(I’m running on like 3 hours of sleep and am dragging like crazy. Probably re-title this in the future, but that’s what came to mind right now. It’s a take on the quote from Pulp Fiction (sans Plato Style), “I’m about to go medieval on your ass.” NBD)
Plato’s allegory of the cave presents the view of how we, as a society, can simply and unquestioningly accept truth as it is shown to us. The story also poses as an example of the human condition, explaining that it is in our nature to not seek what we learn, but rather accept what we are told. If someone was to be dragged out into the light, and forced to see what is really true, what will that person then believe? How will he respond to this bright light, this blaring new truth? And does this allegory remain valid in today’s world, or has Plato’s idea of attaining philosophical knowledge in society been outdated?
The story begins with prisoners inside a cave, trapped inside since childhood. Their feet and hands are bound and also have their heads fixed to only see what is in front of them. Behind there is an entrance as wide as the cave, and above the entrance there is a large fire that is used by people, to project figures of humans and animals made of various materials such as wood and stone, onto the wall in front of the prisoners. In addition to the prisoners seeing the shadows of the objects on the wall, they can also hear the echoes of the footsteps of the people moving behind them as they move the figures around.
This is the first stage in the process of attaining philosophical knowledge. The prisoners take the shadows of the objects, not to be confused with the objects themselves, to be the truth. The sounds of the footsteps belong to the corresponding shadow on the wall. Without reason to think otherwise, without any opportunity to consider an alternative view, this is all the prisoners see, this all they can know, and understand, and so they easily accept it. This stage shows society being in a perpetual state of ignorance. Though they might be bound and fixed in one position, they accept that this is their natural place in the world; this is their ‘place’ in society. The shadows on the wall are real to them because they are given only a single view, they see what is on the wall and may be able to identify it, but they could never see the real truth of the object. Only what appears to be the truth, which is a mere shadow projected on a wall. The people who are moving the figures belong to an upper party, they possess more power, and they choose what they can show to the prisoners. They have complete control on what they show, how much they show and how they can represent it.
The second stage of the process to enlightenment begins when one of these prisoners is suddenly, after all their years spent in the cave, freed from their chains and are made to stand and turn around. He is forced to see the fire, the objects moving in front of the fire, and he is told that this is reality, that these are real things. In Plato’s story, he writes “What do you think he would say if he was told that what he used to see was so much empty nonsense and that he was now nearer reality and seeing more correctly, because he was turned towards objects that were more real, and if on top of that he were compelled to say what each of the passing objects was when it was pointed out to him? Don’t you think he would be at a loss, and think that what he used to see was far truer than the objects now being pointed out to him?”
At first the prisoner would not be able to see the real objects clearly. The fire would be a blur, the proper shapes of the objects would not be clear. After being kept in the dark for so long, when the prisoner’s eyes have adjusted to the dim light and the movement of the shadows, seeing the truth, is too much for their eyes to see. Seeing the fire would be overwhelming and frightening to the prisoner, so much that he would want to reassume their position before they were dragged away. The comfort in being with everybody else and ignoring the harsh truth that he has seen is far easier than facing it and accepting that his original beliefs were nothing but a shadow of reality. Because the fire would blind his eyes, he would easily turn back around to the things he can see properly in the low light.
The second part of this stage involves the prisoner being dragged beyond the fire and out through the cave entrance into the sunlight. This is a painful process for the prisoner, if he struggled to adjust to the light of the flame, then it would be much more difficult to be thrown under the sun and see anything at all. It would take a very long time for his eyes to see anything clearly. Everything he was told that was real, he will be unable to clearly see because the light is so blinding. Plato explains, “First he would find it easiest to look at shadows, next at the reflections of men and other objects in water, and later on at the objects themselves. After that he would find it easier to observe the heavenly bodies and the sky itself at night, and to look at the light of the moon and stars rather than at the sun and its light by day.”
And finally, the last thing the prisoner will be able to see is the sun itself. He would deduct that the sun is the source of seasons changing; the construction of time, and the way things grow. After this he will think back to his old life in the cave and feel sorry for the remaining prisoners who have only been able to see the shadows of truth. He would want to share his discovery; to show how much more there is to life, how little they all have experienced.
This is an integral part of the process; it shows the liberation of the prisoner. But this would mean that the prisoner is not a prisoner at all, he has broken free and he has taken the form of another being. A being that befriends knowledge and pertains the desire to preach it. This being is called the philosopher. When something radical happens to us, for example, the knowledge of truth, it can transform what we were into an evolved kind of being. The man may have been a prisoner in the cave, but after being cast outside, the knowledge of truth acts as a remedy for the mind and a transformation occurs. The prisoner is now the philosopher.
After spending time on the surface, he now sees the truth, the real truth. He can smell the growing flowers, watch the animals roam freely, see the clouds drift and watch the sun rise and fall in a mesmerizing, divine cycle. He has realized that the fire in the cave might have helped project these things, but they were nothing but a shadow, a fraction of what it is. Yet the prisoners claim that they know exactly what the objects passing by the wall are. They might see an animal pass by, but how much do they know about that animal other than what is being shown? All they see is the shadow of it, yet they accept that this is its true form, this is the total reality of the animal.
Each being has the capacity to be enlightened, but not all choose to be. Some become ignorant instead. But why does this happen? Everyone has the ability to see, but as a society, we can be blinded and restricted by what is shown to us at the expense of simply being and remaining in that particular society. Therefore, we become comfortable with the minimal truth that is presented to us, and we do not have reason to pursue what the truth is, because a simple shadow is all we can possibly conceive at that moment. We are placed in a situation, a place that does not allow us to dwell about what is real and what is not. It is a place where truth and education does not openly exist to the people. So ignorance is not necessarily a choice, but an assumption that what you perceive to be true has no reason to be false, or even an incomplete truth for that matter.
This brings about the final stage in Plato’s allegory of the cave, the now liberated prisoner, or the philosopher, returns to the cave. When the philosopher sits in his old spot amongst the other prisoners, it is now hard to properly identify the shadows on the wall. His vision has changed after being outside in the sun and adjusting back to the dim light and the faint projections will take time to take shape again. What would happen if he tried to explain to the other prisoners what he saw outside the cave? What would they think if he could no longer see the images moving across the wall after being outside and going through the painful process of knowing the truth? “…Wouldn’t he be likely to make a fool of himself? And they would say that his visit to the upper world had ruined his sight, and that the ascent was not worth even attempting.” And Plato goes further to say, “…If anyone tried to release them and lead them up, they would kill him if they could get their hands on him.”
How could the prisoners ever understand or attempt to believe what the philosopher is saying if he does not have the ability to see their simple, obvious truths? And even after his eyes have readjusted, he will still know what he has seen. The only way for a prisoner to learn about the truth is to have their shackles freed. They can be told, but they would never believe it. Their eyes need to see, their whole bodies, turned around, “…You cannot put sight into man, but only turn his eyes to the light that he may see, so understanding is something which cannot be produced in a man by education and training, like other virtues which we call virtues of the soul, but which are almost like bodily excellences; its nature is more godlike, and it cannot lose its power, but by being turned to the good can be made helpful instead of mischievous.”
And what happens when the philosopher desires to preach the truth, and embrace his status as an outcast? As he stands his ground and does not let go of his beliefs, it may cause conflicts with the prisoners’ beliefs and truths, and in effect, this can put the philosopher’s life at risk. The philosopher can, and always will, act as the beacon of light in the cave for those who would like to approach it.
Overall, this allegory explains how society is in a prison-like state, and our natural human condition would compel us to stay safe in a group, rather than seek the truth on our own. Why go through the painful process of reconfiguring your beliefs and seeing the world when it could be projected onto a wall in the safety of your home? Why bother risking your wellbeing when the ‘facts’ are right in front of you? Some people will think it an absurd idea to go outside into the sunlight, even if they did know the truth might be there, simply because it is unsafe to us both physically and mentally.
An example of remaining in the safety of the cave is the belief in a certain faith. Some people take comfort in believing in their God regardless of pursuing truth or not. The truth is something to be feared because it can potentially change so much. The searcher of truth may not be happy with what they find, and even if they did happen to find a terrible truth that can affect their lives, they may still choose to reject it for an easier, more comfortable way of living. Belonging and accepting an inclusive fallacy is far more comforting than going through the pain of being excluded for chasing the truth.
The allegory of the cave is still relevant today, although we are currently in a state of embracing changes, and accepting various beliefs. Society is made up of various religions that coexist freely, laws that are constantly being amended and people who love others regardless of their race or gender. In the time that Plato wrote this story, society would have a very limited knowledge of truth if they did not choose to go out and seek it. But today, most seekers of knowledge and truth are open to what the philosopher wants to teach them. The biggest difference in Plato’s and our society is our agreement to listen when others talk and our freedom to express ourselves in the absence of fear of being repressed.
The wall in the story can be seen as television today, and though we blankly stare at the screen for hours at a time, there is more than can be seen on these screens than the wall. This is however, no excuse to rely on the Internet or television to experience the truth and our lives. We can all see documentaries on Europe on TV and we can search the population on a search engine and then we can stream a video of European life, but these are all still a shadow projecting the real Europe. The clear message in Plato’s story is that we should break from our prison chains, “Yet if we take men so different, and so representative in their differences, as Plato, Bacon, and Spinoza, we find them all agreeing, not in a glorification of the human mind, but in the imperative demand that it should shake off its ‘chains’ and turn to receive the light, that it should surrender its ‘idols’ and ‘become a little child’, that it should look at things ‘under the form of eternity’, not through the vague confusion of its own imagination.”
The allegory of the cave is a true story of the human condition. It properly reflects how, collectively, we easily accept the truth and how little we do to find it. The vision today has changed slightly with more acceptances of the philosopher’s words, but there is still a very heavy reliance on the ‘walls’ we stare at in our own personal caves.