Plato’s allegory of the cave or metaphor of the cave is written as an insightful dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates. The riveting and highly metaphorical dialogue discusses Plato’s theory of forms and the contemplative thought that all material objects are non-existent and fleeting, if not given a form by attaching meaning to them via ideas. Similar notions appear in all of Plato’s work wherein he ardently believed that abstract non-material forms or ideas are the only reality that truly exists.
The allegory likens the state of a prisoner, who is chained to the wall of a cave since birth, to that of the human mind. In the allegory Socrates narrates a short story to Glaucon. In the story Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a set of prisoners. These prisoners are tied since birth but they are tied to the cave in a very peculiar manner wherein their legs and necks are tied and held back by a chain, facing a wall at all times. Behind the prisoners is a fire and then a slightly raised walkway. The walkway is used by puppeteers to carry props in the shape of animals, birds, even humans all day long. To the prisoners, the reality of the shadows is the only one that has ever existed. This reality was so deeply ingrained in them that they started attaching prestige to the remembrance of these shadows, their details and the order in which they would appear. However besides being utterly random, there was no real order in which the shadows would pass by.
Socrates introduced several twists in the plot – one of prominence being when one of the prisoners is freed and allowed to see the real world. When set free, the prisoner is blinded at first due to the sheer overwhelming brightness and finds it hard to believe that the shadows he has so intently watched all his life are actually living beings. The perplexing realisation that everything he attached importance to was in fact a farce, a figment, a minor rendition of the larger, more real truth. The irony gets far more exemplified when the prisoner ponders about returning back to the cave and introducing to his fellows the real truth about the world. However on returning to the cave the freed prisoner is blinded yet again, this time due to the sudden shift from brightness to darkness. According to Socrates, seeing his blindness the rest of the prisoners are convinced that stepping out of the cave is harmful. Socrates concludes that after witnessing this, the rest of the prisoners could attack anyone who tries to unshackle and take them outside. The freed prisoner realises that sharing his experience from outside the cave would mean that he would be distrusted, ridiculed and accused of having been corrupted.
The entire dialogue is an effective analogy of how the human mind comprehends reality. Our reality is defined largely by the materialistic things around us, which in the case of the prisoners are the shadows. As is evident, materialistic objects can never form the core of our reality. However what can comprise our reality is the form or ideas around these objects. The forms we attach to them help us give them meaning and a deeper understanding. The freed prisoner in this context is a philosopher or the enlightened one. This entity, having realised the truth, carries the burden of tussling with his fellows and convincing them that their life-long beliefs are just a metaphorical shadow of a larger and truer form of being. Unfortunately, having spent a lifetime believing in the physical materials and not the idea, the metaphorical prisoners without being exposed to the rays of the sun will never believe that the figures cast by the flickering fire are just shadows of a larger world. Moreover, the fear of being blinded would forever keep them away from walking into the light.
Similarly, outside of this hypothetical dialogue, humans too form their entire identity sometimes purely basis physical objects, lacking any form or idea. A lavish apartment, an expensive car, jewellery, bank balance – if these form the crux of your identity then you become like the prisoner in plato’s cave. Experiencing only the dark shadows cast by the actual world, never truly understanding the meaning of living and having a consciousness. Constantly worried about losing these empty materialistic objects and fearing enlightenment, ascertaining it only as a path to becoming a pauper.
However if profound, contemplative, radical and sometimes ridiculous ideas form the crux of your being then you are the freed prisoner, freed from the shackles of this manipulative world and its materialistic shadows created only to act as distractions from a far deeper truth. The truth that will only reveal itself if we believe the thinkers and philosophers of our time. Or else for our lifetime we remain the prisoners in Plato’s cave.
Dwell further by reading a dialogue between Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore in – Our life, its a shared consciousness.
Image courtesy http://bit.ly/1PO6oqR