The Allegory of the Cave

Plato, The Republic, book 7

4th-5th centuries BC, ancientAthens

Plato_iconPlato’s Allegory of the Cave is probably the most famous philosophical text of self-transformation:

(The following is based on Benjamin Jowett’s translation)

—Imagine human beings living in an underground cave (…) They have been there from childhood, and their legs and necks are chained, so that they can not move. They can only see what is before them, since their chains prevent them from turning their heads. There is a fire in a place behind and above them. And between the fire and the prisoners there is a low wall, which is like a screen at a puppet theater which hides the performers, and above which they show the puppets.

—I see it.

—Imagine also that along that wall, some people arecarrying all sorts of artifacts, such as statues of men or animals made of wood or stone, etc. [so that these artifacts create shadows on the walls in front of the prisoners.] Some of those people are talking, while others are silent.

—This is a strange image, and strange prisoners.

—They are like us.

They are like us, Plato explains, because we too don’t perceive reality, but only superficial shadows. Like them we are imprisoned in a limited cave, or worldview, and we assume that this is what reality is like. We don’t realize that it is only shadows on a wall, and that a greater and fuller reality exists outside our cave.

Nevertheless, we can beliberated from our prison:

—Consider what will happen if the prisoners are freed, and if they are cured of their ignorance. Whenever one of them is liberated and is suddenly forced to stand up and turn his neck and walk and look toward thefire, at first he will suffer sharp pains from the light. He will be unable to see the artifacts that cast the shadows (…) Do you think he will not be confused? Will he not imagine that the shadows are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

—Very true.

—And if he is forced to look at the light of the fire, will he not feel pain in his eyes, and turn away (…)?


—But if he is dragged up along the rough and steep exit of the cave, and is forced into the sunlight (…) his eyes would be blinded, and he would be unable to see anything (…) It will take him time to get adjusted to the light and see things in the world above. At first he will see the shadows most easily, then the reflections of men and other things in water, and then the things themselves. Then he will look at the light of the moon and the stars in the sky, and he will see them better by night than by day (…) And finally, he will be able to see the sun…

Plato’s allegory is part of his complex philosophy, which is rich in details. But if we put aside the many details of his theories, we can see the allegory in a more general way: as an allegory about our narrow and superficial way of life.

The allegory touches us because it reminds us of our heart’s yearning to live more deeply and fully. Virtually every reflective person experiences this yearning, although in everyday life we are usually too busy to appreciate it. We are preoccupied with pleasing the boss, with playing the social game, worrying about our money and possessions, dreaming about a newer car or a bigger house; and then we spend the rest of the time online or watching TV. But occasionally, at special moments of self-reflection, we can hear a small voice speaking inside us and asking: “Is this all there is to my life? Shouldn’t there be something more? Can’t my life be richer, fuller, deeper than it actually is?”

Plato’s allegory tells us: Yes, you can live a bigger life—although the way there is long and difficult. It is not a matter of adding another detail to your cave, or making your chains more comfortable, or your chair more beautiful. It is a matter of standing up, turning around and stepping out—all of you, with your entire body, your entire being. What is needed here is a total change in your situation, in other words nothing less than self-transformation.

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