According to the Greek philosophers, if one wants to live his/her life in the best possible way then he/she should practise philosophy. Plato referred to philosophy as the ‘therapy for the soul.’ The allegory of the cave is one of the most fascinating allegories in philosophy. People find this allegory interesting, but many of them fail to understand the real meaning behind this allegory. Through the allegory of the cave, Plato tried to explain some of the complex philosophical concepts like what is reality and how one can understand the difference between reality and illusion. In this article, we will learn about Plato’s allegory of the cave, and the hidden meaning behind it, we will also understand how this allegory is still relevant today through some real-life examples.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
The Allegory of the cave is mentioned in Plato’s book VII The Republic.
See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their head all the way around” – Plato
Plato tells that imagine a group of men who have been chained in a deep cave since their birth. They have never seen how’s the outside world looks like. They are chained in such a way that they are unable to move in any direction and they can only see the wall in their front. A bonfire is illuminating at a certain distance behind the prisoners that lights up the wall in their front, which prisoners can see. The prisoners are shown shadows of some objects on that wall regularly. Prisoners have never seen the outer world so they assume these shadows as the real world, and because they can not move, they have no idea of anything happening behind their back, they do not understand that what they are seeing are just the shadows of the objects that are shown to them by some people with the help of the bonfire illuminating behind their back. The prisoners name these shadows and consider them as real entities, and they get excited the moment they see any shadow on the wall. One day, one of the prisoners manages to break the chains, he stood up and starts walking, he got confused by seeing that fire behind his back, he also sees some of the real objects that he earlier saw in the form of shadows on the wall. Then, he starts walking outside the cave, when he entered the outside world, the bright sunlight bothers his eyes at first, but slowly his eyes adjust and he sees the bright and colourful real world. The prisoner thinks that the shadows he is seeing due to the sunlight are the reality because he assumed shadows as the real thing all his lifetime, but people of the outside world tell him that the objects are the real thing and not the shadows because shadows are only the reflections of the real objects. At first, he finds it difficult to understand but he then realises that shadows are merely the reflections of real objects. He now understands that the sun (or the bonfire) is responsible for casting the shadow, and light, sky, and stars are the reality.
Previously, he had been looking only at phantoms; now, he is nearer to the true nature of being”- Plato
Now, what would that prisoner do? If he went back to the cave to free the other prisoners from the chains and tells them that what they have seen in their life till now is not real, Do they believe him?
Plato mentioned that if the prisoner will go back to the cave he may find it difficult to see the shadows on the wall clearly like before because his eyes have now adjusted to the sunlight. When the prisoner will tell the other prisoners everything that he has just witnessed, they all are going to laugh at him. They won’t believe in him. If the prisoner tries to untie the tied prisoners they will resist him and get violent against him as they believe that their current situation is how life looks like in reality and the prisoner who wants to untie them is false and disturbing their reality. This analogy convinces people to question their assumptions of real things.
Interpreting Plato’s Allegory of Cave
Through this analogy, Plato tried to explain the difficulties that the philosophers have to face when they try to educate society. As given in the analogy, people are comfortable with the illusion and they don’t want anyone to break that illusion. The prisoners resisted the person, who tried to aware the other prisoners of reality, in the same manner, that society restricts the opinions of the philosophers. The prime example of this is that the great Greek philosopher Socrates was assassinated by the Athenians when he tried to enlighten them. Plato believed that most people live their life like prisoners in a cave. They are ignorant of reality and behave stubbornly when someone tries to show them a reality, they believe in considering shadows as the reality. The shadows can be assumed as wealth, pride, or status and the reality may represent knowledge and wisdom. Plato’s allegory of the cave is dependent on the theme that ‘Truth is dependent on the Perception.’ Let us understand what does the different symbols such as sun, shadows, wall, fire, and chains represent in the allegory of the cave example.
Cave: The cave in this story represents the ignorance of the people that restrict them from understanding reality.
Shadow: The shadow in this example represents the ideas or things that are taught to us by the people and we believe them as the entire truth, while in reality these ideas or things could be wrong too.
Sun: Sun represents the source of enlightenment. It aware people of the truth and reality.
Wall: Wall represents the way or the medium through which the deception is being created to manipulate the people.
Chains: The chains symbolise the hurdles or the barriers that keep us away from discovering reality.
Fire: Fire symbolises the source of deception.
Allegory of the Cave Examples in Real Life
Let us try to understand the relevance of the allegory of the cave in our life through the following examples.
1. Trapped on an Island
A person got trapped on an island when he was a toddler. After some years, this man was found by a group of people, who were exploring that island. When they found that man, they saw that the man was not behaving like the humans, his walking and eating habits were similar to the animals. The man was not aware of the human language. When this group of people tried to save that person by bringing him back to human civilization, he resisted this because according to him he has been never trapped on an island. The island is the reality to that person because all his childhood he survived there, and he is habitual to the way one survives on the island. When that person was brought back to the civilization he found it difficult to cope with the new rules and regulations of the society. The human civilization seemed alien to him as he consider the island his true place. The island in this case can be related to the shadows in the allegory of the cave as the person believes that the island is his real world, while in reality, he is a human and he belongs to the human civilization. The water around the island can be related to the chains with which the people were tied in the allegory of the cave. The water restricted the person to escape from the island and reaching his real world.
2. Middle Eastern Women Visit a Western Country
The women in most of the middle eastern areas are raised in an environment that suppresses women’s rights. Women are always taught to restrict their freedom and are made to believe that men are superior then them. They are not provided with basic rights like the right to education, and the right to freedom. They are not allowed to travel to nearby places or other countries alone. Once, a middle eastern woman travelled from her native place to a western country. When she reached that country, she got surprised to see how women there are free to make their own decisions. She saw that western women enjoy all the rights that are provided to men, which is restricted in her native place. After witnessing the freedom that western women hold, she realises that the kind of restrictions that are imposed on middle eastern women is injustice. When she went back to her native place, she tried to awaken the other women that they should demand equal rights and equal opportunities. She explained to the women belonging to the middle eastern region that they deserve to live life the way they want and there is nothing wrong with it, but most of the middle eastern women rejected her ideology, as they belives that the western culture has spoiled her mind, and she has become against the rules and regulations of the middle eastern country that should be followed as all the women of their place have been following these rules from years. The middle eastern society here can be related to the chains that keep the middle eastern women away from discovering their rights, and the western country can be related to the sun that enlightened the middle eastern woman that she too deserves all the rights that men enjoy and she should raise her voice to demand women freedom in the middle eastern country.
3. Media/News channels
Let us relate Plato’s allegory of the cave with digital media, where the wall is replaced by televisions. Nowadays, it would not be wrong to say that most news channels broadcast merely the shadows and not the reality. Following is the statement of the New York Times’s chief editor John Swinton, which makes you question the way you perceive the news that you see on the television.
There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
The media channels cast shadows (fake news) to manipulate and deceive the prisoners. The prisoners are the people who believe that everything that is shown to them on television is the whole reality. The ones who managed to escape the cave are considered liars by those who are still in the cave. These prisoners may show aggression towards the man who tries to enlighten them and may try to attack him. The great activist and leaders like Martin Luhter King Jr. and the Kennedys are the prime examples of the person who dared to go back to the cave to awaken other people, but the people that are still in the darkness of the cave oppose them. The media channels use the shadows such as hateful religious ideologies, or racism that people think is the most important point of concern, while they fail to recognise that humanity lies much above the religious or political ideologies. The media channels control the perception of most of their audience for their objectives such as political or marketing strategies. It is often seen that those who try to expose the real business model of these media channels are targeted and harassed through various means. Consider the example of China, as stated by many sources, this country has strict censorship policies. If the government of this country find that any media channel is publishing against them, they take strict action against them, most platforms like Google, Facebook, and Youtube are banned in this country as this country wants to have full control over the people of its nation by keeping them in the darkness of the cave.
How to Escape the Cave?
Plato’s allegory of the cave gives the message that one should always question everything that he/she believes could be the real thing. This is one of the best approaches to develop one’s critical thinking and help himself/herself from being deceived by the shadows that are shown to him/her by other people. The more you question the more is the chance that you will be able to escape out of the cave of the deceptions. As stated by Plato and experienced by most philosophers, even if you managed to escape the cave, it is not easy to stay outside the cave. You will be labelled as liars, or fools by the people, just like the prisoners in the cave responded to the person who escaped the cave. Understanding reality is never an easy path, but in the end, it is always worth it. According to Plato, it is not the people’s fault that they remain in the cave (deceptions), everyone begins their journey from the cave. From an early age, we believe everything that our parents or teachers teach us as reality. Ignorance of the people for not looking for reality is regarded as a sin by most philosophers, and one can understand reality by eradicating ignorance. Now, how to eradicate ignorance? One can not go and simply tell people that what they believe is not reality, they won’t believe you just like it happened in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Using the Socratic method is the best approach to this; this method encourages educating the people philosophically by encouraging them to question their assumptions about reality. In this way you are not forcing people to read particular books or lectures, instead, you help them in detecting the flaws in their reasoning, which may help them understand the difference between deception and reality.
We all start in the cave, but we have a way out, philosophy” -Plato