Escaping Plato’s allegorical cave

To the editor:

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from his book “The Republic,” we have a metaphor that contrasts the way in which we perceive reality. Plato establishes a cave in which prisoners are chained from birth and forced to look upon the front wall of the cave. In the back is a fire that casts shadows on the wall of the cave. The shadows were created by puppets carried by unseen people between the fire and the prisoners. The shadows represent the prisoner’s view of reality.

When a prisoner is released, he is forced to look upon the fire and puppets that determined his perception of reality, and he realizes the shadows were not true reality. This new vision is painful to the mind and the eyes, therefore the prisoner is inclined to return to his original, more comforting, place in the cave. But, once the prisoner is forced out of the cave and into the sun’s rays, he recognizes this new world as the ultimate source of all that is around him. Now he is aware of true reality.

If he were to return to the cave, the prisoner would be entering a world of darkness again, and would have to face the other unreleased prisoners. The other prisoners would laugh at the released prisoner and his new view of reality, and ridicule him for taking the useless ascent out of the cave in the first place. The others cannot understand something they have not experienced.

Today, the world is full of caves with people looking upon the shadows as if they were reality. There are the caves of religious fundamentalists of every kind, political extremists from far right laissez-faire advocates to communists on the far left, militarists who never found a war they didn’t like, and others, such as plutocrats, paranormalists, racists, and anti-Semites. The list goes on.

Perhaps we all are guided into a cave by our upbringing and genetics. If we are there, by a series of incalculable numbers of causes and effects that have formed our belief systems, how do we ever escape from the so called “reality” created by the shadows? Education, research, and critical thinking is the answer. It’s not easy and requires serious dedication, and the avoidance of confirmation bias that keeps a person looking at those dancing shadows that can persist in the production of implausible illusions.

David M Keranen