Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

“Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic beautifully illustrates aspects of the process of projection and of becoming conscious.”  

“Here Socrates speaks to Glaucon: “Imagine the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads.”

“At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track with a parapet built along it, like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top.”

“Now behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Naturally, some of these persons will be talking, others silent.”

“It is a strange picture,” he said, “and a strange sort of prisoners.”

“Like ourselves,” I [Socrates] replied; “for in the first place prisoners so confined would have seen nothing of themselves or one another, except the shadows thrown by the fire-light on the wall of the cave facing them, would they?”

“Not if all their lives they had been prevented from moving their heads.”

“And they would have seen as little of the objects carried past.”

“Of course.”

“Now, if they could talk to one another, would they not suppose that their words referred only to those passing shadows which they saw?”

“Necessarily.”

“And suppose their prison had an echo from the wall facing them? When one of the people crossing behind them spoke, they could only suppose that the sound came from the shadow passing before their eyes.”

“No doubt.”

“In every way, then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadow of those artificial objects.”

“Inevitably.”

“Now consider what would happen if their release from the chains and the healing of their unwisdom should come about in this way. Suppose one of them was set free and forced suddenly to stand up, turn his head, and walk with eyes lifted in the light; all these movements would be painful, and he would be too dazzled to make out the objects whose shadows he had been used to seeing. What do you think he would say, if someone told him what he had formerly seen was meaningless illusion, but now, being somewhat nearer to reality and turned towards more real objects, he was getting a truer view? Suppose further that he were shown then various objects being carried by and were made to say, in reply to questions, what each of them was. Would he not be perplexed and believe the objects now shown to him to be not so real as what he formerly saw?”

“Yes, not nearly so real.”

“And if he were forced to look at the fire-light itself, would not his eyes ache, so that he would try to escape and turn back to the things which he could see distinctly, convinced that they really were clearer to him than these other objects now being shown him?”

“Yes.”

“And suppose someone were to drag him away forcibly up the steep and rugged ascent and not let him go until he had hauled him out into the sunlight, would he not suffer pain and vexation at such treatment, and, when he had come out into the light, find his eyes so full of its radiance that he could not see a single one of the things that he was now told were real?”

“Certainly he would not see them all at once.”

“He would need, then, to grow accustomed before he could see things in that upper world. At first it would be easiest to make out shadows, and then the images of men and things reflected in water, and later on the things themselves. After that, it would be easier to watch the heavenly bodies, and the sky itself by night, looking at the light of the moon and stars rather than the sun and the sun’s light in the day-time.”

“Yes, surely.”

“Last of all, he would be able to look at the sun and contemplate its nature, not as it appears when reflected in water or any alien medium, but as it is in itself in its own domain.”

“No doubt.”

“And now he would begin to draw the conclusion that it is the sun that produces the seasons and the course of the year and controls everything in the visible world, and moreover is in a way the cause of all that he and his companions used to see.”

“Clearly he would come at last to that conclusion.”

“Then if he called to mind his fellow prisoners and what passed for wisdom in his former dwelling place, he would surely think himself happy in the change and be sorry for them. They may have had a practice of honoring and commending one another, with prizes for the man who had the keenest eye for the passing shadows and the best memory for the order in which they followed or accompanied one another, so that he could make a good guess as to which was going to come next. Would our released prisoner be likely to covet those prizes or to envy the men exalted to honor and power in the cave? Would he not feel like Homer’s Achilles, that he would far sooner ‘be on earth as a hired servant in the house of a landless man’ (Achilles’ statement in Hades) or endure anything rather than go back to his old beliefs and live in the old way?”

“Yes, he would prefer any fate to such a life.”

“Now imagine what would happen if he went down again to take his former seat in the cave. Coming suddenly out of the sunlight, his eyes would be filled with darkness. He might be required once more to deliver his opinion on those shadows, in competition with the prisoners who had never been released, while his eyesight was still dim and unsteady; and it might take some time to become used to the darkness. They would laugh at him and say that he had gone up only to come back with his sight ruined; it was worth no one’s while even to attempt the ascent. If they could lay hands on the man who was trying to set them free and lead them up, they would kill him.”

“Yes, they would.”