Plato described the Allegory of the Cave in his work the Republic
It was written as a conversation between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon.
We will paraphrase this allegory now to illustrate how our mind perceives the world around us.
Imagine people living under the earth in a deep cave. They have been chained there since childhood. They are stuck in one location and cannot move. Their entire reality is based only on what is directly in front of them because they are unable to turn their heads. Behind the prisoners burns a fire, which illuminates the cave wall in front of them.
Reality for the Prisoners
Between the prisoners and the fire is a walkway. Along this walk way people are carrying objects. These objects cast their shadows onto the wall directly in front of the prisoners. The prisoners only see the shadows and hear the sounds behind them. They associate the sounds with the shadows they see on the wall. They observe and name these shadows. The shadows they see and the sounds they hear comprise what the prisoners consider to be reality. They have no concept of the actual objects behind them.
One Prisoner Breaks Free and Looks at the Fire
One day a prisoner is freed. His master takes him away from the others and forces him to look into the fire and the objects on the walkway. The brightness of the fire burns the prisoner’s eyes. He feels intense pain and confusion. The objects on the walkway and the flames of the fire are confusing and foreign to the prisoner who can make more sense of shadows on a wall. The prisoner is told that these objects are real, and what he saw before were just shadows. The prisoner does not believe any of this. The prisoner is overcome with pain and confusion. He decides the shadows make more sense to him and wishes to return to his chains with the other prisoners.
The Prisoner is Dragged Out of the Cave
Despite the prisoner wishing to go back, he is instead forced out of the cave. The master drags the prisoner away from the others, up the steep ascent of the cave and out into the bright sunlight. The prisoner resists with all his will, wishing to remain in the cave with the other prisoners. He is being forced out of his comfortable and familiar environment. Once outside, the prisoner feels intense pain from the sunlight, which temporarily blinds him. He is very angry with the master for dragging him out of the cave. He is not able to make sense of anything in his new surroundings. He is overwhelmed. Slowly, the prisoner’s eyes begin to adjust. First, he is able to see and make sense of the shadows. Eventually he begins associating shadows with their true objects. He continues to question the world around him and gazes up at the stars and moon during the night. One day the prisoner gets the courage to look directly into the sun. He then fully understands his surroundings and the true environment. Thinking back to his previous life in the cave, the prisoner feels grateful to his master for freeing him. He is no longer angry and confused. He understands that what he saw in the cave were just shadows of objects, rather than the true forms. He begins to feel sorry for the other prisoners who remain chained in the cave and forced to stare at the shadows on the wall.
What does the prisoner prefer?
Now imagine that down in the cave, the other prisoners compete for awards and recognition. They are happy and compete to see who is the best at recognizing the shadows on the wall, who can remember the most shadows, and who can predict which shadow might come next. Some have worked hard at studying the shadows and are considered the wisest and most authoritative of the prisoners.
Would the freed prisoner envy those still stuck in the cave? Would he want to return to the cave, where he could compete with the others in recognizing shadows? Or would he wish to remain outside of the cave in the light?
Naturally the prisoner would wish to remain outside the cave in a world that is superior to slavery, dark shadows, and ignorance. His mind could never go back to seeing the shadows on the wall and believing them to be true reality. He is forever changed.
The Prisoner Returns to the Cave
Now imagine that the prisoner returns to the cave and sits in the same location as before when he was in chains. Coming out of the bright sunlight, the prisoner’s eyes are filled with darkness and he cannot make out the shadows on the wall. The other prisoners begin to question him about his ability to see the shadows. It is taking a long time for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The other prisoners ridicule and taunt him. They claim that leaving the cave has ruined his eyes and made him blind and stupid. The prisoner, who was once free, tries to explain the objects, the sunlight, and the true nature of the shadows to the other prisoners.
He tells them that they should leave the cave so they can understand the world and see the true reality. The other prisoners conclude that he has gone completely insane. They do not want anyone dragging them out of the cave and making them blind and crazy. They decide that anyone who attempts to unchain them should be killed.
Shadows and Our Reality
Do you see how the Allegory of the Cave can resemble our own version of reality? Are we also living in chains and staring at shadows on a wall?
Let’s look at a few people who broke their chains and escaped the cave.
People Who Suffered for their Beliefs
A quick look at history shows that some of the greatest people were those who pursued the truth and broke the chains of their mental enslavement, even though it would cost them dearly.
Socrates may be the best example. He was found guilty of corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods. He was sentenced to death in 399 BC. Despite his death, Socrates’ teachings lived on through his students.
Galileo, the famous Italian astronomer, was found to be “vehemently suspect of heresy” for suggesting the earth was not at the center of the solar system. During that time in the 17th century, the notion that everything in the universe revolved around the earth was deeply rooted in society and religion. To suggest anything else was heresy. The Roman Inquisition sentenced him to a lifetime of house arrest in 1633.
There are many examples, both past and present, of people who were persecuted for holding contrary beliefs based on factual information.
What is our reality?
What if we are also prisoners in a cave, staring at shadows on a wall and imagining them to be true reality? Philosophers have struggled to explain the nature of reality for thousands of years.
But can we use the Allegory of the Cave to escape? Yes.
Be Open to New Information The first step to breaking free is simply being aware that we may also be in a cave of misinformation. What if certain things we have been told our entire lives are actually false? What if our understanding of the world is based less on factual information and more on conditioning?
The answer to this problem is to seek out and be open to new information. But that is easier said than done. Consider how much influence your friends and family have on shaping your belief system.
Now imagine how difficult it would be to maintain those close relationships if your beliefs did not align with theirs. Scary, right? It is for most people. Our Social Network We humans are social creatures. For thousands of years our survival was dependent up on getting along well with those in our tribe. Accepting beliefs that would put us at odds with the rest of the tribe could be suicidal.
This is biologically hard-wired into our brains. Just like the freed prisoner who returned to the cave, someone who holds opposing or “extreme” beliefs could easily disrupt the social order. The other prisoners felt threatened by the returning prisoner and his scary ideas.
Is this similar to our society?
We turn on the television and are told how to think. Different television stations may assert different arguments, but maybe these arguments are just shadows flickering on the cave wall, distracting us from the bigger picture. Then we log in to our social media accounts. Our Facebook wall depicts the perceptions of like-minded people. They hold the same beliefs as us. Going on Facebook and posting disruptive or abnormal opinions would not benefit our “social network.”
Would you want to know the truth if it put you at odds with your friends and family? Or would it be easier and more comfortable to go with the flow, not ask difficult questions, and keep staring at the shadows?
Speaking of social networks, Facebook has openly admitted to conducting experiments on how to manipulate people’s emotions by changing what posts they see. They are also openly working with governments to censor free speech, especially in Europe.
This is thought control.
The first step to blocking out the misinformation is being aware of it. Mass Media Have you ever considered how much control is exerted by such a small number of organizations in mass media?
Maybe this is why the public’s trust in mass media is hitting all time lows right now. Perhaps out of frustration we turn to the “alternative media” crowd. Most of this group is found online. But what if some of the biggest players in the self-proclaimed “alternative media” are just as bad in distracting us from what’s really going on?
Maybe they profit more by claiming to be the alternative media, confusing their audience, and selling various products. Many of those in the alternative media sell half-truths. They make factual statements on a variety of topics, positioning themselves as being on the side of their audience. But many of them use distraction, lies, and fear to keep their audience confused.
So what do you do?
Keep Asking Difficult Questions
I know, by now you are probably frustrated . But stay with me, we’re going somewhere with all these questions because this is the key to breaking free. We must keep asking difficult questions, searching for the answers, and filtering out the noise and misinformation. Let the facts guide you, wherever it may be. And the more that you begin to recognize the lies and misinformation around you, the easier it will be to see what is actually true.
Remember that Leaving the Cave is Painful
Learning new information, especially when it contradicts your beliefs, is very difficult and perhaps even physically painful. But this is natural. This is the process of learning. Plato argued that true learning is natural, necessary, and uncomfortable.
It could disrupt your entire social network as your opinions and beliefs change based on new facts and information. But that’s OK. It’s natural to find new friends as your beliefs change. You must continue to pursue factual information instead of being influenced by emotions and lies. Do not stop asking questions and looking for answers. The internet is probably the best resource ever for giving people instant access to a world of information. It is also an excellent tool for networking and meeting like-minded people who are also looking for answers.
That’s why the Thought Police are working so hard to censor the internet and shut down free speech. But do not stop and do not give up. Keep going. Eventually things start to make sense.
Finally. I have some good news for you. The prisoner who was forced out of the cave did not remain in a permanent state of blindness, pain, and confusion. Slowly, everything began to make sense and his courage and spirit improved as his reality expanded. He had finally broken free and could understand the world around him. But this also created a problem because he could never return to the cave and stare at shadows on the wall with the other prisoners. He could never again see the shadows as true reality.
Do you see now how we can use the Allegory of the Cave to break the chains of our mind? We must seek out the truth above all else and keep pushing ourselves to find it, even if doing so is uncomfortable.
Freedom is always better, even if escaping into the light will be a painful process.
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