(from Wikipedia and modified with commentary by Bill Leavitt)
The Allegory of the Cave (also titled Analogy of the Cave, Plato’s Cave or Parable of the Cave) is presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic to compare “…the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature“. It is written as a dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter.
Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.
Imprisonment in the Cave
Socrates begins by asking Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been imprisoned since childhood. These prisoners are chained in such a way that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway. Along this walkway is a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects “…including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials.” In this way, the walking people are compared to puppeteers and the low wall to the screen over which puppeteers display their puppets. The people walking are behind the wall on the walkway, so their bodies do not cast shadows on the wall, but the objects they carry do. The prisoners cannot see any of this behind them, and are only able to view the shadows cast upon the wall in front of them. The sounds of the people walking echo off the shadowed wall, the prisoners falsely perceive these sounds to be that of the shadows.
Socrates suggests that, for the prisoners, the shadows of artifacts would constitute reality, because they have not seen the light. They would not realize that what they see are shadows of the artifacts, which are inspired by real humans and animals outside of the cave. Furthermore, Socrates suggests that the prisoners would “assign credit and prestige” to whomever among them could quickly remember which shadows came before, predict which shadows would follow and name which shadows were normally found together. Plato is conveying in the imagery of this game that the prestige of winning this game is not in fact an honor at all, because the prisoner is lacking the knowledge of the world outside the cave.
Departure from the Cave
Socrates then supposes that one prisoner is freed, being suddenly compelled to stand, turn, walk and look towards the fire. The light would hurt his eyes, and cause great difficulty for him to see the object’s shadows he had seen before. In his pain, Socrates continues, the freed one would turn away and run back to what he can make out; the shadows of the carried objects. He is then told that what he has formerly seen has no substance, and that what he now sees (the carried objects) constitutes a greater reality. When he sees the world outside the cave he begins to question his previous beliefs.
The freed one is then dragged in pain and irritation up and out of the cave. Upon exiting the cave, this discomfort only intensifies as the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes. The sunlight is representative of the new reality and knowledge the freed one is experiencing.
Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. He is first able to see only shadows of things. Next he can see the reflections of things in water and later is able to see things themselves. He is then able to look at the stars and moon by night and finally he is able to look upon the sun.
The things to note. Why does the prisoner go back to his chains? Why do inmates released from 20 years incarceration look for ways to go back to jail? Why do we stay in relationships that are like hell? –Because it is what we know and are comfortable with.
What are the shadows that you have in your life? In what way are you viewing the world as a reality but it’s not really that way? Depression and stress can do that. So can drugs, not to mention psychosis.
What are the chains holding you in your cave? It can be the way you were raised. Your fears, your addictions, your world views, thinking errors. There are any number of things holding us in place and forcing us to look at a world of shadows.