How do you know if your reality has been decided by you or if you have been a victim of lies? What is our main source of knowledge? I find that these days we’re confronted with so much information by many different sources that it’s hard to know who is telling the truth. This can leave us in a state of constant frustration and in some cases ignorance. The first thing we need to know is our true reality. The world is changing at a rapid pace and more of our belief systems are being either manipulated or have become obsolete. Some of us hold onto the past and reject a new way of thinking because, well, it’s too difficult. What we are left with is a society easy to manipulate and not so adventurous in thought. The first thing we need to do is work out if we are prisoners or free individuals. My solution to this is to study Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
The Allegory of the Cave
This is something you probably haven’t heard of. But why would you? It was written in book 7 of The Republic, around 380BC and by a philosopher you may only see in quotes. But I’d like you to think of it (like many other philosophical works) as a treasure locked in a vault. If we take the time to understand the work, it could change our perspectives from an unassuming citizen to an inquisitive philosopher, thus more likely to discover our true reality.
I’d love to share with you my interpretation of this work. I’ve broken it down so that all that’s required from you is to find a peaceful place to read this and perhaps a cup of coffee.
Let’s begin with a simple visualisation…
1) Imagine you’re in a cave, with 4 other prisoners. You have been chained up since birth and you’re all facing the back wall. You are all chained in such a way, that you can’t turn your heads or move your feet. You can only see whatever is in front of you – the wall.
2) Now imagine a fire burning behind you, with a conveyer belt in front of it. Behind the belt are puppet masters manipulating the placement and order of different objects so that they form a sequence of shadows in front of you. They also make sounds mimicking the objects which in turn create echoes.
3) You then begin watching these shadows and start to play games. You see which one of you can name the objects first and in which order. When there is a winner, he/she sits with a crown and declares themselves the champion or most intelligent.
4) Now imagine someone enters the cave (a guardian) and frees you from the rest of the prisoners. What will you do? I bet you’ll look behind you and uncomfortably glare at the fire. Your body will feel too rigid to move freely and you’d feel aches and pains all over. To make things worse you’re then taken outside the cave and are faced with the real sun, streams of water and real animals. Things you’ve never seen before!
5) After a while, you learn to live and love being outside the cave. As a result of the sun’s warmth, your body feels loose and more at harmony with its surroundings. You love the refreshing feel of the water on your warm skin and you hear the sounds of the birds and begin to notice patterns. You witness the beauty of the animals as they interact with the earth around them and enjoy the fresh smell of flowers. Basically, imagine your perfect summer’s day and the feeling of love and relaxation. You’re free.
6) Now imagine we put you back in the cave to re-join the prisoners. The chains come back on and you naturally begin to play the objects game again. But this time, you’re terrible at it because you have become unaccustomed to the dark. Your fellow prisoners laugh at you for your poor performance and wonder why you ever left in the first place! In their opinion, being removed from the cave has rendered you knowledge-less.
7) After being made to witness the prisoner’s ignorance, you attempt to free them so that they can share your enlightening experience outside of the cave. However, once they have seen your poor abilities of the game, they will not be enticed to leave what they believe to be the real world. In fact, they could even become hostile towards you for trying to disrupt the status quo. Who are you to tell them how to live and what gives you the right! How would you respond to their resistance? Would you give up and leave them in a state of ignorance? What you do, according to Plato, will define you as a person.
What it all means – Inside the cave explained
The cave represents darkness and in my opinion the lesser versions of ourselves. It’s where we experience arrogance, hatred, ignorance and every other negative emotion attached to our ego. It’s the time of our lives where we thought we knew it all, more than our elders. We lived in a bubble (or cave) and rejected the notion of a higher life. The objects represent a form of superficial and ignorant knowledge. We believe them to be in their true forms but in reality they’re mere shadows. When we think of these objects as reality, we succumb to the cruel nature of our puppet masters.
Who are the puppet masters?
The puppet masters could represent a number of entities relevant to your life. They could be societies, governments, religions, corporations or even families pulling the proverbial wool over our eyes. They make us believe what they want us to believe and we take it as our reality. Therefore, our ‘knowledge’ could be based on the controlling natures of our surrounding authorities. We are led to believe the echoes are the true sounds and the shadows are the truest forms of the objects.
Outside the cave explained
Unsurprisingly, the outside represents enlightenment. It’s where we find the best version of ourselves and our life’s purpose. We are free to experience life without the burden of our ego. We feel lighter, stronger and more connected to the real world. We see through the games of our puppet masters and we develop an intelligence and flexibility to handle difficult situations. It’s also where we fulfil our purpose. Our vision is clearer and guided by the endless energy from the sun.
What does the sun represent?
The sun represents knowledge, wisdom and truth. All the things we hope to attain throughout the course of our lives. The light from the sun also provides us with energy to continue on our life’s path whilst contributing to the betterment of others. It is the primary source of all knowledge and the provider of life. In short, it’s everything. Interestingly, the prisoner found it difficult to look into the sun after being in the cave for so long. For me, this represents the times in our lives when we have been faced with the truth and have tried to reject it.
Here’s where it becomes difficult. How can we share a world with people who live in the cave and others who are free? Well Plato demands that those who live outside have a duty to go back in and try to liberate the other prisoners. And what if they do not want to be free? Plato writes that we should try anyway to the extent of risking our lives to do so… (told you this was difficult). Say for example, you have a friend who has a destructive nature. What should you do? Ignore them? Humour them? Try to help them? What if your advice could cost you your friendship? Would it still be worth it? Also think about when someone has unsuccessfully tried to help you because the truth didn’t suit you at that time. As a result, you went on to make mistakes that you now regret.
Where are you now?
Where would you say you are? Inside? On the way out? Or perhaps you’re basking in the sunlight outside of the cave. One thing is for sure, if you’re beginning to question your surroundings and the things you once took for granted, you could be on to your puppet masters!
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to track where in relation to ‘The Cave’:
- What are the sources of your information and knowledge?
- Are these sources reliable?
- Who are your decisions influenced by?
- Do you feel restricted?
- Are you waiting for a better version of yourself to arrive?
- Do you feel disconnected from your environment?
In my opinion, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is the best representation of the journey to enlightenment. It doesn’t necessarily give me all the answers I crave from life nor does it provide me with streams of energy. What it does do, most importantly, is help me to question the validity of my environment. It’s also a good first step to creating a protection against our manipulative surroundings. I don’t want to enter a shop and be psychologically manipulated to buy something I don’t need with money I don’t have. I don’t want to receive hollow praise from a person who thinks a pat on my back is enough to make him my master. Nor do I want a politician telling me what’s good for me in order to maintain the unfair status quo.
In my mind, the time is now to reclaim our lives from all of the manipulating forces. It’s time to cut the chains, turn around and walk straight out of the cave. It’s time to be free.
If you’re interested in learning more about Plato’s Cave, check out this great animation. It’s what I’ve used in the past.
As always thanks for reading,
The Young philosopher BCN