In The Republic, Plato has the character
of Socrates begin the allegory of the cave by telling us that the allegory is supposed to illustrate the process of achieving
understanding and enlightenment.
What is the human condition as it pertains to
enlightenment or ignorance? In the allegory, Socrates contends that, in order to begin answering this question, we should
imagine ourselves living in an underground cave. As residents of this cave, we are unaware of the most fundamental aspects
of our environment. For example, we do not know that we are actually inside a cave, for we assume that the surroundings we
observe constitute the entire universe. We have no idea that above us is a ground level, a sky, a sun, for we automatically
believe that all that we see is all that is real. Our vision in this cave, Socrates explains, is very limited. The cave is
dimly lit, and discerning images and shapes is difficult. However, since we have always lived in this cave, we don't feel
that it is dark and blurry. for, to us, everything looks normal.
There are things going on in this cave that
we do not know about. We are shackled so that we can only look forward. Having never experienced looking backward, we do not
know that this is even possible and, therefore, we do not realize we are shackled. Behind us are three important objects:
a fire casting light on the walls of the cave, a pathway leading out of the cave, and groups of people moving objects that
cast shadows on the walls of the cave. We see only the shadows in front of us, and have no clue that these are merely shadows
being created by moving objects. Having no reason to think otherwise, we consider the shadows to be real.
Thus, our lives consist of watching shadows.
We are mesmerized by our world, not knowing its vacuous nature. We are entertained, informed, and reassured by the mundane
and the sublime in our reality, not knowing that both are merely artificial constructs. We are so certain that we know reality
-- after all, we are empirically observing it -- that our complacency has become part of our nature. All is right with the
world, we feel.
Then, something happens to shatter life in the
cave. A person stands and looks around. Upon making these unprecedented movements and looking into these new directions, the
person feels intense discomfort. Standing up, turning around, seeing the fire -- all of these bold moves strain muscles and
eyes unaccustomed to such "unnatural" things. The individual experiences confusion, as his or her vision and equilibrium have
to adjust to the newness of standing and seeing light. The individual, Socrates continues, immediately considers rejecting
everything she/he sees; it all looks unfamiliar, unreal, untrue, unnatural, wrong. It makes the individual feel very uncomfortable.
The individual may want desperately to turn away from all these new things, but what if she/he does not? What if the individual
moves up the cave's pathway and above ground? Here, the individual encounters more shocks and becomes even more frightened
and miserable. for the light of the sun is completely overwhelming to someone who has always lived in a cave. The individual
is blind and lost.
At first, he is so dazzled by the light up there that he can only look at shadows, then
at reflections, then finally at the real objects—real trees, flowers, houses and so on. He sees that these are even
more real than the statues were, and that those were only copies of these. He has now reached the cognitive stage of thought.
He has caught his first glimpse of the most real things, the Forms. When the prisoner’s eyes have fully adjusted to
the brightness, he lifts his sight toward the heavens and looks at the sun. He understands that the sun is the cause of everything
he sees around him—the light, his capacity for sight, the existence of flowers, trees, and other objects. The sun represents
the Form of the Good, and the former prisoner has reached the stage of understanding. The individual now realizes that there is an entire universe beyond the underground
cave. The cave is not the world, living in shackles is not living freely, watching shadows play along a wall is not knowledge
of what is real -- the former prisoner now knows all these things.
The enlightened individual begins to feel an
urgent need to share this wonderful knowledge with the others in the cave. Thus, in the allegory, the individual goes back
down the pathway, re-enters the cave, and starts revealing to the others that there is a life above ground. She/he tells the
cave dwellers that they are in shackles, that those shadows they have been watching all their lives (and which their parents
watched before them) are just images created by movements they have never seen.
How do you think the prisoners respond to these claims? In the allegory, the prisoners
decide that the individual is mad, dangerous, or both. They assume the individual's vision has been ruined. The individual
has lost touch with reality, if he or she thinks that looking backward is "normal". The individual is talking nonsense, the
cave dwellers conclude. If the individual persists in trying to liberate the others, Socrates is very clear on what will happen:
The individual will be killed by the cave dwellers.