Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

The ancient Greeks were adamant that philosophy (literally translated to Love of Wisdom), be a deeply useful skill that should be learned and practiced by all as instructive to humans living and even dying well. The very well-known PLATO (circa 423-347 BC), believed in the usefulness of philosophy more than most of his contemporaries. Plato viewed philosophy was a kind of therapy for the soul. One of the most compelling and widely known of the stories or dialogues Plato wrote on the usefulness of philosophy in what is now known as the Allegory of the Cave; perhaps the most famous allegory in all of philosophy. The purpose of the allegory was to “compare the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature.”

As part of his masterpiece, The Republic, Plato describes The Cave – a prison where people are born as prisoners and are to remain for life. Without the ability to ever venture outside the cave in which they are chained, they are deprived of natural light in the cave so all that the inhabitants can see are shadows of things projected on the wall by the light of a fire behind the objects and prisoners. Being the only reality they know, the cave dwellers become fascinated by the shadows of animals, plants & people. Moreover, they believed the shadows were real and, if studied, will provide them with knowledge to allow them to succeed in life. Obviously, the dwellers have no idea they see only shadows… mere phantoms of the thing it purports to represent. The dwellers even begin to talk among themselves about the shadowy things and take great pride in their sophistication and wisdom.

Then something very unusual happens when one of the cave dwellers happens to find his way out of the cave into the blistering noon sunlight. At first his eyes are overwhelmed but adjust soon enough. For the first time in his existence, he finally sees things as they really are when properly lit by the sun. Gradually he begins seeing ‘real’ objects and begins to recognize these are the things he has previously only as shadows on the cave wall. His finally adjusted eyes see actual flowers, the colorful sky and its many birds, and he touches and feels for the first time the foreign texture of everything he touches as everything is new to him. The night comes and he is flabbergasted by the stars and gradually begins to contemplate the vastness and sublime nature of the universe. As Plato put it, “[p]reviously he had been looking at only phantoms; now he is nearer to the true nature of being.”

From a natural feeling of wanting to share his discoveries with his former cave-dwelling companions still blinded by the confusion and error of the shadows, he decides to leave the sun-lit world and return to the dark and damp cave he used that used to make up his world. His eyes area again required to adjust from bright light of the outside world and he struggles to acclimate to the cave. He stumbles and, unable to see clearly, to his companions seemed very awkward and confused. He clearly did not impress his companions as one bestowed with knowledge of “the real world.” He quickly realizes his former cave-dwellers were unimpressed with him and he is equally unimpressed with them. The animosity heats up badly enough that when he insists on explaining what the sun is, or what a real tree is like, the cave-dwellers initially get very sarcastic and poke fun at him. His persistence engenders anger as they feel the newly enlightened escapee has perhaps lost his mind. They then get angry with him and the discord leads to an eventual plot to kill him.

Plato Those that see beyond shadows

The solution, according to Plato, was a broad, carefully administered philosophical education. He understood the effectiveness of a method of inquiry pioneered by his master Socrates, which is where the type of  inquiry is now known to us as the Socratic Method. Done properly, it should be a gentle process. One must avoid condescending lecturing at or forcing pupils to read a particular text. Instead, start with a general pronouncement of intellectual modesty. Be honest with each other in admitting that no one knows very much, and that true wisdom starts with owning up to that ignorance.

Simply confess that you don’t know what policies the government should implement, what war is meant to achieve or how relationships work. Then attempt to get the other person to state what they think and you together start a journey to find the answers. It is likely the other person will be confident, sometimes even overconfident. They may quickly tell you the answer you seek is rather simple and most people know the answer already. This is where real patience is needed to deal with this type of bravado. If the inquiry goes off-topic, you cheerfully bring them back around and be prepared to have many discussions with them, often over many days.

This method of is based on a confidence that with the right encouragement, people have the ability to work things out themselves and eventually learn to detect errors in their own reasoning. But dialogues often go awry unless you gently and quietly draw your interlocutor’s attention to sticky and difficult points without ever casting blame or getting annoyed. You cannot teach anything by making your pupil feel stupid, even if they are at first.

We ALL must begin in our Cave, but it was Plato’s deepest insight that we need not remain in the darkness and ignorance of the cave by remaining. Plato enlightens us by informing us that the way out of the darkness is philosophy. Philosophy is the beacon whose light we learn to slowly follow until the true nature of things become clear.

How Does This Apply To Me?

This allegory has never been more applicable than in modern society and in a most serious way. More than  ever America is stringently divided into echo-chambers where no one is even exposed to other views much less presented with a coherent argument of all sides of the many complicated issues we face so one can arrive at an informed opinion through their own informed, well-reasoned thinking. Sadly intellectual laziness pervades and far too many are content to be told what to think and the mental muscles used in critical and/or analytical thinking are atrophied to uselessness.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, people knowledgable on just one side of a debate believe themselves to be unrivaled experts on the subject. That misguided belief is most often accompanied by an arrogance justified only in a true expert that has spent years in study and/or training to acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities of an honest expert. This is why we use a surgeon to repair a damaged body, a lawyer to argue a complicated case before a judge, and a mechanic to repair our cars. The glaring distinction is the true expert has devoted immense time and effort to obtain the knowledge, and her well-developed knowledge is constantly updated and sharpened by the inquiries and challenges by more accomplished experts. The end result is someone with unique ability and knowledge to address a particular problem needing a remedy.

By contrast, the pseudo-expert does not have her ideas and beliefs challenged but only reinforced, no matter the ideas proximity to truth. After constant reinforcement these unrefined ideas eventually seem infallible. This is a dangerous and growing phenomenon made more complicated by the recent phenomenon of “fake news” to further cloud the issues. How is an individual living his or her busy life, even a relatively well-informed citizen, expected to devote the time and energy required to become adequately & thoroughly informed and to make a decision on a complex or nuanced issue? Without making an immense individual effort to discern fantasy from reality, which not every citizen has the time, energy or ability to do, it is tough for one to locate and study the right sources to address the inquiry even if inclined to do so in the first place. There are trustworthy sources that are reliable and factually accurate, even some still using the journalistic standards that we used to be able to take for granted but no more.

It now takes time and effort to determine whether a source is reliable or if it also has an agenda that colors the objectivity of the reporting or analysis built into everything they report on or if its accurate but it can be done and, I would argue, must be done as we go forth in this brave new world of post-truth politics we have quietly entered. Let’s reign in this monster before it becomes an accepted as the “new-normal.”

I do not know if you agree but I cringe at the idea of living in a “post-truth” world and that becoming the new normal. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

It is understandable to be tempted to throw up your hands, say “to hell with it” and just disengage. Should that happen, we will quickly slide into a permanent state of post-truth politics and the power of the people will be a thing of the past – which I believe is precisely what the establishment wants. flag-eagle-constitution

Sometimes circumstances dictate the action one must take and this is one of those times. To be clear, I cannot emphasize enough how much I truly hope I’m wrong. I want President Trump to act for the benefit of all Americans and successfully build on President Obama’s work in steering the Ship of State out of the Great Recession and building on the stable economic foundation of slow but steady economic growth (free of bubbles), drastically reduced unemployment and focusing on increasing real household incomes that have been stagnant since the 80’s – a trend that finally started to reverse as we saw a considerable increase in household incomes in recent months.

Making matters exponentially worse, our gridlocked political system has been put up for sale to the highest bidders, which are inevitably the wealthiest families & large corporations. As a result, our elected officials that should be “beholden to the people alone” are rather blatantly beholden to their donors and ignore the needs & desires of the people. This explains why members of congress spend up to 70% of their time fund-raising and yet we the people are supposed to naively believe the unlimited millions donated to their campaigns, their leadership PACs, and SuperPACs give these mega-donors no greater access to or influence over our elected officials than you or I have? An utterly absurd notion.

Corruption has always been a part of politics but there is no longer even a superficial attempt to conceal it. Where our politicians used to try to hide their conflicted interests, they now barely pay lip service to their constituents while publicly and without a hint of shame, do the obvious bidding of their donors. I believe it is because they know – or at least believe – that there is nothing “we the people” can or will do about it.

As it stands, the only ones with the power to change the rules are the ones grossly enriched by those rules. We have allowed the Fox to take possession of our Hen House and does anyone believe the Fox will voluntarily change the rules and ban Foxes from the hen-house?

Or do you suppose he will now gorge himself until sick then hand out the rest to cronies? I think it is the latter. The best book I know on the subject is “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It.” It is such an enlightening work I wish I had the power to require every voter to read it and to compel the people to implement a plan to end corruption.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Now is the time to remind ourselves that our great Republic depends on an informed electorate. I add to that what I believe the founders took for granted – an energized and participating electorate. Apathy was painfully evident in the 2016 election. Decisions to stay home and not participate could easily have changed the outcome of the contest. The decision lies with each one of us. We can choose to stay in the echo-chamber that is the Cave we have made for ourselves or fallen into that keeps us insulated from the thoughts and opinions of others. In the alternative, we can make a choice as an act of our individual will to get out of the Cave and move into the light to become part of a truly informed electorate for the benefit of our nation and our children’s future. What will you do? Only you can decide, but I humbly suggest get you leave the intellectual comfort of the Cave, move into the light and accept the challenge to think for yourself so you can arrive at your own well-informed and well-reasoned decisions as our Founding Fathers intended. Now decide.


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Hello! I'm Kevin. Recently retired from practicing law for 20 years - literally bad for my health. Now making a go of it by writing, which I've long wanted to do but never had the time. Now I am just another person trying to take the upheavals in life as stoically as I can and sharing my thoughts with people like you. Originally this space was set up to write about applied Philosophy, but as the archives show, I did not write frequently. In hopes that I will post more often, I am expanding the subject matter to include any of my varied interests, one of which is politics. That was my undergraduate Minor and has remained a passion to this day. Given the controversial 2016 election, I felt compelled to start writing again. I realize politics may alienate many people, but I will write in a fair-minded way that should not offend anyone and hopefully promotes a friendly discourse and true exchange of ideas. All of us have fallen into echo-chambers so we only hear opinions that reinforce our own beliefs. When that happens you never really hear other points of view and your ideas will not be challenged what the other side is saying and you have gridlock. Feel free to push back and challenge my ideas, preferably in a respectful way and I will do the same to ideas I disagree with. As long as the dialogue maintains appropriate civility and decorum, I look forward to having my ideas challenged and perhaps both may be better for having engaged in the dialogue.

2 thoughts on “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave”

  1. You were right, thank you. After watching the YouTube film again there absolutely was such similarity to the text of the video that could not have been purely coincidental. As a result, I took the time to rewrite the post. I am glad about your timing because I updated the entire post given the relevance to the election.
    I have viewed all of the Videos from the School of Life – and the philosophy specific videos dozens of times each. I use the channel very often as background noise and as I go to sleep. I have been a fan of Alain de Botton’s work since reading “The Consolations of Philosophy” about a dozen years ago. I even corresponded with him and got a brief, generous and almost immediate response. Given your astute observation you were kind enough to share, I will be cognizant anytime I write posts having to do with subject matter in SOL’s videos to make sure it does not happens again going forward as it is quite embarrassing and just not acceptable, I wrote today on politics and, assuming I devote the time & attention, hope to write on all of my interests: politics, philosophy, political science, cosmology, physics, and brain science (a huge interest with Multiple Sclerosis) and follow that subject very closely. With 53 lesions on the brain, I can blame my humiliating error on the brain damage. I’m kidding. Thanks again . I hope the re-write is good.


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