Laney College

Allegory of the Cave

Allegory of the Cave


A modest interpretation

By A.S.

Whence comes life, the most sacred and holy? Whence and how enters life into dust? And, whence does the dust become aware of life and life of dust? Mind, Body and Spirit! Each houses, nourishes and complements the other in such ways that perhaps only silence may be an adequate response as to why it is so. Such may be the path of the wise, but not those who are still journeying towards wisdom. Hence, as each desire to discover what it and others are, it sets out on a journey knowing not to where it may go and what it may find. Mind, Body and Spirit, each desire to know with the knowledge that it knows not. And, this simply adds to the mystery!  Such is the beginning, the middle and the end.

But let us be more human in our expression!!!

One of the most important allegories ever to be gifted to humankind is Allegory of the Cave. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is one of the most potent and pregnant of allegories that describe human condition in both its fallen and risen states. That is, the human existence in its most profound and profane states. As there is a wonderful Islamic saying that parallels this: “the human being can ascend to such heights that even the angels will become jealous of him or will descend to such realms that even the devil flees from him.” Equally important, one can also find within the allegory social, political, philosophical, moral, ethical, and spiritual elements. So fluid is this allegory that the more one puts in, the more one can take out. And, perhaps Nietzsche was right in his suggestion that there are no facts but only interpretations. After all, how could there be anything but interpretation given the existence of variety of temperaments and personalities and life experiences?

There is much wisdom contained in this statement, “There are no facts, but only interpretations,” and one could even argue that perhaps Nietzsche himself was unaware of the depth and the power of his own insight. We all have different personalities and temperaments. Some are extroverts and some introverts, some are intellectuals and some are emotional and feeling types, some are born into princely and some into impoverished social, moral and economic environments. Due to the vastly different physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual capacities existing in every person, some have a more penetrating insight into the nature of existence than others. All these mentioned elements have profound contribution in how we see, experience and interpret ourselves and the world in which we live. In the end, the only thing that perhaps remains is the acknowledgement that there are vast inward and outward differences that exists amongst mortals. It is these differences that produce not facts of the different realms of existence but only interpretation, since it is the capacity of each person that shapes the theme and the storyline of each experience. The collection and the unification of those experiences create our worldview. Hence, one could inject and insert one’s own experiences and one’s interpretation of the allegory would still be valid. This said, what is to follow is but a humble interpretation of the Allegory of the Cave.

The human being can either live within the Cave or outside of it. The Allegory of the Cave is about the existence of two worlds or experiences. It is about two radically different states of consciousness and awareness, or two radically different life perspectives.

The “cave” or “cavic existence” is the physical and the sensible world. It is a world in which there is no permanence, no stability, no constancy and no security. It is the ever-changing world of Maya or illusion that oftentimes one takes as the real. The absurdity of human condition is about when the individual begins to search for permanence and security in a realm whose fruit is anything but permanence and security. What every human being yearns for and longs: happiness, comfort, contentment and their stability and constancy can never be attained so long as they are sought in a realm whose essential nature is change and impermanence.

Of the existence outside of the cave, nothing is known, or at least, cannot be spoken of. This other realm cannot be spoken of or described except that it is a non-sensory realm of permanence and constancy. It is a God-realm. In other worlds, it transcends mental imagery and linguistic descriptions.

The 19th century Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard argued that the only way this other realm can be spoken of is through “indirect communication.” “Indirect communication” is simply speaking of this transcendental realm through metaphors and allegories, stories and anecdotes. In fact, one glance at the sacred literatures of the world will illustrate that metaphors, allegories, stories and anecdotes are the vehicles through which every saint, sage, prophets and even God try to communicate of this other realm to the adepts.

There is in the Sufi tradition a story that may illustrate this point. There was a city in which was a wall and whomever climbed this wall and was able to catch glimpse of this “other side” jumped over and never to returned to the city. Curious as to why this is so since the city provided all “goods” for its residence, the people decided to tie a rope around the leg of young man so that as soon as he had a peek of this other side, they could pull him back to ask him all sorts of questions about this other side. However, once pulled back and bombarded with questions, people had realized that the young man had lost the power of speech. One interpretation of the story is that when trying to describe the nature of this other realm, ordinary language breaks down and its insufficiency as a communicative tool becomes apparent.

Kierkegaard further supports his theory of indirect communication by reminding his readers that even when Pontius Pilate asked Jesus what “Truth” was, the only thing that Jesus could offer him was a humble silence. Perhaps this is his reason for suggesting that “all theology is blasphemy”- simply because theology and language for that matter try to define the indefinable and by doing so becomes blasphemous.      Since this other realm must be experienced by the individual him or herself, the task of indirect communication is simply to provide the psychological, emotional, intellectual and spiritual environment through which the individual can get direct access or experience into this world.

This brief introduction was merely to point out to the reader that Plato may be one those prophets or visionaries who may have journeyed outside of the cave and that the only way he was able to communicate his experience was through indirect communication: Allegory of the Cave.

Well, on the Allegory!

Plato tells us of a group of people living in a cave. In fact, they have been born and raised in this cave. They are, however, unable to move their hands, legs and heads as they have been born in chains that have bound them to the ground. All that they have been exposed to is the cave wall in front of them. Behind them, however, is a fire and behind the fire objects moving back and forth, which, of course they are unable to see because they have been chained. Since they have only been exposed to the shadows, they have come to assume that there cannot exist anything else beside what they have been exposed to all their lives, the shadows. Someone within the cave, however, grows rather tired of such existence and images and begins to free himself from the chains. Once free, he or she turn around only to find that there are other things existing. The individual continues this journey within the cave until one day he or she witnesses dim light entering the mouth of the cave. The individual follows this light and finally leaves the cave where he or she finds him or herself in the presence of the sun or truth. The person goes back to share this discovery with his friends who are still in the cave only to realize that they now consider him or her mad. And, Plato tells us that if they could they would have killed this person.

That is a very brief and a very crude telling of the allegory, but what is to follow is a more in depth commentary on one the most potent allegories to be gifted to humankind.

From the moment the indweller begins to ask serious existential questions to the moment where he exists the cave, he goes through five stages of emotional, intellectual and spiritual evolution: The Call, The Search, The Struggle, The Breakthrough and The Return. These, five stages, however, can be categorized into two groups. In the first group are the first three stages: the Call, the Search and the Struggle, and in the second group are the Breakthrough and the Return. But let us see how these fives stages function within this allegory.

The German philosopher, Heidegger, has two important concepts that pertain to this discussion in a very powerful way: “thrown-ness” or “historicity” and “fallen-ness.” The former suggests that we are simply thrown into this world, a world that does not care for our desires or us. We were thrown into the bosom of our parents, into a certain culture and time period. Also, that we were simply given a certain personality and temperament. Then there is the enculturation and the indoctrination that simply “happen” to us through our parents and friends, society and media, religion and education. But, what makes human condition and existence even more horrific is the latter notion, “fallen-ness.” That is, once thrown, we fall into tasks or roles making our existence inauthentic, shallow and superficial. Even our thinking becomes calculative. We put on various masks such as being a teacher or a student, a husband or a wife, a waiter or a waitress and many others, and by falling into all sorts of roles, we lose authenticity and ourselves because we begin to identify ourselves and who we are through the masks that we wear. Hence, both notions of “thrown-ness” and “fallen-ness” make up the “cavic existence.” And, the chains may symbolically be taken not so much as physical enslavement, but emotional, psychological and spiritual enslavement.

One cannot underestimate the serious impact upon one’s entire being when one begins to wonder about the nature of the cave and human existence therein. Plato suggested that in fact the birth of philosophy begins at this stage, the stage where the senses of awe and wonder present themselves. It must be emphasized that philosophy was born out of only two perennial questions: who am I, and what is my purpose? Take these two questions away and all philosophies and religions vanish.

Philosopher-mathematician Pascal argued that by only asking either from oneself or others these two deceptively simple questions one will realize that the potency of these two questions is so great that status, wealth, power will all crumble at their feet. In the presence of these questions, Pascal argued, one will find oneself and others inwardly weak and naked due to the inability to adequately respond to these questions. Of course, he calls us “creatures of absurdity” simply because we value others above ourselves knowing that others like us have no answers to the perennial questions of philosophy.

There is an interesting story about a philosopher who had on his outgoing telephone answering machine that parallels Pascal’s insight. The outgoing message was: who are you and what is your purpose? Just in case you think these are simple inquiries, know that there have been individuals in search of answers to such questions for thousands of years.

Yet it is not quiet clear how this first stage, the Call, comes forth. Psychological and spiritual awakening depends on so many different variables making it virtually impossible to pin point its exact entrance. It could be in the form of Tolstoy’s story of Ivan Ilych: a successful business man who finds out that he has this incurable disease and shares this news with his employees only to realize that those who have been working for him for years are only worried about their jobs. He shares this news with his family only to realize that they are concerned with inheritance. It is at this stage that he comes to realize that human existence is a very lonely experience and asks, for the very first time, if he lived his life wrongly, and if so, could he have lived in a different way.

Or, very much like Gilgamesh who upon the passing of his friend Enkidu comes yearn for a deeper understanding of life. There is also a story told to us by Kierkegaard about the man on the death bed who comes to realize after his friends and family leave that he is all alone and only he himself must realize the answers to the philosophical questions.

There are countless such stories that bring about this first stage, a life changing event. However, to yearn for a deeper understanding of life is an uncomfortable sign that one’s past experiences and even one’s identity do not provide any answers to the perennial philosophical questions. To suddenly see one’s personal history, family, friends and even one’s community as insignificant and irrelevant is not a joyous and comfortable experience.

What these stories suggest is that once questioning begins one inevitably turns to ones community for comfort but only to realize that human relationships much like what the German philosopher Nietzsche called is “mutual manipulation.” The seeker with these yearning questions turns to his friends only to realize, much like what Socrates realized that they are hollow. And, though they speak the same language, they, however, attach different meanings and emotions to the words.

At this juncture he understands why Zeus, for example, took away language, the gift he first bestowed to humanity. It is because Zeus saw that that people are unable to use this communicative tool properly. Language, in the Hindu tradition, is gifted to human beings by the goddess Vac. Vac, enters the human consciousness so that human can utter divine language.

Knowing the he is no longer able to communicate with his community the seeker begins to examine the nature of friendship only to come to the same conclusion of Aristotle. There are only three kinds of friendship: one of Pleasure, one of Utility and one of Nobility or Excellence, which is very rare to find.

While in this first category, the seeker begins to examine life and finds very much the Schopenhauerian outlook: Human beings are like mosquitoes that go in circles: they mate, produce and die. All this absurdity takes place only within a day!

19th century Artist, Thomas Cole who was deeply moved by Schopenhauer’s dark and gloomy view of life, painted a four stage human journey: Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age. In the first picture, Childhood, there is a boy in a boat jumping joyously because he now exists. In the second picture, Youth, he has a one leg in front and one hand pointing to the sky subtly suggesting that nothing can stop him from reaching his desires. In both of these pictures that waters are calm, but this is not to remain so for long. In the third picture, his hair is long and his face bearded. He is approaching a waterfall in a sea that is no longer calm. In the final picture, all his hair is gone and he is seating in this boat. Life has beaten him and death is upon him.

Perhaps the seeker sees humanity as the absurd hero Sisyphus who was first condemned to have eternal life and was given only one task: to push a rock up a hill and throw it over. But! Once close to the top, Sisyphus is completely exhausted which makes the rock weight many times heavier. At this point all that he can do is helplessly watch the rock roll back to its original place. The rock, of course, is nothing but human desires that give man the illusion that once a particular desire has been attained happiness too will be at hand. Once the illusion disappears, however, man sees himself at the bottom of this hill chasing another desire.

It is clear how difficult life can become inside the cave when such questions are asked. It ultimately leads to a profound alienation. Once this takes place, which is the first category, one ultimately finds oneself in the presence of the Greek goddess Chaos. Chaos, of course, does not mean disorder, but simply Empty Space or Void. Interesting to note that Chaos has two children: Night and Darkness who mate and have a child whose name just happens to be Light. In other words, if the semi-liberated can endure this difficult and alienating period, Light or enlightenment will take place.

Once, he has stepped out of the cave, however, there is this feeling that he must share his experience with his friends. It is interesting to note this experience annihilates the human individual to where he or she sees him or herself as an extended part of humanity and as a result is “plagued” with care and compassion for other beings.

Entering the cave or the world once again to share his insight with others he comes to realize that that humanity resembles to that of man with an arrow in his back. The story in Buddhism has it that there is a man walking and an arrow, a poisonous arrow enters into his back. People rush him to the doctor who wants to pull the arrow out only to realize that the wounded man asks a stupid question such as the color, the length, the width and the make of the arrow. The doctor is, of course, is the person who has journeyed to the outside of the cave and the man with the arrow could be Ivan Ilych, Gilgamesh, Sisyphus, or humanity itself, that ask foolish questions.

Whether or not Plato intended for all these “truths” to be contained in the Allegory of the Cave, no one can be certain. Perhaps Shakespeare is right in suggesting that the world has no meaning, it is us who give meaning to the world.