Ellen Grigsby in his book Political Theory, retells Plato’s allegory of the cave from his magnum opus, The Republic. Plato uses the allegory to illustrate rich truths about the quest for knowledge.
“Let us 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 we are actually inside a cave because we assume the surroundings we observe constitute the entire universe. We have no idea that above us is a ground level, a sky, a sun, because we automatically believe 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 diffi cult. However, because we have always lived in this cave, we do not feel it is dark and blurry; to us, everything looks normal. Things are going on in this cave that we do not know about. We are shackled so we can only look forward. Having never experienced looking backward, we do not know 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 he 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 these are merely shadows being created by moving objects. Having no reason to think otherwise, we consider the shadows 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 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 shatters life in the cave: A person stands and looks around. On making these unprecedented movements and looking into these new directions, the person feels intense discomfort. Bold moves like standing up, turning around, seeing the fire 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 he or she sees: It all looks unfamiliar, unreal, untrue, unnatural, and wrong. It makes the individual feel very uncomfortable. The individual may want desperately to turn away from all these new things, but what if he or she 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 because the light of the sun is completely overwhelming to someone who has always lived in a cave. The individual is blind and lost.
Yet slowly things begin to change. The eyes adjust, and the individual begins to see not only the sun but also the land, the sky, and the world. The individual now realizes there is an entire universe beyond the underground cave. The cave is not the world, living in shackles is not living freely, and watching shadows play along a wall is not knowledge of what is real—the former prisoner now knows all these things.”
Plato’s allegory of the cave has captured my mind and imagination and has sent me on a journey through the cave of my own ignorance. I invite you along this same journey, as we humbly try to make our way out of the cave, out of the darkness and into the light.