Plato’s Allegory of the Cave was written by Plato, in his work Republic, around 375 BC. This allegory can be interpreted as a representation of the the dichotomy between free thinkers and those who subscribe to collective world-views.
Introduction to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave begins with an image of prisoners chained in a cave who are unable to turn their heads. These prisoners can only view the wall in front of them. Directly behind the prisoners, is an infinitely-burning fire, and between the fire and the prisoners, is a pathway where “Puppeteers” walk. The puppeteers hold up images of animals and real objects that cast shadows upon the wall that the prisoners are viewing. The puppeteers also make noises the go along with the puppets. However, since the prisoners cannot turn their heads, they are unaware of what is actually happening behind them.
These prisoners perceive the shadows for the purest form of reality, and do not know what is actually creating the shadows. To the prisoners, a world beyond the shadows does not exist. It is also evident that the prisoners do not even have enough curiosity to discover what is truly happening.
What would happen if a prisoner were to escape, and see reality beyond the shadows?
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave explains this in depth.
One of the prisoners escapes his chains and climbs the stairs out of the cave. He is greeted by a blinding light (sun) as he ventures outside of the cave. Once his eyes adjust, he sees a bright and vibrant landscape full of life and color. He sees colorful flying birds, clouds in the sky, plants, and flowing water. He even sees animals that appear to be similar in shape to the shadows on the cave wall. In awe, the escaped prisoner is struck with revelation and continues exploring this new world motivated by his newfound curiosity.
After some time on the outside, excitedly, the escaped prisoner returns to the cave to share what he’s witnessed with the other prisoners. He climbs back down the stairs into the darkness, where the other prisoners are still chained up. After passionately sharing his experiences of the outside; from the bright light, to the colorful birds and animals, the prisoners who are still chained up, begin dismissing his stories and treating them as delusion. And since the escaped prisoner would not relent on his story telling, the other prisoners eventually murder him.
Why is this? Why were the other prisoners so quick to dismiss the REAL experience of the prisoner who ventured far outside their own realms of imagination?
A Psychological Interpretation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
To begin, let’s remember…
- The prisoners have never experienced anything outside of their own realm of experience (shadows on the wall).
- This shadow reality is the only thing the prisoners have known, so they have accepted it as reality and have based their entire language around these forms.
- The prisoners have structured their entire understanding of the world around these forms.
- Their minds have never experienced anything outside of these forms.
These prisoners have become comfortable with the worldview. It works for them, and has kept them alive and entertained their entire lives. There has been no need to think of life outside the cave.
Everything they need physiologically is provided to them. They are not aware of any delicacies beyond their realm of reality, and their simple pleasures are enough for them. The prisoners have become comfortable. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave paints this picture perfectly.
Their minds are transfixed on the shadows, the scents of the cave, the sounds of the puppeteers and their own bodily urges. The shadows have a way of appeasing every need, that does not need to take place in physical reality (eating, drinking, bathing, shelter, etc.). Cravings for love, lust, entertainment, social interaction, emotional spectrum, uncertainty and power are all tended to by the shadows.
The prisoner who escaped had received powerful imprints on his mind by seeing the outside world. Although the version of reality that the escaped prisoner saw was TRUER in form than the shadows, this new worldview had opposed the captive prisoner’s. The captive prisoners were still asleep to the purer form of reality. This would mean that they would need to completely redesign their language, and special version of reality- it could even mean that they lose whatever status they had gained through “understanding” the shadows. There is an abundance of motivation for them to preserve their worldview.
- Preservation of language
- Preservation of status in their “society”
- Fear of confronting anything new
- Avoidance of danger and new challenges
- Comfort in their worldview
- Afraid of being ostracized from their own social groups
– The list goes on, if you can think of any more motivations, add them to the comments below!
Herein lies the beauty of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can be interpreted in many different ways. It even contains the archetypes that were used to write the story of the Matrix! Once you understand Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, you can see its parallels even in today’s realty. Plato wrote the Republic around 514 AD, and it is still just as relevant today. Plato may have even been predicting the evolution of technology, and how it has taken the place of shadows on the wall.
Are you comfortable being a prisoner? Or are you the one who escapes the cave, in search of something beyond your current reality?