The allegory of the cave


Disclaimer: Most of my information about this story comes from what I anecdotally knew before, spiced up with info from the web – I haven’t read the original “Republic” myself yet.

In the cave allegory by Plato (he lets his teacher Socrates narrate the story), there is a society of prisoners chained inside a cave who are facing the cave walls and are being entertained by shadow plays that are cast to the cave walls by free people walking by a fire in the back of the cave. The cave men see their own shadows as well, thinking that they themselves are shadows, and spend their time forecasting the other shadows. One prisoner then is being released, and discovers the reality outside the cave.

In pop culture of course the cave allegory has been replaced by the more cool “matrix” concept.

Plato’s bottom line is as ever so often, that reality is only what we perceive as reality, which might not be the real reality after all (because we can only see our own reality). Discussions about the nature of reality were all the rage with philosophers of the greek antique. Once in a while, someone might have a new idea which would equal breaking free from the cave and discover that there can also be another reality, expanding humanity’s horizons.

In fact, I’m just reading Jakob Lund Fisker’s book “Early retirement extreme” that deals with just that: breaking free from the norms and realizing that the common way of living life prevented the author from reaching his set goal (which is early retirement). Although personally there isn’t much novelty in the book for me, it’s still an inspiring and well-written read on how to be different in order to achieve what you want. Fisker summons the cave allegory in the introduction to his book, reading which I slapped my head and said “of course”!

Old Plato, always good for enlightenment, tsk… and thanks J.L. Fisker  to bringing him up to me again!

The actual scary part of the allegory for me is that Mr. caveman apparently was a more content person while he was chained up in his cave, busy making it up the social ranks among his shadow-mates, foretelling shadow plays that were broadcast at his cave’s walls (talking to his virtual friends on facebook while watching TV, anyone??). When he is released and sees the sun, at first it hurts his eyes and he wishes back to his pitiable but happy former existence. If he could he’d run right back to that cave and take the “forget” pill. Unfortunately Plato hadn’t invented the “forget” pill yet…But after acclimating to the new conditions, he cannot even return to his former home, friends and the shadow games they play because he can’t see well in the darkness.We don’t really learn whether he’s happy in the end or not but I suspect rather not.

In the end he got enlightened, but that made him an outcast. The one who walks the path less traveled is always the one walking with less people by their side. Funny enough, it only takes a certain number of people to make that path more traveled, and the majority is going to follow. Until then, you’ll have better chances to be happy in the process, if you are someone who likes walking alone.

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