In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic, he describes prisoners chained so that they are forced to face forward towards a wall of a cave. A fire burns behind them and casts shadows onto the wall in front of them. These shadows are all that these prisoners can see. They don’t know the nature of reality—it remains out of reach, outside the cave. They don’t even know that they don’t know reality—nothing in their experiences has ever led them to have to question what they assume to be true: The cave, the shadows, this is all they know.
Plato says, “They are like ourselves.” To me, this suggests a paradox: If we are the prisoners, and I believe we are, how can we begin to understand that we’re the prisoners enough to even appreciate the rest of the essay and the ideas contained therein? How can we begin to know how much we truly don’t know? One way in is that we need to truly embrace this paradox if we want to be able to make any kind of meaning of this text and of the concept of Truth. Otherwise we will simply continue to “see nothing of [our]selves but [our] own shadows.” I would start by suggesting it’s important that we question everything we believe to be true, all that we take for granted.
One year when I was teaching this text to my seniors, one kid, D, in starting to grasp the idea that Plato presents that we truly don’t know what reality is, turned to another student and asked him, “What color is this paper?” He answered, “White.” Her response was, “How do you know?” He looked at her puzzled; he couldn’t explain how he knew it was white; it just was. Now this is a typical mind-fuck thought-experiment that I think everyone has engaged in at some point: How do I know that what I see as blue is really blue? What if what you see as blue is actually my green, but, because we can never see through each other’s eyes, we think we’re speaking the same language about the same reality? And how do we know that this reality that we’re naming is even Truth? A particular rock shrimp exists that can see all kinds of colors humans can’t simply because of the physiology of their eyes. The fact that these colors exist but we can’t see is only one example of the any number of truths out there that we simply have no experience of, which, naturally, doesn’t render them any less real. While Plato’s allegory is not intended to be solely this kind of “mind fuck” thought experiment, I think that engaging in these kinds of exercises is crucial to starting to grasp his larger philosophy: How can we ever escape outside the cave if we don’t question the very nature of our existence?
Plato explains the prisoners’ dependence on language to define their reality. He imagines them playing a game to see who is the quickest in naming the various shadows they see: “If they were able to talk to one another, wouldn’t they think that the names they used were those of the shadows that went by?” I personally am a lover of language—I believe it helps us make meaning of our world, but I also understand that the mysteries of the universe may be more than our language can pin down. I am reminded of this every time I think about a friend of mine who died several years ago at a very young age due to brain cancer. She’d lived with cancer on and off for many years, and when she was in high school, she had surgery to remove a tumor that had grown in the part of the brain that processes language. When she awoke from the surgery, her doctors and family discovered that she’d lost language ability. I don’t mean that she didn’t have the physical motor skills to speak. I mean that her brain lost the ability to make use of the symbolic representation of words, to make use of the fact that words—relatively arbitrary, abstract sounds—hold any sort of specific, concrete meaning that everyone who speaks that particular language have agreed upon. She did regain language eventually; otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to tell me about this experience. But at the time, her family was utterly terrified: their teenage daughter had been rendered speechless. She, however, was anything but frightened. She understood that they were afraid, but she wasn’t—instead a whole new world had opened up for her. Because she was unhampered by language to negotiate her reality, she began to understand the true nature of the world. She didn’t depend on the symbolism of a cluster of sounds to communicate the truth of what she saw (“This paper is white.”); instead she understood the essence of everything. She began to see the energies of objects and of people; she said that colors become more vivid and realer. She began to paint and communicate her truths through her art.
After I told this story to my students this year, one student came up to me after class to tell me about a YouTube video he’d seen of a lecture by a Buddhist monk. The monk asks his audience what the true nature of a pen is. If humans were to describe the pen, they’d say it is a tool for writing; but what would a dog say? If the pen’s essence were truly as a writing tool, a dog would see a pen and begin writing with it. So, does the pen’s nature as a writing tool or a chew toy live in the pen itself, or is its essence imposed on it by whoever’s perception we’re considering? Obviously perception is everything. And yet we humans go around most of the time behaving as though our perceptions are somehow the absolute Truth.
Eventually in Plato’s allegory, a prisoner is freed from his chains and forced to his feet out of the cave into the light. This prisoner has to deal first with the discomfort of life outside the cave. Not only is he shocked to learn that the world is not what he thought; it is bright and the light hurts his eyes. Plato says, “And if he were forced to look straight at the light itself, wouldn’t he start back with pained eyes?” And this is a Truth that many of us can relate to: If we’ve ever traveled outside our country—our world—if we’ve ever learned hard, painful truths, we understand this uncomfortable awakening. In college, when I began volunteering in prisons and learning the reality of the prison system—how many people we incarcerate in this country, how our incarceration rates are absolutely determined by issues of race and class, and what life is like for those in prison as well as their loved ones outside the prison—I was upset, uncomfortable and pained. The reality of incarceration was not a reality I’d ever had to experience. As a white, middle-class woman, most of my peers were not part of this system: I’d never had to think about what it would be like to be locked up, what it would be like for someone I loved to be locked up. I never had to fear police or the system in the same way that many who live in our country do. This is not meant to be a discussion of prison issues per se—it is meant to illustrate a reality that lots of us, by dint of our birth, do not have to think about, while many of us, also by dint of our birth, think about regularly. I was horrified to learn of this reality that I’d never had to think about, not only because mass incarceration is so heartbreaking but also because I’d always thought of myself as a fairly well-educated, intelligent person: Here was a Truth that had simply never occurred to me—I became suddenly and profoundly aware of how much I didn’t actually know.
Similarly, travel abroad can shake us up, make us think about what we take for granted as “real.” A few summers ago, I took a group of students to Nicaragua on a three-week educational, service trip. One of the outings we participated in was going to the city dump where people lived and worked. They spent their days sorting through the city’s trash—its shit-stained toilet paper and other waste—to find anything that could be sold and recycled. (For instance, one man approached us with a hand full of staples he’d collected.) When we returned back to our hostel to process what we’d seen, many of my students broke down crying—how could people live like this? How could my students have taken their own comfortable lives for granted? How could they not have known this reality existed?
It should be obvious to us that so many realities that aren’t ours exist. William Blake died penniless, his peers deeming him crazy because he saw angels. Any number of other thinkers, known or unknown, have had similar perceptions or ideas about the world, and the world has had various reactions to them: deeming them either genius or lunatic (usually depending such factors as social status and “respectability”). Various philosophers and prophets have seen a different truth than the one popular in their time. Galileo understood the truth of the universe and was condemned as a heretic for his science. Carl Jung’s exploration of the subconscious led to his own set of visions and voices, and the Buddha’s search for meaning led him to reject all that his life had set up for him.
The story of the Buddha is a particularly interesting one in light of Plato’s text. The Buddha was a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a sheltered, secure, wealthy life. His parents, wanting their son to be happy, kept him from ever leaving the palace so that he wouldn’t have to experience suffering; he was stuck in a cave—a luxurious, comfortable cave, but a cave nonetheless. One day he did leave and encountered an old man. He didn’t understand what he saw until it was explained to him that everyone gets old. He saw a sick person and a corpse. Again, he’d never experienced sickness or death but learned that people get sick, that everyone dies. This all led him “out of the cave,” to question the nature of human experience, why we suffer, and this all, of course, led to his enlightenment after years of searching and mediation.
The term “enlightenment” is symbolically meaningful: Plato uses the sun as the symbol of Truth and enlightenment. The prisoner stuck in the cave sees only shadows, and if he were to escape from the cave, out into the world beyond, it would take time to adjust, to truly see what lies outside the cave, to see in the full light of the sun. Being able to look directly at the sun and take in its light is gaining true knowledge. Plato says of the sun, “In the field of deep knowledge the last thing to be seen, and hardly seen, is the idea of the good. When we see it, we see that it is truly the cause for all things, of all that is beautiful and right.” Our conceptions of “good” may differ, but it’s clear that a connection between doing good in the world and Truth is very much a part of Plato’s text.
The connections between the Buddha’s story and “The Allegory of the Cave” don’t end with the Buddha’s enlightenment. Some versions of the Buddha’s life maintain that he became a bodhisattva after his death—instead of transcending to nirvana, he chose to reincarnate again and again to help lead others to enlightenment. He willingly allowed himself to be reborn into a life of suffering in order that others may not suffer. Plato explains that the enlightened “may not keep to themselves up there [in the world outside the cave] but have to go down again [into the cave] among the prisoners and take part in their work and rewards…Everyone is to give to all the others whatever he is able to produce for the society.”
For me, Plato’s text is a call to action, a demand that we not only seek truths outside of our own sheltered caves, but that we help lead others to truth. Perhaps the text appeals to me as a teacher—I believe in the collective sharing of wisdom (not that I feel I am Plato’s enlightened prisoner), and I revere those who have been willing to die for the Truth—for Plato tells us that the prisoner who comes back from above and tries to tell the others that all they see are merely shadows of truths would be laughed at, and then, “if [the other prisoners] were able to get their hands on him…wouldn’t they put him to death?”
We as a society generally feel comfortable in our caves—otherwise how could a maxim such as “ignorance is bliss” have held as firmly as it has? Some of this is due to the discomfort described earlier—why face painful truths when we can be happy in our own unknowing? However our staying inside our caves can have a much more insidious rationale: Many benefit from others not knowing the Truth: This was certainly the case for white slave owners and, later, white anti-integrationists. It was the case in this country for men trying to keep women from voting and is still true for those modern-day corporations who would like us to buy, buy, buy without questioning the environmental devastation or child or slave labor involved in making their products. If the powers that be can convince us we’re happier and better when we pursue being “cool” or “attractive” rather than noticing that we’re merely playing the “shadow game” described by Plato, then they benefit by being able to make money off of us seeking these manufactured desires.
Each movement has had its enlightened prisoner who has worked to lead others out of their cave. Some of the obvious names come to mind: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech is so moving because of how squarely he looks an early death in the eye and declares he’s not afraid the day before he was assassinated, or, as one student wrote about in her essay on “Allegory of the Cave” a couple years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to be a leader of the citizens of Myanmar despite the attempts to silence her. However, there are others of us who have perhaps gotten a glimpse outside the cave who may not be famous or popular: the teenager who defends someone who is being bullied or picked on, the church-goer who challenges their church’s homophobic doctrine, the man who speaks up on behalf of women’s rights.
I’m not an expert on Plato’s life or philosophies, and it’s obvious that these applications of Plato’s text don’t always correspond to the life Plato lived or the beliefs he espoused: He was, for instance, a firm believer in a divided, socially-stratified society; he did not use these teachings to speak out against slavery. But the power of the text, for me, lies in the philosophical implications, and what good is philosophy if we readers don’t wrestle with it and try to make meaning of it for ourselves in our world today?