THE CAVE
Based on Plato's Allegory in Book 7 of the Republic


Music by Dennis Merrill
Text and sound arrangements by Jorn K. Bramann

 

The text of Plato's Allegory:

Ignorance, living in the dark, the lack of adequate education-compare that to the following situation.

What situation?

Imagine people who live in a vast underground cave. Some have lived there since childhood, and they are chained in such a way that they can look only in one direction. They look at a wall on which there are shadows moving. Behind and above them a fire is burning, and in front of the fire operators move objects. The shadows of the objects are cast on the wall.

I see.

The objects moved in front of the fire are imitations of things, animals, and people. The prisoners see the shadows of the imitations on the wall they are facing. Some operators are talking while moving the objects.

Strange images, and strange prisoners, these.

They are like us, or like many of us. Now tell me: Can the prisoners ever see themselves, or each other? Can they see anything except the shadows cast on the wall they are facing?

Not if they have been forced since childhood to look in only one direction.

Can they ever see the objects themselves that are carried in front of the fire?

No. The shadows of the objects are all they ever see.

And if the prisoners could talk to each other, and if they could give names to what they see, wouldn't they think they are naming real objects?

They would.

And what if the cave had an echo coming from the wall the prisoners are facing, don't you think that the prisoners would take the shadows to be talking?

They most certainly would.

All right then, prisoners like that would undoubtedly believe that what they see is real, and that mere shadows are reality, wouldn't they?

By the dog of Egypt, they would.

[Commercial television noises. Guitar solo emerging from the cacophony.]

But what would happen if the prisoners were set free, and thus cured from their delusions? Take any prisoner who is released from his chains and suddenly forced to stand up, turn around his head, walk, and look at the light. Obviously he will be in pain when he does all this, and he will be unable to see clearly those things whose shadows he saw earlier, because he is blinded by the glare of the light.

It will not seem to be enlightenment to him.

What do you think he would say if he were told that what he had seen before was nonsense and illusion? And that what he was seeing now was real? And if someone pointed out to him the passing objects individually, and asked him questions as to what they are, don't you think the former prisoner would be at a loss? Would he not think that the shadows he used to see are more real than the things pointed out to him now?

Much more real.

And if he were forced to look directly at the light, wouldn't his eyes feel such pain that he would turn back toward the things which he could see clearly, and be convinced that they are clearer and more distinct than the new things shown to him now?

It's just as you say.

And if he were forcibly dragged up the steep and rugged ascent to the entrance of the cave, and then out into the light of day, would he not be terribly irritated and upset? And after coming into the light, wouldn't his eyes be so filled with the rays of the sun that he wouldn't see any of the things that we know to be real?

For a while he wouldn't see a thing.

He would have to get used to the light before he could see anything outside the cave.

At first it would be easier for him to see the shadows, then the reflections of people and other beings in water, and only in the end the things themselves. After that he could go on and contemplate the things in the sky, seeing more easily the light in the stars and the moon by night, and then the sunlight by day.

Naturally.

And at last he would see the sun as it is in itself-the real thing in its proper setting?

Necessarily.

In time he would come to the conclusion that it is the sun that produces the seasons and the years, that it is the guardian of all things in the realm of the visible, and that in a certain way it is the ultimate cause of all the things that he and his fellow prisoners had seen in the cave.

Yes, that's what eventually he would conclude.

[Guitar solo.]

What would happen next? Don't you think that the former prisoner would count himself fortunate because of the changes, and that he would feel sorry for his former fellow prisoners?

I am sure he would.

And if there had been honors and prizes among the prisoners which they awarded to that man among them who was quickest in discerning the shadows as they passed by, and best at remembering the sequence in which they were routinely carried past the fire, and so was the most adept at predicting which shadow would come next-do you think the freed prisoner would want to have those prizes? Would he be envious of those honored in this way? Would he be desirous of that sort of authority?

I doubt it very much. Who wants to be the chief of troglodytes?

And if a former prisoner would go down and take his old seat again, wouldn't the sudden change from sunlight to darkness cause him to be rather blind?

Quite.

And if he had to compete once more with the troglodytes for those prizes, wouldn't he not quickly become the laughingstock of the others? Wouldn't they not say that he had ruined his eyes above ground?

Surely they would.

And would they not swear that the best way to be is staying in the cave?

They would indeed.

And if they were able to seize and kill the man who attempted to free them and lead them out of the cave, would they not do just that?

____________________________________________


Copyright © 2000 by Dennis Merrill and Jorn K. Bramann

Plato: The Failure of Democracy

Philosophical Forum Directory