Plato’s Myth Of The Cave, or Allegory Of The Cave, is one of my favorite writings on humanity’s relationship with knowledge. In context with the rest of The Republic, it is one of the best treatise on politics, justice, and philosophy ever written. Definitely one of those few things to which there is no downside in reading. Having just reread it for the first time a few years, I was surprised to discover (and peeved for having not done so earlier) that the piece perfectly sums up the nature and contrast of the relationship between theism and atheism.
(I included my favorite version at the end of my essay.)
The prisoners, representing the theist, are restricted in their actions by their environment, one which has been crafted by others intending to deceive and control them. They are slaves. They are given nothing but the images on the wall before them and the ability to communicate amongst themselves. The images are distorted, recognizable only by those with the ability to see and the knowledge of what causes them; to the prisoners, they are all that exist, as even the fire remains obscured.
The human impulse toward knowledge is demonstrated in the prisoners attempts to explain the shadows; they give names, project motives, create rituals, and postulate origins for the shadows, all in a vain attempt to give some greater definition to their own existence. It probably wasn’t long before it was determined that the shadows were responsible for their condition, and likely the light itself. The shadows became the explanation for everything, as their ability to create the prisoners, the chains, the light, and the cave clearly demonstrated an omnipotent and all powerful entity.
Human beings prefer a false explanation to no explanation, and it was this desire that likely led to the naming of the shadows, the imbuing of attributes, the genesis story of how the cave came to exist, and the story of how the prisoners came to be where they are now. Authority on these subjects was a purely observational exercise; the person who could best predict the movement of the shadows, or the responses of the echoes, found themselves with a ready and willing audience, and with that authority bequeathed upon them came the confidence to interpret the shadows. Signs of anger, malaise, joy, jealousy, and ambivalence were soon decoded, further confirmation that their speculative efforts were not in vain.
One can only imagine the shock that first liberated prisoner must have felt, to discover that the source of what they had come to believe an all powerful agent was a set of sticks, rocks, and people identical to the prisoners, though probably healthier. It is one thing to discover oneself to be wrong on a single assumption; to have one’s entire worldview shattered must have been terrifying. If the very thing one bases their entire existence upon turns out to be false, then surely all other assumptions must be false as well.
The progression out of the cave parallels our own journey out of the religious mindset; the painful but necessary abandonment of old explanations, old securities, and old comradery is reflected in our own history of violence, struggle, and ultimate redemption. False ideas do not fall like rain, growing steadily and reaching a point of unsustainability before rushing neatly into obscurity; false ideas stand firm as trees do, growing all the more resilient until something stronger tears at it violently and casts it aside, or until age has rendered it decrepit, unable to sustain itself any longer.
The pain of adjustment to the new reality must have shocked the prisoner, though it certainly paled in comparison to the wonder and amazement they soon discovered. The sudden realization that life is both a far greater and equally familiar thing would have been seductive, and the newly liberated mind would have given in eagerly.
What would it take to cause a person given this opportunity to free themselves, both mentally and physically, to reject it? Faith. Faith in something that is only perceived to be real; faith in an aberration of something real, or faith in something that never was real. Humanity’s ability to discern truth is rivaled only by our collective resistance to it. Plato commented on this when he suggested that violent reprisal would be the consequence of sharing one’s new found insight with the other prisoners; it is still a reality today that conflict follows those who dare to lead the confined to freedom.
Plato may not have had the gods in mind when he wrote this metaphor 2400 years ago, but the similarity is striking. We live in a society in which religion has been reduced to the primary proprietor of nonsense and superstition; we also live in a society in which far too many of us are frequent clients. Human progress can be measured by how closely we adhere to the myths of our ancestors. Plato wrote the Myth Of The Cave in reverence of knowledge and wisdom; atheism is the philosophy of rejection of all ideas not based on real knowledge or wisdom. Just as the freed prisoner found themselves engaged in a new study of existence, standing at the precipice of true knowledge, so too is atheism at the end of intellectual enslavement, and the beginning of something far greater.
The following is a translation of Plato’s The Myth Of The Cave, from The Republic, c. 380 BCE, translated by Manuel Velasquez for his text on Philosophy.
Now let me describe human situation in a parable about ignorance and learning. Imagine there are men living at the bottom of an underground cave whose entrance is a long passageway that rises through the ground to the light outside. They have been there since childhood and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move. The chains hold their heads so that they must sit facing the back wall of the cave and cannot turn their heads to look up through the entrance behind them. At some distance behind them, up nearer the entrance to the cave, a fire is burning. Objects pass in front of the first so that they cast their shadows on the back wall where the prisoners see the moving shadows projected as if on a screen. All kinds of objects parade before the fire, including statues of men and animals whose shadows dance on the wall in front of the prisoners.
Those prisoners are like ourselves. The prisoners see nothing of themselves or each other except the shadows each one’s body casts on the back wall of the cave. Similarly, they see nothing of the objects behind them, except their shadows moving on the wall.
Now imagine the prisoners could talk with each other. Suppose their voices echoed off the wall so that the voices seem to come form their own shadows. Then wouldn’t they talk about these shadows as if the shadows were real? For the prisoners, reality would consists of nothing but the shadows.
Next imagine that one prisoner was freed from his chains. Suppose he was suddenly forced to stand up and turn toward the entrance of the cave. Suppose he was forced to walk up toward the burning fire. The movement would be painful, and teh glare from the fire would blind him so that he would not see clearly the real objects whose shadows he used to watch. What would he think if someone explained that everything he had seen before was an illusion, that now he was nearer to reality and that his vision was actually clearer?
Imagine he was then shown the objects that had cast their shadows on the wall and he was asked to name each one – wouldn’t he be at a complete loss? Wouldn’t he think the shadows he saw before were more true than these objects?
Next imagine he was forced to look straight at the burning light. His eyes would hurt. The pain would make him turn away and try to return to things he could see more easily. He would think that those things were more real than the new things they were showing him.
But suppose that once more someone takes him and drags him up the steep and rugged ascent from the cave. Suppose someone forces out into the full light of the sun. Won’t he suffer greatly and be furious at being dragged upward? As he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled and he won’t be able to see any of this world we ourselves call reality. Little by little he will have to get used to looking at the upper world. At first he will see shadows on the ground best, next perhaps the reflections of men and other objects in water, and then maybe the objects themselves. After this he would find it easier to gaze at the light of the moon and the stars in the night sky than to look at the daylight sun and its light. Last of all he will be able to look at the sun and contemplate its nature. He will not just look at its reflection in water but will see it as it is in itself and in its own domain. He would come to the conclusion that the sun produces the seasons and the years and that it controls everything in the visible world. He will understand that it is in a way the cause of everything that he and his fellow prisoners used to see.
Suppose the released prisoner now recalled the cave and what passed for wisdom among his fellows there. Wouldn’t he be happy about his new situation and feel sorry for them? They might have been in the habit of honoring those among themselves who were the quickest to make out the shadows and those who could remember which usually came before others so that they were best at predicting the course of the shadows. Would he care about such honors and glories or would he envy those who won them? Wouldn’t he rather endure anything than go back to thinking and living like they did?
Finally, imagine that the released prisoner was taken from the light and brought back into the cave to his old seat. His eyes would be full of darkness. Now he would have to compete in discerning the shadows with the prisoners who had never left the cave while his own eyes were still dim. Wouldn’t he appear ridiculous? Men would say of him that he had gone up and come back down with his eyesight ruined and that it was better not even to think of ascending. In fact, if they caught anyone trying to free them and lead them up to the light, they would try to kill him.
I say, now, that the prison is the world we see with our eyes; the light of the fire is like the power of our sun. The climb upward out of the cave into the upper world is the ascent of the mind into the domain of true knowledge.