Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” presents a vision of humans as slaves chained in front of a fire observing the shadows of things on the cave wall in front of them. The shadows are the only “reality” the slaves know. Plato argues that there is a basic flaw in how we humans mistake our limited perceptions as reality, truth and goodness. The allegory reveals how that flaw affects our education, our spirituality and our politics.
The flaw that Plato speaks about is trusting as real, what one sees—believing absolutely that what one sees is true. In The Allegory of the Cave, the slaves in the caves know that the shadows, thrown on the wall by the fire behind them, are real. If they were to talk to the shadows echoes would make the shadows appear to talk back. To the slaves “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images….” (“AC” in Jacobus 316).
In the allegory, a slave is then brought out of the cave, in what Plato refers to as “the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world” (“AC” in Jacobus 319). Once out of the cave the slave discovers that what he thought was real is not. He learns to comprehend all of these new images as real and true. Since he has been in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, the light blinds him.
Representing knowledge, the light is too brilliant for him to see and comprhend. He must be re-educated. “First he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of the men and other objects… then the objects themselves…” (“AC” in Jacobus 317). He learns that the reflections are truer than shadows and the objects truer than reflections. He must deal with a new reality that does not exist within the cave.
Plato says that these people who are brought out of the cave must go back into the cave to educate the other slaves. But the only people who should be allowed back into the cave are the ones willing to go. The people must teach the others of the reality outside of the cave, outside of the slaves’ reality. These are the philosophers.
The capacity to learn exists in the soul. Humans need to use their whole soul to learn, not just use their eyes. Plato writes, “…the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from the darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being….” (“AC” in Jacobus 320).
According to Plato, human beings’ misperception about “reality” also affects one’s spiritual growth. When the slave makes the ascent and sees the sun, he might mistake it for God. Plato writes, “He will then argue that this [the sun] is he, …the guardian of … the visible world …the cause of all things…” (“AC” in Jacobus 318). Having moved from darkness into light, the slave comes to the conclusion that this bright light must be God. Plato argues that one’s soul holds knowledge of what is true. When one learns, one simply remembers. People originate from Heaven where they knew the truth. In the Bible it states, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day…” (Corinthians II, 4:16). One is renewed day by day by remembering things that their soul knows, but that they have forgotten.
Plato discredits a government run by the people in the cave who are uneducated and “fight with one another about shadows only… and struggle for power… a great good….” (“AC” in Jacobus 322-323). Plato argues that the ones who have made the ascent must govern, for they know what is real and understand that the shadows are only dreams. Plato says it is difficult to go back down into the darkness after one has seen the light, but one must. They must educate the slaves about the world above, so the slaves understand that power is not the great good. Even though it will be ten times harder to readjust to the darkness after descending into the cave again they will see ten times better, because now they know the shadows are not real. They will govern with knowledge of good and truth.
I believe that the “Allegory of the Cave” simply states that we must question reality and not trust just what our eyes tell us. The slave that makes the ascent and eventually rejects the truth of the shadows comes to know a truer truth. But then they believe what their eyes show them on this world. They have forgotten that they must question reality, because how are we to know that this reality is realer than that of the caves’? What if we are the shadows? It is analogous to having an imaginary friend when we are younger. Our imaginary friend is very real to us, but as we get older or make the ascent to the world of knowledge, we reject our imaginary friends. We are faced with a different reality where we start to believe that what our eyes show us is the only truth. We forget to question things and don’t realize that maybe there is yet another ascent, out of this bigger “cave” of the light.
Human beings’ knowledge of goodness, reality, and truth will always be limited by our fear of new ideas and new perspectives. As long as we are afraid of questioning, we will be willing to “put…to death” anyone who ascends and returns to the cave with the truth.