for themselves.
The main problem is the prisoners who refuse to leave their cage, clinging to the bars, and sounding the alarm on their own would-be liberators. A key lesson to take away from Plato’s Cave is to be wary of those who seek to silence curiosity and demonise candour, because eventually they will force you to drink poison in front of your boyfriend and all of your colleagues.
The cages we inhabit these days are arguably more self-inflicted – the cage of identity, of label and tribe. Learn from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It’s highly likely you don’t have all the answers, in fact it’s a certainty. The little bubble or box you’ve created, or had bestowed upon you, has a very limited view. Only through exposing yourself to uncomfortable ideas and difficult situations can you find the true path. What can be achieved by restricting yourself to a view of the wall? At the very least, break out of the asylum.