Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

The Cave Story from Plato’s Republic within Andrew Sullivan’s “The Conservative Soul” beautifully captured a few concepts I’ve been grappling with.

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I’d like to share the allegory and end with a few reflections. Paraphrasing Sullivan:

“Human existence is like being in an underground cave with light streaming in across the width of the cave. Most people are in shackles in the heart of the cave, looking towards the wall. They cannot turn their heads around to look directly toward the light or get up and move toward it. We see things by the shadows cast on the wall of the cave, with the light coming from behind us. This is how we see ourselves too, as silhouettes of reality. We develop a language and discourse that revolves around these shadows. We name the shadows, see connections between them, interpret the sounds that they make. We construct an entire universe from our limited perspective. Yet the cave-universe is only a reflection of true human existence, a half-truth at best.

 Now imagine one of the prisoners being able to break free of the shackles. He gets get up, turns around and looks toward the light. He makes it outside and sees reality, an entire world beyond the cave. He sees the truth about things, illuminated not by shadows and reflections, but by bright sunlight.

 Think of getting out of the chains and staggering to the light after having lived your entire life in the cave. What would it feel like to see the truth, to enter a light you had only grasped indirectly before? It would be blinding and disorientating at first. You would shield your eyes from the sun, squint and peer into places you had previously been unable to imagine. It would upset every preconceived idea you ever had. Its beauty and goodness would overwhelm and entrance you. That thread of reason and self-consciousness that makes man separate from animals would be flooded by the truth, like a brain overwhelmed by dopamine. It would be both all-encompassing and beyond description.

 As brilliant as it is, it’s difficult to deal with the truth. If you look directly at the sun, you will be blinded. So you tend to look at the earth and just see old things in a new light. Or perhaps you’re grateful for the familiarity of the night, when your vision is more comfortable.

 No matter your choice, it’s lonely up here and company is sparse. You are still human. You need family and friends. You need community and they need you. You may want to bring your family and friends into the light. But going back into the cave is painful. The empowering experience of seeing the world as it is, is a terrible thing to let go of, even if temporarily. And when you get there, what is the reaction of those in the dark?

 At first you will be blinded by the darkness. You may look odd, blinking and breathless. You may begin to explain all these new truths. You put colour into the shadows, you tell stories of wonderous things, strange truths, of a world that makes theirs seem damp and dark and colourless by comparison. How will they regard you?

 The cave is their home. It was the home for their fathers and mothers. They are used to it, they understand it. And, as far as they can see, they are not wrong about. Some will be intrigued by you and your story. A few may treat you like a god. But many will also think you are a lunatic!

 Navigating the shift from the light to the shadows, you will make elementary mistakes when interpreting your old world. And they will mock you! “If he makes mistakes, how can we trust him?” Many men and women in the cave have developed the keenest eyesight and intelligence for understanding their twilight world. You truths threaten them and their status. If you are right, then they are frauds, or merely inferior to you.

 Would they not try and kill this man who threatens their universe?”

What a beautiful description of the challenge undertaken when navigating the shift from the light to the darkness. Both the light and the darkness are blinding, in their own way. The connection made to those who appreciate the light is wonderful but intense. It is a weighty responsibility if people think you are speaking the truth. After all, we’re all fragile humans who could fail to distinguish the light from the darkness at any moment. I could be looking at shadows myself. Different shadows, but shadows, nevertheless.

The reaction from those who don’t appreciate light being cast on their shadows is scary. It’s arduous to be mocked and it makes one question one’s truth. Questioning is good but it’s tiring. If you are convicted in your opinion, then there is a risk of developing a form of fundamentalism in order to protect yourself against the constant battle. But fundamentalism is the enemy.

Despite the beauty of the connections made along the way, it’s an incredibly lonely journey! The truth needs to be tested out through interaction with other people, but it must come from within. Otherwise you’re just a sheep, following the light cast by others.

That I related so intensely to this story hurt. I felt pompous and contracted because I don’t see myself as superior at all. Reflecting on the power of this emotion was useful though. The balance between identifying valuable knowledge and sharing constructively, is a major challenge that I try to navigate daily. An appreciation of the uncertainty and one’s fallibility is critical but one must be confident, bold and speak up in order to seize the moment and make a difference in people’s lives. What’s the point of uncovering valuable knowledge and not sharing it with one’s friends and family? If you see light, are you not under a moral obligation to share it?

In the end, it’s all about balance, testing that balance daily, with integrity and persistence. A difficult balance but a worthwhile one!


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