Portfolio of Hope

Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is a long established philosophical concept whose overarching purpose is to highlight how enlightened or, arguably, unenlightened, the nature of us human beings are.

Plato uses the ‘cave’ as a symbolic representation of how human beings live in the world, contrasting reality versus our interpretation of it. These two ideas reflect the two worlds in the story: the world inside the cave, and the world outside the cave, as I will explain below…

In its attempt to determine how human’s perceive reality (the nature of belief vs knowledge), and whether there is any higher truth to existence, Plato encourages us to think of human beings living in an underground cave as prisoners. The cave has a mouth open towards the light, with this opening of light extending all along the cave. The human inhabitants of the cave (i.e., the prisoners) have been living in it from their childhood, with their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, meaning that they can only see what lies directly in front of them, a result of the chains preventing them from turning round their heads. Above and behind them there is a fire blazing at a distance but, because they can only see directly in front of them, they are oblivious to the fire. Between the fire and the people, there is a raised way/a low wall. Over this wall, there are people carrying puppets, casting shadows on the opposite wall. They cannot see the puppets, only the people carrying them. The prisoners therefore mistake appearance for reality, as they believe that the things they see on the wall (the shadows) are real/they know nothing of the real causes of the shadows. This is because they have no knowledge that the real world exists outside of their dark cave, or even that there is a real world other than their own. They can, however, free themselves. It would take just one person to finally see the fire, break free from the cave,and witness the outside world which they were previously unaware of, for them to recognise that the shadows they regarded as real are in fact fake/ to understand the legitimate nature of existence. Upon being exposed to the outside world (i.e., the reality), the ‘enlightened’ one would pity the people in the cave and thus most likely return in a bid to free them, too. The trouble is, upon their return, they would be blinded due to being unaccustumed to actual sunlight. The prisoners would see this blindness and believe that they would be harmed if they tried to leave the cave. They would, once again, be unable to realise that the world they are watching from the cave is a lie. They would therefore remain underground, being prevented from living a rich, full, ‘real’ life out of a fear of the unknown…

This analogy, as briefly described above, is one which we ourselves reciprocate. Just like the prisoners in the cave can only see their own shadows, or the shadows which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave, so too can we only see our own shadows. How could they, or we, for that matter, see anything but the shadows (a false reality) if they/we are never allowed to move our heads? They couldn’t. We couldn’t…

To us, the truth is nothing but the shadows of the images- merely breadcrumbs of the intended message or actual truth. The reality though, is that there is something in existence out there that is far beyond human comprehension… For, in the same way that dogs will assume that their existence of waking up, being fed, being taken for a walk, sleeping, playing etc-with no knowledge of countries/ the ability to travel, the concept of money, fashion, weight etc-is all there is to life (because it’s all they’ve ever known), so too do we assume that our existence of waking up, eating, working, sleeping etc, is also all there is to life (because, it’s all we’ve ever known, too). We don’t stop to question if there is some superior species somewhere looking at us and thinking the same– thinking that we too are oblivious to the truth/oblivious to what’s really out there and what the purpose of all this-life- is actually about.

When we come to realise that the life we’re living is not all there is/when we escape from our state of ignorance to discover the enlightenment on the other side, we will not go back. As we become used to our new surroundings, we will realise that our former view of reality was wrong and that, our former life- a life that saw us obsessing over the materialistic (note: meaningless) stuff like money and our bodies and popularity- was useless. We will subsequently begin to understand our new world as we go on an intellectual, philosophical journey, a journey in which we discover truth and wisdom, beauty and meaning. When we go on this spiritual journey, experiencing existence in the truest, purest sense of the world, we will feel freer, more at peace, happier.

This is the Allegory of the Cave.

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