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Time 400 B.C.
Parable of the Cave

                                    by Socrates                             

                                              ATHENS, Greece --  "...nothing but shadows!I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened. Behold! Human beings living in an underground cave, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den.
    Here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so  that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads.
     Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way. And you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette-players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
     I see.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
     You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
     True, he said. How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
     Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
     Very true.
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
     No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. That is certain. And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error.
     At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look toward the light, he will suffer sharp pains. The glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows. And then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned toward more real existence, he has a clearer vision--what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them--will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

     Far truer.
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
     True, he said.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities. 
     Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
  Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

     And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity him?

     Certainly, he would.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, "Better to be the poor servant of a poor master," and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
     Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
     To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous?
     Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death. 

     No question, he said.

     This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed--whether rightly or wrongly, God knows.
     But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

     I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.

     Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted.

     Yes, very natural.

     And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner.
If, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?
     Anything but surprising, he replied.

     Any one who has common-sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.
    And he who remembers this when he sees anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light.
     And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.

     That, he said, is a very just distinction.

     But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes.

     They undoubtedly say this, he replied.

     Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already.
     And that just as the eye was unable to turn from 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, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or, in other words, of the good.

    Very true.


The Scholastic discussion & an interpretation follows:

    Socrates' influence on Plato was a profound one, and Plato uses Socrates as a major character in many of his works. In The Republic, Plato presents an allegory that is useful in illustrating the difficulties and rewards of critical, philosophical analysis. This allegory, the allegory of the cave, may be read as a parable of political theory itself.
     Like all parables and allegories, the richness of its teachings lies not in the literal details of the story, but, rather, in the larger philosophical questions implied by the details.
    Just as the parable of the boy who cried wolf, for example, is not really meant to teach the mechanics of sheep herding or wolf tracking, but, instead, is a compelling allegory because it teaches us about issues such as honesty and human needs, so it is with Plato's allegory of the cave. It is not really about caves at all.
     It is about grappling with the questions we need to understand in order to be enlightened about the world.
In The Republic, Plato has the character of Socrates begin the allegory of the cave by telling us that the allegory is supposed to illustrate the process of achieving understanding and enlightenment.
     This is why the allegory is so very useful as a parable of political theorizing, for political theory is a history of the search for enlightenment on the normative questions of politics.
What is the human condition as it pertains to enlightenment or ignorance? In the allegory, Socrates contends that, in order to begin answering this question, we should imagine ourselves living in an underground cave. As residents of this cave, we are unaware of the most fundamental aspects of our environment.
     For example, we do not know that we are actually inside a cave, for we assume that the surroundings we observe constitute the entire universe. We have no idea that above us is a ground level, a sky, a sun, for we automatically believe that all that we see is all that is real.
    Our vision in this cave, Socrates explains, is very limited. The cave is dimly lit, and discerning images and shapes is difficult. However, since we have always lived in this cave, we don't feel that it is dark and blurry. for, to us, everything looks normal.
There are things going on in this cave that we do not know about. We are shackled so that we can only look forward. Having never experienced looking backward, we do not know that this is even possible and, therefore, we do not realize we are shackled.
     Behind us are three important objects: a fire casting light on the walls of the cave, a pathway leading out of the cave, and groups of people moving objects that cast shadows on the walls of the cave. We see only the shadows in front of us, and have no clue that these are merely shadows being created by moving objects. Having no reason to think otherwise, we consider the shadows to be real.
Thus, our lives consist of watching shadows. We are mesmerized by our world, not knowing its vacuous nature. We are entertained, informed, and reassured by the mundane and the sublime in our reality, not knowing that both are merely artificial constructs. We are so certain that we know reality -- after all, we are empirically observing it -- that our complacency has become part of our nature. All is right with the world, we feel.
Then, something happens to shatter life in the cave. A person stands and looks around. Upon making these unprecedented movements and looking into these new directions, the person feels intense discomfort. Standing up, turning around, seeing the fire -- all of these bold moves strain muscles and eyes unaccustomed to such "unnatural" things. The individual experiences confusion, as his or her vision and equilibrium have to adjust to the newness of standing and seeing light.
     The individual, Socrates continues, immediately considers rejecting everything she/he sees; it all looks unfamiliar, unreal, untrue, unnatural, wrong. It makes the individual feel very uncomfortable. The individual may want desperately to turn away from all these new things, but what if she/he does not? What if the individual moves up the cave's pathway and above ground?
     Here, the individual encounters more shocks and becomes even more frightened and miserable. for the light of the sun is completely overwhelming to someone who has always lived in a cave. The individual is blind and lost.
Yet, slowly, things begin to change. The eyes adjust and the individual begins to see not only the sun, but also the land, the sky, the world. The individual now realizes that there is an entire universe beyond the underground cave.
     The cave is not the world, living in shackles is not living freely, watching shadows play along a wall is not knowledge of what is real -- the former prisoner now knows all these things.
The enlightened individual begins to feel an urgent need to share this wonderful knowledge with the others in the cave. Thus, in the allegory, the individual goes back down the pathway, re-enters the cave, and starts revealing to the others that there is a life above ground. She/he tells the cave dwellers that they are in shackles, that those shadows they have been watching all their lives (and which their parents watched before them) are just images created by movements they have never seen.
How do you think the prisoners respond to these claims? In the allegory, the prisoners decide that the individual is mad, dangerous, or both. They assume the individual's vision has been ruined. The individual has lost touch with reality, if he or she thinks that looking backward is "normal".
     The individual is talking nonsense, the cave dwellers conclude. If the individual persists in trying to liberate the others, Socrates is very clear on what will happen: The individual will be killed by the cave dwellers.
The journey of the individual in Plato's allegory is relived, perhaps, by all of us when we think critically about politics. Critical thinking is difficult, sometimes unsettling, and often productive of conclusions at odds with the status quo of our caves. Thinking critically about the purposes of the state may lead us to believe that the accepted wisdom of our society is no more real than a shadow on a wall.
     As a result, political theory has produced ideas that are often controversial and sometimes elicit strong opposition. Socrates himself was considered dangerous and was condemned to death by Athens.
     Eighteenth-century conservative theorist Edmund Burke was sometimes vilified by opponents, and liberal theorists like 18th-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft have been ridiculed for challenging contemporaries to throw off their shackles, to live boldly, and create a life beyond the cave.
     Whenever theorists ask questions about the normative issues of politics, offering paths out of the cave, they enter controversial territory. Taking a college course on the internet with no professor present is itself an example of "creating a life beyond the cave" that is highly controversial and suspect among many professors.

       [Editor's Note: Plato's allegory of the Cave, from "The Republic" Book VII, in The Wisdom and Ideas of Plato. A Faucet Premier Book, Greenwich, Conn., 1966.]


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