Plato’s Cave

Imagine some prisoners chained up inside a very large cave. They face its back wall and cannot turn around. In front of them, they see shadows cast upon the wall from a fire lit behind them. Between them and the fire is a second, lower wall, behind which other people move about, holding puppets; the prisoners see these shadows and assume they are reality, as they have no knowledge of the contrary.

Now imagine one of the prisoners is unchained. He turns around, and is dazzled by the fire; he is not used to movement nor his new view; he still cannot see the puppets clearly, and the shadows he used to know still seem familiar and comforting. If this man were dragged outside the cave, he would be dazzled and blinded by sunlight. Slowly adjusting to his new environment, he would see trees and animals, even the cave itself.

The world of shadows from which he came now appears dark and dismal, though it did not seem this way at the time. If this man returned to the prisoners inside the cave, they would not believe his wild tales of the sun and trees. They might think him insane. They note that he is now hardly able to see the puppets’ shadows at all, and cannot predict their movements as he once did. They therefore put him to death as a madman.

This is Plato’s Analogy of the Cave. The prisoners represent ordinary people, the cave is the physical world we inhabit, and the shadows represent the knowledge of our world as delivered by our senses. The escapee is the philosopher, or enlightened person, who slowly realises that there is more to this world than meets the eye and that the physical world is but a poor imitation of the glorious world beyond our senses. When enlightened people return to their fellows they are mocked and slighted and considered mad.

Plato went on to argue that things we see and hear right now are but pale reflections of their ideal blueprints, or ‘Forms’ located in the spiritual world. When I think of the perfect tree to which I compare all other trees, I am seeing its Form, it’s idealised self. It’s like seeing a lovely painting of a dog. The painting might be beautiful and the dog on the canvas might be beautiful as well, but they are only particulars of the reality, which is a really beautiful dog that the artist happened to reproduce. 

Plato was a philosopher rather than a theologian. His clever mind employed reason to make sense of the world in which he lived. Often this diverges from what God has revealed in the Bible, and yet I cannot but see parallels between his Cave and the reality of the gospel. The materialistic, atheistic culture permeating Britain is indeed akin to millions chained up in a cave, staring at gloomy shadows. Not realising there is a whole world out there, they mock and reject anyone who believes in the reality of heaven and relationship with the Creator.