Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is one of the most famous and most important allegories in human thought. In many ways for its ability to stand the test of time! The infamous allegory is just as relevant today as it is during the times of Socrates himself.
And that’s exactly what I want to focus on, how the allegory relates to our fear of truth. Especially our fear of being shown when we are wrong.
How far is society willing to go in order to avoid being shown they’re wrong?
And consider this question as you read, do you value your truth or the truth?
So for Plato, those who are oblivious to the realm of forms (non-physcial essences of all things), are like prisoners stuck in a cave. The cave holds the prisoners in chains as they sit along a wall of the cave facing the back of the cave. Behind them, a fire burns projecting a shadow in front of them.
For Plato, the realm of forms is a more true reality, where the shadows are what most in society are comfortable following.
Now, between the fire and the prisoners, there is a wall where puppeteers can walk with statues on their heads creating shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. The shackles of the prisoners prevent them from turning to see the true nature of their reality—the false light of the fire!
Since the shadows are all the prisoners ever see, they assume the shadows are the “real” objects. The actual reality!
The idea of the cave is to find a way for the prisoners to unshackle themselves from the shackles placed upon them. If they were to do this, they would be able to turn and see reality for what it is. At first, the light would bring their eyes pain, but after adjusting their eyes would grow accustomed to the new rush of light—a new understanding of reality. The now-former prisoner would first look upon the fire, creating the light for the statues that created the illusion of their former reality. However, an even greater light burns beyond the cave.
The former prisoner’s curiosity further invigorates, drawing their attention to the great light beyond the cave. They step out into the luminous light of the sun to see the true cause of everything around them from the light, their sight, and the even greater multitude of objects around them. A truly new reality.
But what shadows are we still following today?
“He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?” — Plato’s Republic
Socrates, The Cave and Modern Society
The allegory is explaining the difficulty of knowing what is real. The cave is a constantly changing reality for an individual, but it’s a constant illusion that those staring at the shadow covered wall take as real. Even though it’s those holding the statues that are controlling their reality, it’s the illusion of control.
One potential perspective is seeing the movers of the statues as those in society planting the seeds of ideas into your reality, even when they’re not always based on fact. The statues hold a false sense of authority! The narrow perspective of life the cave allows is limiting the holders of the statues, they too do not want to face the true nature of their existence.
But one might think we would get the real reality when we step out of the cave, yet we see that the world is even more vast than we once thought. Although we are getting more of the true reality, we should be humbled by the fact that the expansion of the unknown has also greatly increased. Just consider how the more we learn about space and our cosmos, the less we feel we know.
Escaping the cave is the internalization of this famous quote by Socrates:
“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.”
Could the sun outside of the cave be the source of light in an even larger cave?
What other illusions live beyond?
It’s questions like these we must ask about our own reality. And it’s questions like these that often provide us more questions than answers.
In many ways, the allegory of the cave is a retelling of the story of Socrates.
Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher, spent his life questioning the beliefs of his fellow citizens. He was motivated to do this in the pursuit of knowing himself and he felt the best method of achieving this was through dialogue with others; many of whom were considered respected in society.
Socrates was like a prisoner that notices that the shadows on the cave wall are not the true reality! He wanted to find something more by allowing self-doubt into his mindset and making curiosity fundamental to his belief system. He is someone that escapes and sees the light! Where he then decides to come back and take this new humbling sense of reality as motivation to question the beliefs of others—those still believing the shadows on the wall are the true reality.
What happens when we question people's reality?
Well, we don’t like being wrong! Whether it’s politics, vaccines, climate change, and the multitude of other divisive issues, those on the “wrong” side don’t want to be shown the error in their ways.
We don’t allow ourselves to start from the ground of wanting to be right; we start from the ground of not wanting to be wrong.
How far is one willing to go in order to avoid being wrong?
In the case of Socrates, society killed him for it. It was painful for his fellow citizens to see the truth, so instead of facing it, they sentenced him to death.
“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” — Socrates
In many ways our society today is much the same. We will search for any pseudoscientific information, random authority figure, and false hope to protect our perception of our truth. Instead of looking to protect our truth, maybe we should embrace seeking the truth.