A Reflection on Plato's Cave

June 9, 2008

Call to your mind Plato's cave. There are herds of humans, chained to benches, staring at a wall. In the back of the cave, there are large flames burning. And with those fires, some men standing and using their hands to cast shadows on the wall. The humans, chained to their benches, spend their days discussing and observing the shadows cast against the wall, mistaking those mere shadows for true reality.

Given this scenario, Plato describes a man leaving the cave and seeing the light outside of the cave -- the light of reality. This man, on his return to the cave, is beaten and killed by those in the cave, who are unable to have their world view shattered by the truth. This man is likely Socrates, who was killed by his fellow Athenians for attempting to impart his wisdom onto them. The account can also be seen as referring to Jesus, also killed by his society when attempting to impart a deeper understanding.

Plato never tells us why the chained masses ought to be freed from the cave, but I assume that their inherent value as humans is sufficient to make their liberation a worthy aim. Plato, in addition, does not let us know how their liberation, or enlightenment, might be accomplished. Would that I could write this post and offer you a solution. Instead, much like Plato, I am just going to describe what would not work for that purpose.

Imagine that there were a dragon. The dragon is a powerful creature, and capable of causing terrible destruction with his talons and breath. The dragon can extinguish and the dragon can obliterate. The dragon, however, is incapable of creation. His talons do not afford him the ability to grasp and to construct. His frenetic mind has not the structure for assembling order from chaos. He is, then, a create of deletion and destruction but devoid of creation -- Omega devoid of Alpha.

Now allow this creature to run rampant through the cave. He slaughters the scheming puppet masters. He snuffs out the fires burning in the back of the cave. He rends asunder the chains binding the humans to their benches and thereby allows them to amble freely. Then, allow our dragon to exit the cave, all things destroyed except the humans, now free from their chains.

And, in this new paradigm, what would the humans do? Without puppeteers or flames or chains, unbound by their tethers and unburdened by their mesmerizing puppet show, would these humans find their way out of the cave? Perhaps a few would; perhaps a number of adventurous souls would journey around, eventually stumbling their way out of the cave. But the majority of humans, I believe, would not venture out. Although their chains are now gone, they would continue to sit just where their chains had prior bound them. Given the choice between leaving the familiar and known setting, or forcing their atrophied muscles to propel them into the unknown, they would mostly opt for the former.

Thus, to liberate and enlighten those bound up in the cave, it would not be enough to destroy the mechanism which enslaves them. It is not enough to perform just an act of selective obliteration. What is required is a mixing of creation and destruction. Removing the apparatus of servitude must be accompanied by an infusion of new understanding and wisdom. The force of habit, and the indoctrination by the puppet masters, remains a bond and shackle every bit as strong as the physical restraints. It is only by creating a new paradigm, and giving a new wisdom to the humans while their physical chains are being broken, that the humans can truly be freed from the cave.