“What is wisdom? What is moderation? What is courage? What is justice? What is the nature of reality itself? Looking at these questions today, we could just shrug our shoulders and discard them as irrelevant. After all, they seem too abstract and distant from real concerns of our everyday life. Or are they? Two and half millennia ago the Greek philosopher Plato considered answers to these questions vital, if not absolutely necessary, for a happy and fulfilling life, a conviction reflected in his timeless treatise The Republic (paperback | audiobook), where he envisioned a life of ideal society. In today’s post, I would like to draw your attention to one of the most enduring and captivating passages from this book that can serve as a subject for deep contemplation in our meditation practice — the allegory of the cave. In this allegory, we are likened to prisoners sentenced to a lifetime in a dark cave whose walls are full of flickering shadows. Please enjoy this audio performance by an immensely talented William Sigalis as Socrates and Ray Childs as Glaucon.
THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE
from The Republic of Plato
Now, Glaucon, let’s think about the ignorance of human beings and their education in the form of an allegory. Imagine them living underground in a kind of cave. The mouth of the cave, which is far above, is as wide as the cave itself and opens to the light outside. These people have been here since childhood. Their legs and necks are chained so that they cannot move. They can see only what is in front of them because the chains are fastened in a way that keeps them from turning their heads. A fire burns at some distance behind them. If you look carefully, you can see a wall between the fire and the prisoners, like a curtain that hides puppeteers showing their puppets.
I can see that.
Can you also see people passing behind the wall, carrying all kinds of objects above their heads so that they show over the wall? They are carrying statues of humans and animals made of wood, stone, and other materials. Some of them are talking, and others are silent.
That’s a strange image, Socrates, and these are strange prisoners.
They are like us. They see only the shadows the light from the fire throws on the wall of the cave in front of them, their own shadows, or those of the objects passing behind the wall. … If the prisoners were able to talk with each other about these shadows, wouldn’t they believe that they were discussing reality?
That’s right. …
So it’s obvious that for these prisoners, the truth would be no more than the shadows of objects.
That seems inevitable.
Now let’s consider how they might be released and cured of their ignorance. Imagine that one man is set free and forced to turn around and walk toward the light. … He would have to get used to seeing the world outside the cave. First, he will recognize the shadows. Then the reflections of people and other objects in the water. And finally, he could see the objects themselves. Then he will gaze at the night sky, still better able to see the light of the moon and the stars than the sunlight of the sun.
That’s probably how it would be.
But at last, he would be able to see the sun in its proper place, rather than its reflection in the water or somewhere else. Then he will be able to consider its true nature.
Glaucon, my friend, you may now connect this allegory with what we were saying before. What we normally see with our eyes can be compared with the prison where the people dwell. And the fire can be related to the power of the sun. Consider the journey out of the cave and seeing the things there to be the ascent of the soul to the realm of what is knowable. This is my belief which I have shared at your request. It would take God to know whether it is right or wrong. But regardless of whether it’s true or false, I believe that in the realm of what is knowable, the idea of the good appears last of all and can be seen only with great effort. Once we see it, we understand it to be the cause of all things that are right and beautiful, the origin and ruler of light in this world, and the ultimate source of truth and reason beyond it. This must be understood by anyone who wishes to act rationally and effectively, either in public or private life.
Complement this particular passage from The Republic of Plato with another incredibly gratifying audio performance by William Sigalis as Socrates on moderation as a harmony that permeates all aspects of the human soul and then revisit Aristotle on virtues as habits.