Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

“The learning and knowledge that we have is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.”

These wise words were said by the Greek Philosopher, Plato. To understand the depth of these words we will understand the allegory of the cave which was presented by Plato in Book VII of “The Republic”.

The three prisoners

In the allegory, there were three prisoners chained to the wall of a cave all their lives and had no knowledge of the outside world. They faced a blank wall while a fire behind them gave off a faint light. On the wall they saw shadows being projected; they saw objects and other animal’s shadows and gave names to classify the shadows. They believed their reality is the actual reality.

Freed Prisoner

One day a prisoner was freed and brought to the outside world for the first time. When he saw the outside, the sun’s bright light almost blinds him, he finds the new environment confusing and out of place as for him the two-dimensional shadows were his reality. When he was told that all the objects he is seeing are real and shadows are just reflections he couldn’t believe it. But gradually his eyes adjusted to reality and he was able to differentiate objects from their reflections and could finally look at the sun.

Return to the cave

The prisoner returned to the cave and shared his discovery with the other prisoners. Not being used to the darkness anymore he couldn’t see the shadows. The prisoners believed that the other prisoner’s journey has made him stupid and blind. They refused to leave the cave and resisted his attempts to free them.

Ignorance chains you from looking beyond your reality

Plato explains this allegory as an analogy of what it is like to be a philosopher trying to educate the public. The philosopher is like the caveman who got out of the cave and explored the outside world; when he tried to share this with the other prisoners they were hostile towards him, they refused to perceive a higher reality and didn’t even desire to get out of the cave. They were comfortable in their ignorance and didn’t want to get out of their comfort for a better life.

In life we are sometimes confined to our reality, chained in ignorance. We don’t look beyond our perception. In ignorance we are at comfort, ignorance is bliss. But once we break out of our comfort zone and escape from the cave we will realise that things in our physical world are as flawed as the shadows on the wall of the cave. Maybe one day we will discover their ideal forms. Maybe someday we will discover something beyond our perception of reality, perhaps a four-dimensional world until then be open to escape the chains of ignorance and step outside the cave.

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