In Plato’s work ‘The Republic’. Plato used ‘Allegory of the Cave’ (also known as the ‘Analogy of the Cave’, ‘Plato’s Cave’, and ‘Parable of the Cave’ to illustrate how people perceive the world around them, and how they learn.
In the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ there is an imaginary dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon (Plato’s brother), in which Socrates describes cave dwellers who have been chained facing a wall all of their lives. The chains make them immobile, and the only thing they can see is a blank wall, and the shadows cast by things happening behind them on a walkway, and an eternal fire beyond.
The shadows are the only reality the cave dwellers have ever known. They have no knowledge of what has cast them, or of the fire beyond. So the cave dwellers perceive the shadows as reality. If the cave dwellers were able to turn and look at what had cast the shadows, and the fire beyond, they would be unable to recognise them and would quickly return back to their perception of reality.
Socrates proposes that if a cave dweller were suddenly released and taken into the sunlight, they would become angry and distressed, and long to be back in the familiarity of the cave – back to their reality. But if they were given time to become used to the new experience, they would develop understanding of it, and may consider it to be their new reality as they come to understand what the sun is, “…the source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing,” and start to learn what other things they had never encountered before were.
Socrates then asks Glaucon “Wouldn’t he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honours, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn’t he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?”
We live in our own realities – realities which are created in our minds based on our experiences and our analysis of the world. Each of us sees the world differently, even though we are having the same experience.
As the cave people, we become familiar with the things around us and our perception of reality. We normalise our experiences to fit with our vision of the world, of our thinking of the way things are. Anything that does not fit within that narrow perception is shunned as something not real, or too complex for us to devote our senses to, which in turn may become unmanageable and corrupted.
We shut ourselves away from infinite possibilities and maintain our finite worlds of familiarity, of safety, at the expense of broadening our knowledge of the way things could be. We fear being shunned by other members of society for daring to question the shared experience of an illusionary reality,
Many never dare to take a step into the light that has always been there, but which they have chosen to ignore because of their own fear.
A world of infinite possibilities awaits anyone who is brave enough to take a step and embrace the unknown and wonders that we all can share as a whole humanity.
So are you living proof of Plato’s allegory?