The Allegory of the Cave

Behold! human beings living in an underground cave,  which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

- I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

- You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

- True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

- Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

- Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

- No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

- That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

- Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

- That is true.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

- Not all in a moment, he said.

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

- Certainly.

Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

- Certainly.

He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

- Certainly, he would.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,
Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

- Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner . . .

And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous?

Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.


  As Plato himself explains, this allegory is meant to depict our actual terrestrial existence.

  The persons depicted are called "prisoners" because they're constrained by cultural chains that prohibit their seeing true reality or being in genuine communication with their fellow "prisoners." They can't expand their vision of "reality" because their life-long cultural and mental chains prevent them from looking beyond set limits. The "prisoners" identify the shadows cast on the wall in front of them as reality.

  Actually, their "reality" is being contrived by "manipulators of reality," propagandists, mind-control experts who show them "shadows" (unreal images, sounds, and "facts"), thereby making them believe that the shadows are reality. Because they're unaware of their manipulators, the "prisoners" allow any of these mind-twisters to control them.

  The "prisoners" are powerless to communicate in a genuine way with the other "prisoners," but if they did they would merely confirm each others' belief that the "shadows" are reality.

  If one of the "prisoners" is "disabused" of his delusions, he would at first find this a very "painful" experience.

  If the "prisoner" was shown a higher, "brighter" aspect of reality, he would still think that the "shadows" were more real than actual reality.

  The "prisoner" would not move toward the "light" of truth on his own volition, because he would have been conditioned to believe that "reality" is something others must reveal to him, not himself.

  Being shown true reality would feel painful and irritating to him. The "light" of truth would dazzle him and he would feel bereft that none of his old realities are any longer available.

  As more of true reality is revealed to him, things similar to the "shadows" of his old reality will first be most apparent. Less "radiant" aspects of genuine reality will be most easily discerned by him.

  Only gradually will the true light of reality--the "sun"--become visible to him. He will see that the "sun" is the cause of all discernment, inside and outside the cave.

  When he realizes the truth about reality, he will feel pity for those still in the cave of ignorance and delusion.

  He would see through the false values, honors, glories, and prestige of the world of the cave. He would recognize that he is unquestionably better off with true knowledge and values than the illusions of wealth and fame in the cave world of delusion.

  The man freed of cave illusions would rather be a poor servant of a poor master in the world of Truth than a high potentate in the cave world of ignorance and deception.

  If the freed man returned to the cave, he would no longer be able to compete with the "shadow people" in comprehending their shadow images. They would say of him that his ascent to what he calls Truth has ruined his discernment; that the fantasy of trying to ascend to what is called Truth is dangerous, to be avoided at all cost.

  If a freed person tried to help a "shadow person," the other "shadow people" would try to capture and murder him.

      This allegorical explanation of human life makes it clear why most people live in a world of illusion--and find it more comfortable to remain in that fantasy realm. They find it painful or unpleasant to be disabused of their delusions and find forthright exposition of Truth too much for them. "Shadow people" are incapable of communicating with others because they only know how to speak the language of pretense, not Truth.

      Overcoming our personal and cultural conditioning will require that we ascend out of our "cave world" and rediscover authentic ideas, values, and actions, restoring real elements to their rightful place in our culture. Sages within the Perennial Tradition such as Hermes, the Wisdom Tradition savants, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Jesus, have all taught that the true purpose of human life is to progressively identify with our Higher Self, realizing and manifesting our oneness with the Divine.