Monday Meditation: The Cave

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is the foundation for many myths, religious beliefs and stories throughout history. His unique expression of allegory created a timeless classic which is examined by nearly every student of philosophy today. The fable of intellectual or spiritual blindness, seeing the light, ascending to attain knowledge and the obligation to serve others through leadership is now a common theme in humanity’s collective conscious.

If you've never read Plato, or the cave, the synopsis is as follows:
Plato writes the act as a discussion between his mentor, Socrates, and Plato’s older brother, Glaucon. Socrates poses a scenario to Glaucon in which he must imagine that there are human beings who have grown up inside a cave, chained at the neck and legs, facing the cave’s wall. These people have never seen daylight or real objects before. A fire is located behind them, and facilitates shadows cast against the wall by people and animals they cannot see. These people have become so adept at shadow-watching that some are able to predict the movement of the shadows, and others bestow praise upon them for their ability to foretell these events.

Glaucon is then asked to imagine what would happen if a prisoner is released.
“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” ( Jowett translation). 

This description is very much like what happens when human beings spend time in the dark and light is suddenly shone in their eyes. The pupils contract suddenly, and sharp pain ensues. Furthermore, there is very little that can be seen until the pupils are able to adjust and begin receiving input again.
Socrates then asks Glaucon to suppose that this person’s eyes had adjusted, and he could begin to see objects as they were, instead of only their shadows.

At first, he would seek out the familiar- the shadows. Then, he would see reflections in the water. After, he would see the objects themselves, and then the heavens. Eventually, he would come to see the sun and surmise that the sun itself was the source of all things, and that it was good.

“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?” (Jowett translation). 

With this revelation, Socrates proposes, this man would be compelled to share what he has learned with his former companions still trapped in the cave.

As the man re-enters the cave, he attempts to explain the reality of what his friends are viewing, but his eyes are now accustomed to the light and he cannot view the shadows in the same way that he could before his ascent. His associates now see him as a subject of derision.
“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” (Jowett translation). 
Socrates then goes on to instruct Glaucon that this man would pity those who were unable to see clearly, just as those in the cave believed it was he who had become a cautionary tale against going to the light.  Socrates now pulls the tale together in summary for Glaucon.

The cave represents reality for the majority of the people. The fire represents the sun, and the ascent of the man is the journey of the soul seeking knowledge of truth. The enlightened are obligated to return to the cave and interact with those who can only see the shadows on the wall, even if it means being ridiculed or imprisoned. To Socrates, this is the task of true leadership.

So many are living in that proverbial cave today. They cannot see the reality of what is going on. They live in  their happy little grottos, passing judgment on those who would attempt to show them that what they see is only a shadow of reality. They ridicule, imprison, and even murder those who are trying to wake them up.

To the rebels, the truth-tellers, the real leaders of this world- this is for you...

The Cave
Mumford and Sons

It's empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you've left behind

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat

But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again

'Cause I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours and I'll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker's hand

So make your siren's call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

'Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it's meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again

*Jowett translation of Plato's Republic can be found here

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