PLATO’S CAVE REINTERPRETED
Behold how human beings live in an underground cave!
Here they have been from childhood,
with their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move nor turn their heads because of their chains so that they can only see what is directly in front of them.
What has been chained
is their minds.
The actual chains
are not really the external circumstances but their illusions,
the projections of their minds.
Above and behind them a fire is burning in the distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised pathway…and a low wall built along the pathway, much like the screen on which puppeteers show their puppets.
The fire is our Awareness and inner Vision,
and it is burning in the distance because
our human mind cannot reach them.
The raised pathway is our faculty of perception,
and the low wall along it consists in
the limiting apparent world.
Plato asks a very important question:
We see men very much like ourselves passing along the wall carrying (and doing) all sorts of things,
do they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another,
which the fire (which is behind them) throws
on the opposite wall of the cave?
The answer is that
they see also the shadows of one another, but not as they really are,
only as they expect them to be.
Plato also asks:
If these prisoners could talk with one another would they not suppose
that they were naming what was really before them?
If this cave prison had an echo which came from the other side would not the prisoners be sure that when one of the passers-by on the pathway spoke the voice they hear
came from the shadow?
His answer is that
To them the truth would be literally nothing
but the shadows of the real images.
And to most of us also the “truth” remains but an illusion until we have done a certain amount of work on ourselves and found the true vision.
He then asks the reader to consider that:
If a prisoner is not only freed of his chains but also compelled to suddenly stand up and turn his neck to the light of the fire its glare will be at first painful to his eyes accustomed to the semidarkness and distress him,
so that he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state
he had seen only the shadows.
Especially, noted Vijay on the side of the page when he read this metaphor, if he is afraid of them.
If an “instructor” (that is, a Teacher or Guru) tells him that what he saw before was only an illusion but now his vision is turned to the reality that he can see with a clearer vision, what do you think his reply will be?
And if the “instructor” points to him the objects as they pass by above the wall and asks him to name them, would he not be perplexed?
Would he not still imagine that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer
than the objects which are now shown to him?
Of course he would, because until his eyes are accustomed to the strong light he cannot yet see the objects as clearly as the shadows that he is so familiar with.
This is the difficulty that Teachers encounter with all
but their best students or disciples.
Plato keeps asking:
If he is compelled to look straight at the light of the fire, would not the pain in his eyes make him turn away taking refuge in the objects of vision – the shadows – which he can see without pain,
and believe them clearer than the new things
now shown to him?
He then adds that
And if he was reluctantly pulled up a steep and rugged upward slope out through the mouth of the cave and forced into the presence of the sun itself, would he not be likely to be pained, upset and irritated?
If course he will, because
when he at first approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled,
and he will yet not be able to see anything at all
of what are now called realities.
He seems to be talking of the Dark Night of the Soul.
After some time on the surface, however, the freed prisoner would acclimate, would see more and more things around him, until he could look upon the Sun and understand that it is the source of the seasons and the years, the caretaker of all things in the visible planes, and is in a certain way
is the cause of all those things he and his companions
had been seeing.
He then indicates the solution:
It will be necessary that he become accustomed
to the vision of the upper world.
How will you become accustomed to the vision of the upper world?
As Plato said,
At first he will see the shadows best. Next the reflections of men and other objects in the water. Then the objects themselves.
And last of all he will be able to see the sun; and not the mere reflections of the sun in the water.
He will see the sun in his proper place in the sky, and not in the water,
and he will be able to contemplate the sun
as it actually is.
Of course the Sun represents the Divine.
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on his change, and new awareness,
and pity his fellows who are still prisoners
in the underground den?
And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which?
He sure would.
Were he to return there, wouldn’t he be rather bad at their game,
no longer being accustomed to the darkness?
Would he not say with Homer: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master…”
and endure anything, rather than think as they do
and live after their manner?
Men would say of him, that up he went, and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better to not even think of ascending; and if any one tried to loosen another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
As they put to death countless prophets and seers through the ages.
Plato ends his metaphor by saying that
The prison den is the world of sight.
That is, the ordinary world where most of us live.
But it is also secretly
the journey upwards to the Sun
is the ascent of our soul.
(See also the chapter “The Prisoner” in the Obstacle Course section, which presents another aspect of it.)