The Allegory of the Cave is found in Book VII of Plato's famous work, The Republic. In it, Plato (using the voice of Socrates) paints his metaphor as a word picture. He shows us a cave where men have been bound since birth in such a way that they can't move and can only look in one direction, which is to the back of the cave. A wall stretches across the cave behind them and beyond that is a great fire that lights the back of the cave. At the wall, between the fire and the prisoners, are...
...men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
So the prisoners see only the shadows of these objects and, because they have no other experience of the world, believe them to be reality. This delusion is the totality of their world.
To them...truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Then one of the prisoners is removed from his bonds and forced from the cave to the outside world. He is shocked by the reality that is thrust upon him and he can only enlarge his comprehension from shadows to real objects by degrees.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars...Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
Finally, the freed prisoner is returned to his fetters in the cave. He is truly miserable now because he knows this world is delusion. He has seen reality and so the shadows no longer satisfy. The honors and esteems of those believers-in-shadows that surround him are meaningless and contemptible to him.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
That passage has always had the greatest impact on me. How many of the common occupations and pursuits that go on around us are just "observing passing shadows?" How much of a long life has been engaged in nothing more? Such contemplations lead me to the point where I just can't take it anymore.
The disorientation of the returned prisoner caused by his movement from dark cave to the bright outside and back is regarded as lunacy by the unenlightened prisoners. They believe leaving the cave to be an evil that should be punished.
And so you see why this is a classic philosophical work. In a brief, clear dialogue, it presents powerful images that depict the resistance to enlightenment among the most of humanity. And it shows the bitterness that mars the joy of those that have loosed their bonds long enough to see the sun, but then returned to the shadows.
I think the Allegory of the Cave shines its light on our present situation in many respects; especially in the US where the popular culture believes itself exceptional, better than all others and deserving of domination; where seeing the way the world really works is condemned with vitriol and even violence.
Consider the subject of geoengineering. This is weather control that has been going on for decades and is evidenced by the blatant spraying in the sky by high-altitude aircraft and by the high content of metals in soil, water, and air, and by the consequences of increased instances of autism, Alzheimer's, and by bizarre weather, by government documents, and on-and-on. Yet we watch our shadows and ignore the lines overhead that are poisoning us and killing the earth.
Facing reality is risky, often frightening, and can be dangerous. Living in delusion is usually much happier and often feels safe, but it can end just as dangerously. Even so, I believe there is a part of most humans that wants to know the truth, however hard it may be.
The short film version of Allegory of the Cave that inspired me is on YouTube and you can find it here. You can find the full text of the work as written by Plato here. And if you want to begin your quest to see the sun by exploring the world as it is, here is a good place to start.
Soon, my wife and I will be making a life-change that I see as another foray out of the cave. Does seeing it that way make me smarter than those around me who don't? No. It's just that I've been outside.