The myth of Plato’s cave is one of the great allegories of the idealistic philosophy that has so marked the way of thinking of Western cultures.

Understanding it means knowing the styles of thought that have been dominant in Europe and America for centuries, as well as the foundations of Plato’s theories. Let’s see what it consists of.

Plato and his myth of the cave

This myth is an allegory of the theory of ideas proposed by Plato, and appears in the writings that form part of the book The Republic. It is basically the description of a fictitious situation that helped to understand the way in which Plato conceived the relationship between the physical and the world of ideas , and how we move through them.

Plato begins by talking about men who remain chained to the depths of a cave from birth, never having been able to leave it and, in fact, without the ability to look back to understand the origin of those chains.

So, they always stay looking at one of the walls of the cave, with the chains holding them from behind. Behind them, at a certain distance and placed somewhat above their heads, there is a fire that illuminates the area a little, and between it and the chained ones there is a wall, which Plato equates with the tricks performed by cheaters and tricksters so that their tricks are not noticed.

Between the wall and the fire there are other men who carry with them objects that protrude over the wall, so that their shadow is cast on the wall that the chained men are contemplating. In this way, they see the silhouette of trees, animals, mountains in the distance, people coming and going, etc.

Lights and Shadows: the idea of living in a fictional reality

Plato argues that, however bizarre the scene may be, these chained men he describes resemble us , human beings, since neither they nor we see more than these fallacious shadows, which simulate a deceptive and superficial reality. This fiction projected by the light of the bonfire distracts them from reality: the cave in which they remain chained.

However, if one of the men were to free himself from the chains and be able to look back, reality would confuse him and bother him : the light of the fire would make him look away, and the blurred figures he could see would seem less real to him than the shadows he has seen all his life. Similarly, if someone were to force this person to walk towards the fire and beyond it until they left the cave, the sunlight would bother them even more, and they would want to return to the dark zone.

In order to grasp reality in all its details you would have to get used to it, spend time and effort seeing things as they are without giving in to confusion and annoyance. However, if at some point he were to return to the cave and join the chained men again, he would remain blinded by the lack of sunlight. Likewise, anything he could say about the real world would be met with derision and contempt.

The myth of the cave today

As we have seen, the myth of the cave brings together a series of ideas that are very common to idealistic philosophy: the existence of a truth that exists independently of the opinions of human beings, the presence of constant deceptions that make us stay far from that truth, and the qualitative change that access to that truth implies: once it is known, there is no going back.

These ingredients can also be applied on a daily basis , specifically to the way in which the media and hegemonic opinions shape our views and our way of thinking without our being aware of it. Let us see how the phases of Plato’s cave myth can correspond to our lives today:

1. Deception and Lying

Deceptions, which can arise from a will to keep others with little information or from the lack of scientific and philosophical progress, would embody the phenomenon of shadows parading along the wall of the cave. In Plato’s perspective, this deception is not exactly the fruit of someone’s intention, but the consequence of material reality being only a reflection of true reality: that of the world of ideas.

One of the aspects that explain why lies have such an impact on human life is that, for this Greek philosopher, they are made up of what seems evident from a superficial point of view. If we do not have reason to question something, we do not do it, and its falsehood prevails.

2. Release

The act of freeing oneself from the chains would be the acts of rebellion that we usually call revolutions , or paradigm shifts. Of course, it is not easy to rebel, since the rest of the social dynamics goes in the opposite direction.

In this case it would not be a social revolution, but an individual and personal one. On the other hand, liberation means seeing many of the most internalized beliefs shaken, which produces uncertainty and anxiety. To make this state disappear, it is necessary to continue advancing in the sense of discovering new knowledge. It is not possible to remain without doing anything, according to Plato.

3. The Ascension

The ascent to truth would be a costly and uncomfortable process that involves letting go of beliefs that are deeply rooted in us. For this reason, it is a great psychological change that takes shape in the renunciation of old certainties and the opening up to truths, which for Plato are the foundation of what really exists (both in us and around us).

Plato took into account that people’s past conditions the way they experience the present, and therefore assumed that a radical change in the way of understanding things would necessarily bring about discomfort and uneasiness. In fact, this is one of the ideas that are clear in his way of illustrating that moment through the image of someone trying to get out of a cave instead of sitting still and who, on reaching the outside, receives the blinding light of reality.

4. The return

The return would be the last phase of the myth, which would consist in the diffusion of new ideas , which, because they are shocking, can generate confusion, contempt or hate for questioning basic dogmas that structure society.

However, since for Plato the idea of truth was associated with the concept of the good and the good, the person who has had access to the authentic reality has the moral obligation to make the rest of the people get rid of the ignorance, and therefore he has to spread his knowledge.

Like his teacher, Socrates, Plato believed that social conventions about what is appropriate behavior are subordinated to the virtue that comes with true knowledge. Therefore, even if the ideas of the one who returns to the cave are shocking and generate attacks from others, the mandate to share the truth forces us to confront these old lies .

This last idea makes Plato’s cave myth not exactly a story of individual liberation. It is a conception of the access to knowledge that starts from an individualistic perspective , but it is the individual who, by his own means, accesses the truth through a personal fight against illusions and deceptions, something frequent in the idealistic approaches because they are based on solipsism premises. However, once the individual has reached that stage, he must take the knowledge to the rest.

However, the idea of sharing the truth with others was not exactly an act of democratization as we might understand it today; it was simply a moral mandate that emanated from Plato’s theory of ideas, and which did not have to be translated into an improvement in the material conditions of life in society.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bury, R. G. (1910). The Ethics of Plato. The International Journal of Ethics XX (3): 271-281.
  • Dillon, J. (2003). The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy. Oxford University Press.
  • Koller, J. (2013). Chad Meister and Paul Copan (ed.). Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion. Routledge.
  • Reale, G. (1997). Toward a New Interpretation of Plato. Washington, DC: CUA Press.
  • Rowe, C. (2006). Interpreting Plato. In Benson, Hugh H. (ed.). A Companion to Plato. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 13-24.
  • Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and reality.