Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – We must leave the mind to embrace the true reality of the world
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. — Albert Einstein
The world and the life we lead are extremely complex. We can’t simply understand them. The deeper we go into reality; the more difficult it becomes for us to know and interpret. The reality is interpreted by each one of us in our own unique way. Since no two individuals are the same, so is the interpretation of reality. We are highly ignorant and imperfect human beings. We are prisoners of our own habitual and conditioned thoughts and behaviour. We need to go beyond the realm of the physical world to know the true reality of the world around us.
More than 24 centuries back, the philosopher Plato wrote his best-known work, The Republic, which contains his famous Allegory of the Cave. This short story illustrates the inability or unwillingness of the human mind to inquire into and discover the true nature of reality.
Plato (429 B.C.–347 B.C.), born in Athens, Greece, is one of the most celebrated and honoured philosophers of the Western world. Many consider Plato, the student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, the most important philosopher who ever lived.
He is perhaps best known for his Allegory of the Cave. To briefly summarize the allegory, there is a group of prisoners in a cave. Their arms and legs are chained to the wall and their heads are tied so that they cannot look at anything but the stone wall in front of them.
Behind them burns a fire, casting shadows on the wall. These prisoners have been here since birth and have never seen the outside world. In front of the fire is a raised walkway, along which walk people who are outside the cave. They are carrying objects like animals, plants, wood, and stone. The prisoners cannot see anything behind them. They can only look at the wall in front of them.
As people walk along the walkway, the prisoners can see only the shadows the objects on the wall. Since they have never seen these actual objects before, they obviously believe that the shadows of the objects are “real.” Finally, the day comes when one of the prisoners breaks his chains and leaves the cave. When he come out, he is shocked to see the world outside the cave. He couldn’t believe that this world is real. But as he becomes used to his new surroundings, he realizes that his earlier perception of reality was wrong.
Plato then begins to understand the real world, outside the cave. When this prisoner returns to the cave and describes for his cave mates the reality of the outside world, no one believes him. He then urges his cave mates to go out and see the real world. On hearing this obvious falsehood, they grow enraged and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free.
The prisoners who are chained inside the cave can perceive their reality only through their senses. There is no other possible way. So, the truth to them is nothing but the shadows on the wall.
When one of the prisoners leaves the cave, he starts experiencing the unknown and sees bright light for the first time. He has no explanation for such light. He then realizes that everything he was seeing in the cave was just a false sense of reality, an illusion. He then started questioning the reality he was perceiving inside the cave.
He, therefore, begins to feel pity for the ignorance of those still living in the cave who cannot even imagine what he saw outside. When he returned to the cave and shared his experiences, they ridiculed him. They couldn’t imagine the existence of anything outside their cave. Likewise, unless we experience the true reality ourselves, how can we possibly appreciate and understand it?
This short story (the allegory) points out the ignorance of people who are mentally chained and living inside caves of their own making. They are oblivious of the outer world i.e. the true reality of the world. The cave represents superficial physical reality.
The chains of ignorance and apathy prevent the prisoners from leaving the cave. They are in fact trapped in that ignorance, their chains holding them back from the truth. For those who see the wall, all of reality is represented by shadows. The shadows symbolize the limitation of our thinking and perceptions.
In Plato’s opinion, the appearances on the wall are false and not reflect the true reality. The prisoner who escaped from the cave represents the one who seeks knowledge outside of the cave. It, therefore suggests that to find the truth and to gain wisdom, one has to go beyond the senses and physical reality (i.e., the cave).
From Plato’s allegory, we can draw a very relevant lesson for our contemporary lives. Like people in the cave, the majority of us are limited to our tunnel vision, pursuing material goods and comforts. For us, this is the real reality.
Throughout our life, we believe in and pursue the fleeting shadows of money, status, fame, power, and so on. Since so many of us haven’t awakened to the spiritual and true essence of life, we feel no need to exit the cave.
Only very few among us dare to explore the true reality of the world around us. Since it’s extremely difficult for the majority of the population to venture out from their comfort zones, many remain chained throughout their lives.
In the allegory, Plato describes the physical world as a “dark place” in which we can perceive objects only through our senses. Therefore, the physical world is not a realm from which we can obtain knowledge and wisdom of true reality. We need to go beyond the physical world. This allegory alludes to the world of spiritual reality.
Once we know the true reality, ignorance will automatically vanish. To conclude, we must leave the mind (the cave) to embrace the true reality (the sun outside the cave) of the world. Plato’s story might be centuries old, but it’s totally relevant in today’s world.