February 2022: The Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s allegory of the cave is famous, but what does it mean today? Who’s in the cave, and who’s not? 

“That is a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners of which you are telling us.”

The comment above comes from Glaucon, son of Ariston, older brother to Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher. Glaucon’s statement is found near the opening of Book VII in Plato’s Republic. He is responding immediately after Socrates has introduced the famous allegory of the cave. 

THE ALLEGORY

For those who have not spent any time with Plato’s Republic — what one of my professors used to call “the mother of all philosophy books” — here’s the key passage, featuring Socrates as the speaker:

“Next then,” [Socrates] said, “make an image of our nature in its education and lack of education, likening it to the condition of the following kind: See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bonds to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which is a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets.”

“Then also see along this wall human beings carrying all sorts of manmade artifacts that project above the wall, and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood, and other kinds of materials; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent.”

Now, perhaps, you understand better why Glaucon describes this imaginary image as “strange?” It is very strange, indeed.

LIFE IN THE CAVE

Thoughtful readers of The Republic have been commenting on and debating the meaning of the allegory of the cave for almost three millennia. We won’t resolve those disputes here. 

We will, however, consider what the allegory means and what it looks like when we apply it to our situation today. Plato’s allegory of the cave offers a useful tool to help us strategize how we communicate with, persuade, and inspire our fellow citizens. 

The images on the wall of the cave represent the illusions, myths, and unquestioned dogmas that one finds in any political community. In many ancient cities, for example, citizens believed that certain deities were the causes of the seasons, weather, and fertility among both people and animals. 

These kinds of myths — what Socrates likened to shadows of artifacts on a wall — were often more important for citizens (and slaves) than reality. Or, perhaps a more accurate way of describing it is to say that for many citizens (and slaves) in ancient communities, they believed the myths they were told by ruling powers and reality were the same thing. 

For ancient people, the myths were real; the myths seemed real. After every winter, after offering sacrifices to their ancestral gods and praying for the return of the sun and warm weather, Spring and Summer would come. From their perspective, how could the myths and illusions of their gods not be true?

In the allegory, Socrates continues, the philosopher is the person who breaks free from his bonds, turns around, sees the fire and the sources of the shadows on the walls, and then walks outside where the sun illuminates everything and the philosopher can see what everything truly is. 

Socrates warns that once the philosopher leaves the cave and has seen reality in the light of day, he won’t want to return to the cave. More importantly, if he does return, the cave-dwellers — those who are still shackled, still forced to look at the shadows on the walls in front of them, those who assume the shadows are reality — will hate the philosopher because the philosopher will question and challenge everything the cave-dwellers assume to be real, true, and important. They might even kill the philosopher.

OUR CAVE TODAY

Many academic scribblers study these subjects in great detail. They want to know about the prejudices and beliefs of ancient Athenians, and why they viewed Socrates as such a great threat that they legally executed him with hemlock. 

The more important and more relevant question for us today, however, is: What does Plato’s allegory of the cave mean if we apply it to the modern United States?

In The Republic, Socrates suggests that the allegory of the cave is a description of every political community, not merely ancient Athens or other ancient Greek communities. Within every political community, one finds a kind of political correctness, certain beliefs, myths, and prejudices that are beyond the bounds of decorum and civil decency to question. 

Every political community, in other words, is like a cave. The authoritative, unquestioned beliefs, myths, and prejudices within a political community are the shadows on the walls. The philosopher is the one who questions what no one else is willing to question, the one who suggests that the shadows are not true reality.

If Socrates was correct, then we who are thinking, philosophic, concerned citizens of the United States, should ask: Do some or all U.S. citizens live in an allegorical cave? What are the authoritative, unquestioned beliefs, myths, and prejudices within that cave? What are the shadows? What cannot be questioned publicly? 

If we apply Plato’s allegory to the United States, more important questions arise: Who are the “puppet-handlers” who create the myths and illusions that the hoi polloi believe?

Perhaps most important: Who is the philosopher who walks outside, into the sunlight, and sees with his own eyes the truth of what things are and why? What happens if the philosopher returns to the allegorical cave of the modern United States and tries to explain to fellow citizens that they have based their lives on untrue, unfounded, unreal myths, illusions, and lies? 

Half of the United States population today, perhaps more, have an unshakable faith in the promise of “progress.” They are confident that the future will be “progressive,” which they assume means “better” — so long as progressives are elected and appointed to high government positions — though they are not sure what the progressive future looks like exactly. Are they the cave-dwellers?

QUESTIONS OF PRUDENCE: HOW SHOULD WE TALK WITH CAVE-DWELLERS?

Those same Americans trust that unelected bureaucrats are selfless agents who serve no interest but the public interest. There is virtually (or perhaps actually) no problem they think government cannot solve, even though government has a long track record of failing repeatedly. 

Many also assume, without any examination, that every human mind is limited by the skin color and sex of the body in which a mind is housed. Only a black woman, for example, can possibly understand the challenges faced by black women. Only a black woman can interpret the Constitution in a way that secures the rights of black women. (Is President Biden correct to consider no one other than a black woman to be his nominee to the Supreme Court?)

If these are myths and illusions, who created them? And why?

More examples to consider: Millions of Americans right now assume that government-imposed lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and mask mandates are based on science, when in fact they’re unsupported myths used by the political class to expand their power and control citizens. 

  • How would you persuade progressives that the “news” they’re receiving about these subjects are really just shadows to distract them from the truth?
  • What happens if philosophic-minded citizens stand up and point out the myths and illusions of progressivism? 
  • How might progressives respond? 
  • Was Socrates right in predicting the intense anger with which the cave-dwellers would react to those who offer the truth?

The allegory of the cave offers intelligent minds today a guide for how to think about communicating with and persuading others. If Socrates was correct, then our efforts to persuade fellow citizens in the cave must be framed in strategic rhetoric. 

We must be aware of their deep-seated prejudices and assumptions that they, themselves, never question. There is perhaps no greater exercise of prudence today than taking the moral and political truths we have learned from the American Founders and framing them in ways that fellow citizens today find useful and good. 

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