Shadows of Reality: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

There are few examples of philosophical writing that can be applied across such a wide swath of life experience and social construct as Plato’s allegory of the cave. This analogy contains symbolisms of illusion, perception, and superficial reality on the individual level, with takes on education and mass media in society at large. While it’s applicable to a diverse range of experience, today we’ll focus on what the allegory says about interpretations of reality and the act of becoming a philosopher. The following is a brief description of the allegory itself, how the device explains the illegitimacy of perception and how it can be used to call out the hypocrisy of academia’s so-called ivory towers.

Life In (and Out of) the Cave

A group of prisoners has been chained to face a wall at the back of a cave. Behind them, a fire burns, and puppeteers hold up models, casting shadows on the wall the prisoners face. Sounds from the puppeteers echo across the cave, creating the illusion that the sounds are emanating from the projected shadows. The prisoners, having been chained in place for their entire lives, have become intimately familiar with the shadows and sounds; they discuss the display amongst themselves, occasionally congratulating each other on keen observations regarding their order, size and the noises the shadows appear to make.

To the rear of the cavern, diffused sunlight enters via the cave opening, which the prisoners cannot see. One of the prisoners is freed from his chains and is shown the fire, the puppeteers, and even the cave opening. Having never been exposed to the bright light of the fire, the prisoner wished to rush back to where he had been chained for so long, to the level of light he had been raised in and was accustomed to. The prisoner is then dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight beyond the cave opening.

Plato writes, “Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. First, he can only see shadows. Gradually he can see the reflections of people and things in water and then later see the people and things themselves. Eventually, he is able to look at the stars and moon at night until finally, he can look upon the sun itself” (Plato. Rouse, W.H.D., ed. The Republic Book VII).

Of course, the world outside the cave, containing a vast amount of detail unavailable to those within, would provide a perspective superior to anything the former prisoner had experienced previously. He would pity the prisoners still imprisoned in the cave, and quite naturally would want to bring his fellow captives out and into the light of day as he was. But traversing into the cave only serves to reveal just how dark that existence is, and the others might interpret their fellow’s stumbling about as a sign that the escaped prisoner’s sight had been harmed in some way. They may even try to kill him if he attempts to drag them into the light, as had once been done to him.

Esse est Percipi?

When it comes to determining what is or is not real, we draw conclusions based on two criteria: how we perceive the world around us, and what we have learned about the world from others. The prisoners in this allegory not only derive their information about reality from the shadows on the wall but from discussion with their fellows; they exchange ideas, observe common stimuli, make comparisons between points of observation and occasionally, one may gain an insight that earns some measure of respect. They look, consider, agree, disagree or agree to disagree in their attempts to define and investigate the nature of the wall and the shadowy figures that dance across it.

As human beings, we live in a world defined by our interpretation of what we see and hear. Haven’t we been staring at this same wall together for a lifetime? Don’t we have what seems to be an intimate knowledge and familiarity not only with the sounds and shadows of the cave but the texture, contour, and composition of the wall itself? Of course! We see that some features are shiny and some are rough; some angles of the wall are described differently by those farther to the right or left. In this way, we arrive at what we feel is a “correct” interpretation of what’s in the world around us and what constitutes the very fabric of reality itself.

Some may have dreams of the shadows, or interpretations of their groupings and credit a divine spark or spiritual insight to their understanding of the darkened figures. Others recite their occurrences by rote and test our skill at memorization and identification. We trade witticisms and mottoes, proverbs and parables, and consider what we perceive to be the deepest revelations regarding the very nature of the wall to come from those demonstrating elevated cosmic, logical or mathematical insight. And yet, for all our squawking and murmuring, we prisoners are left with the limited and incomplete data of sensory input from which to derive any conclusions about reality at all.

This Is Not a Pipe

The physical world as interpreted by the senses is an illusion based on an approximation, given the complexity of unperceived physical reality. We do not actually see a red apple; we agree that whatever color each of our minds perceives that fruit to be is what we will call “red.” Light bounces off an object, enters our eyes and triggers electrical impulses interpreted by our brains in the same way vibrations of the air are interpreted as sounds after reaching our ears, surfaces are perceived as hot or rough via our sense of touch, and so forth. Sensory data is not reality, but merely the information to be interpreted by our minds in order to define (for ourselves) what is real. It’s all in our heads. What we perceive is not the actuality of what reality is.

In other words, the apple is not “red.” We merely perceive it to be.

The Treachery of ImagesThe idea of perception not equating to actuality can be interpreted from Magritte’s famous painting, “The Treachery of Images.” In this work, the words “This is not a pipe” signify that, indeed, this is not a pipe, but merely the representation of a pipe. Similarly, when we see literal pipes, trees, cars, and other people, we are equally not seeing those things as they are in reality; we are creating approximations in our mind, based on the sensory data available to us.

Coming Into the Light

What Magritte (and, getting back on track, Plato) were implying is that representations of reality are different from actual reality. The interpretations of the prisoners in Plato’s allegory are unenlightened perceptions of how the world is and the way reality works. The dullard who hasn’t been dragged kicking and screaming into the light of day regards the shadow of a pipe as a pipe; it has all the “pipeness” needed to be accepted as it appears, and there is little indication that could be anything else.

The allegory not only applies to physical reality but to the (extended) realm of ideas and concepts as well. Plato’s allegory is a reflection of his “theory of forms” (or, “theory of ideas”). For Plato, these ideas, or forms, are shadows of reality, concepts that are eternal and as much a part of the everyday universe as appearances are. For example, a tree is a temporary thing, but what makes something a tree — leaves, a trunk, the effect of seasons, and so forth — are eternal. A tree is always a tree because of both its physical presence and its identifying features, its “form.” One can also apply this thinking to immaterial things, like politics, ethics or the soul.

For Plato, perceived reality and its forms, or ideals, create the highest and most comprehensive version possible of reality. The paltry sunlight filtered through the cave opening (the small amount of learning achieved without proper education) only gives the dimmest sense of “form,” or truth — not enough to make accurate, educated judgments. Summations made without knowledge are superficial and do not reflect the full scope of reality one could realize when exposed to the external light of philosophy and education.

Socrates, Plato’s instructor, referred to such extended knowledge as “the Good.” Socrates asserted that the most excellent people follow the study of “the Good,” the highest of all values, and those who arrive at such a place must ultimately return to society post-academia to share their knowledge with the rest of the world.

Cave-Dweller as Philosopher

Plato’s allegory of the cave (among many other things) can be used to draw a description of the young philosopher, a prisoner of the senses, dragged into the light of day. Their previous perceptions of reality are challenged, sometimes painfully, by the white light of truth, opposing ideas, and logic. One does not become a police officer by watching episodes of CSI on television. One does not become a philosopher by sitting in the dark, staring at shadows on cave walls.

The allegory’s allusion to being dragged kicking and screaming into the light isn’t far removed from reality. It is never easy having one’s perceptions challenged; it’s even more difficult to bring new perspectives to those firmly ensconced in their ideology. We can apply this allegory to the modern cave walls of the 21st century; mass media, social media, “fake news,” political ideology, religious fundamentalism, and so forth. They are all reflections, approximations of reality, and whether we take them at face value (or not at all) depends on how much knowledge we’ve been exposed to, and how well we’ve been trained to use the tools at our disposal.

Plato was quite plain about the dangers of presenting evidence that challenges the prevailing views of others. Remember, humans are hardwired to reject facts that contradict their biases, so combatting those biases is a learned trait, not an innate skill. People are not naturally inclined to take having their perceptions questioned, especially when presented with facts that contradict their beliefs. Yet that is exactly what the allegory purports to endorse; the philosopher must return to the world of the unenlightened and share those learned truths, however unwelcome they may be. It requires fortitude, grit, and an understanding of what is or is not factually true, even in the face of severe criticism – or worse.

The would-be philosopher should understand that there will always be people who prefer the cave to the sunlight, who want to preserve their standing with the other prisoners as one who “knows” the truth. Socrates, the so-called father of philosophy, proclaimed that he himself knew nothing, and ended up on trial for “corrupting the youth” because of his willingness not only to question everything (and everyone) but for his encouraging others to do the same.

Should you accept the unlocking of your chains and allow yourself to be dragged into the sunlight, know that you will return to the darkness a changed person. You will have new tools to identify the world around you, new sources of knowledge to draw from and wholly new concepts to interpret the world by — and that growth never stops. You will forever know that there is an exit to the cave, and what lies beyond is far more beautiful than the shadows on the walls could ever be.