Have you ever glimpsed what you thought was a higher non-dual realm during meditation? Thought that it transcends all other knowledge, and tried to explain that to your fellow human beings? Been met with resistance, confusion or mockery?
Then you will relate to this story.
The Allegory of the Cave was written by the Greek Philosopher Plato in roughly the 5th Century BC. It is found in a section of “The Republic”, Plato’s masterwork of political philosophy.
The goal of “The Republic” is to lay out what Plato thinks is the ideal society. Some of the ideas may seem strange to us today. For example, Plato famously shunned democracy as the structure of his society, in favour of rule by philospher-kings. These were to be people specially selected at birth and schooled in philosophy from a young age.
It was imagined that these rulers would rule wisely and justly. You could ask, though, what is the difference between this system and a dictatorship?
We are only concerned with the myth of the Cave here.
So What is the Allegory of the Cave?
Plato describes the Allegory thus: there is a cave. In it there are people, chained, facing the back of the cave. Behind them there is a fire, casting light on the back of the cave.
Between the fire and the people, there are figures being moved about, in order to create shadows on the cave wall. These shadow figures are the only things that the chained prisoners ever see. They think that these shadows are reality.
Then one day, a prisoner in the cave breaks free from their shackles. They see the fire, and shadows on the wall for what they are: just shadows.
The escaped prisoner breaks free from the cave, and reaches sunlight. Because he has been in the dark cave, the sunlight is very bright and hurts the man’s eyes.
But eventually he adjusts, and can look at the real world all around him. It is beautiful.
So eventually the escapee decides to go back down to the cave to tell his fellow prisoners of the real world that exists, out there, beyond the cave.
But when he gets back down into the cave, and tells his story, he is met with confusion, and anger. The prisoners don’t understand what he is saying, and plot to kill him.
So What Does the Story Mean?
The central message of the story is that there are, today, two worlds present – the everyday world of opinions, judgments and regular consciousness. This is represented by the shadows in the cave.
But what Plato seems to be saying is that there is also, along with the everyday world, another world inside of us. This world far transcends the ordinary world in terms of beauty, and sheer real-ness.
I would interpret this second world as being an inner, spiritual realm, accessible only if people would turn their attention inside.
But so often most people don’t like doing that. A recent study showed that most people would rather give themselves electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts.
And it can be difficult sometimes. But if we can just sit with our thoughts, and observe them, non-judgmentally, then an amazing thing starts to happen. The thoughts slow. An inner space opens up. And we begin to meet God face to face.
How Do I Access the World Outside the Cave?
I interpret Plato’s story of leaving the cave, with seeing Reality, directly with meditation and contemplation.
Scores of spiritual traditions have said down the ages that truth lies within.
Look at the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and Jesus’ words: “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (Luke 17:21)
The Buddha’s path to enlightenment was based around meditation.
Plato seems to be saying something similar here – that truth, enlightenment, Reality; lies within.
What about the negative reception the escapee got from the other cave dwellers?
Well this is a metaphor for the way, over millennia, people have been persecuted for trying to voice and embody this higher truth of love, beauty and faith.
From Socrates to Jesus; to scores of medieval mystics; to modern day martyrs like Martin Luther King Jr; many people have been killed for representing their highest ideals.
Plato seems to be quite critical of the man-on-the-street in his allegory. He may have called it “the mob”. He sees them as unenlightened savages, pretty much.
Maybe a little harsh. But history tends to agree with him.
The Allegory of the Cave has been very influential over the past 2,500 years. Many writers have interpreted it in their slightly different ways.
It had big impact on Christianity, as the Church Fathers sought to integrate classical philosophy and Christian Theology in the Middle Ages. Many of those ancient Christians would have interpreted it in a similar way to me above.
The allegory has had an impact on movies too – The Matrix directors the Wachowskis cited directly the influence of philosophy on the film. With issues of “what is the real world?” running throughout the movie, its not hard to see why.
I’ll leave the last word on this post to philosopher AN Whitehead, who famously said once that:
“Western philosophy is simply a series of footnotes to Plato”
Such is his impact.