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The Cave

“And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s being shown?”

– Plato

Plato introduces the Allegory of the Cave in his work Republic to explore the effect of education on the individual. He describes a hypothetical where a group of people spend the entirety of their lives as prisoners in a cave. They are restrained such that they are able to see only the wall in front of them. The cave itself is lit only by a single fire, which is used to project shadows on the wall visible to the prisoners. The shadows comprise the prisoners’ reality—it is all they know.

“Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”

– Plato

The prisoners live in a dimly lit world. The shadows that are their reality do not provide accurate representations of objects in the real world. Though they can communicate with one another and talk about what appears before them, their reality is far from true. Nevertheless, this shadow-world is the only world they know, it is the world they are familiar with—it is the world they have come to accept as given. If a prisoner were suddenly freed, he would have difficulties making sense of the things he was seeing. Confused, he would be tempted to return to the familiar.

Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave to explain how a philosopher is akin to a prisoner who has been freed and who has come to understand the truth of the cave. He realizes the reality he accepted as given was not reality at all.

We all start out like prisoners in the cave. We are taught about the world, we grow up believing certain narratives, and we take these for granted because they are familiar. Indeed, challenging the dominant views of society is difficult because those around us will likely accept the shadows as truth. For the individual who pursues learning, knowledge, and self-realization, the social world presents obstacles that are difficult to overcome.

Plato’s allegory of the cave teaches us that if we want to pursue knowledge and self-realization, we need to be strong, we need to cultivate an open mind, and we need to challenge the views and beliefs we accept as given. It is important to explore the ideas and explanations we have adopted to determine which, if any, explain only a world of shadows rather than the real world.

We accept the world we are familiar with, and many of us never try to move beyond this. Plato’s allegory teaches us that we should, however, because failing to seek the truth means accepting a world of shadows, a dimly lit world where one lives by ideas one can’t even be sure offer an accurate account of reality.

“Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun.”

– Plato

Is Plato right?