Going to the movies is fun. You get your candy and your drink and are taken away into a fictional world for two or three hours, then leave the theater and get back to reality. But is what you’re going back to really reality? Plato said no. In the “Allegory of the Cave” (chapter XXV) in the The Republic he proposes that we all live like people in a movie theater, only he uses prisoners in a cave to illustrate the situation. He creates an image of prisoners, chained down in a cave, so all they could see was shadows created by puppets in front of a fire on the cave wall. Their reality was merely the shadows and it is the same for us (as the common man.) According to Plato, our reality is nothing more than figurative “shadows.”
Everything in the cave can be attributed to a part of society. The fire can be equivocated to “unwisdom” (229) or even evil, and in society is created by the greed that some have for power over others. It is the driving force behind the entire scheme to misrepresent reality. By controlling what people believe is reality, they in turn gain control of the people by telling them what is true and what should be valued, which gives them the power they crave. The fire (greed) is necessary for the shadows to be cast, without it nothing at all could be seen. Without the fire, the puppeteers would have no purpose, no reason to hold the objects up at all. Without the greed for control, society’s “puppeteers” would not have any desire to misrepresent reality.
The puppeteers are the manipulators in society (the greedy people). People in a variety of different positions act as the puppeteers. Anyone who tries to skew reality for his or her own personal gain is a manipulator. Religious and business leaders, as well as politicians are all likely candidates for the role of the “puppeteers” because they often control people’s realities. Religious leaders convince massive amounts of people that their ideas and their religion is reality. Business leaders use advertising campaigns to persuade people into believing their products are the best and will change their lives. Politicians often manipulate issues to make people see them their way. In conjunction with each other, all of these manipulative forces basically dictate society’s values.
These “puppeteers” take the objects and let their own greed (fire) distort them, so only a small portion of what is “real” is revealed (in the form of a “shadow”). The objects are equivalent to the sermons, the add campaigns and the political agendas of world leaders. Because they have nothing else to look at, the prisoners (society as a whole) believes these shadows of reality to be true, because the manipulators have not given them any other options.
When the relationship between the “puppeteers” and the “prisoners” is examined more closely, the question of whether or not the manipulators actually know what reality is must be addressed. The answer is that they don’t. They still only see what is inside the cave, and the enlightened world exists solely outside of it. Most of them actually believe in what they are promoting, which are essentially just “artificial objects” (228). Plato’s Theory of Forms explains that one can only have beliefs and opinions about material thing, and the only thing that one can know is science (and universals.) Because these
objects can’t be known, they can’t be a part of the universal reality that exists “outside of the cave” or as in society beyond the boundaries of the material, manmade world. In the “Allegory” as in life, the only people that are “enlightened” (who know the true, universal reality) are those who leave the cave somehow, or those who see beyond our material world.
The prisoner who is set free and ascends into the light experiences a great deal of pain, “Suppose one of them set free and forced suddenly to stand up.and walk with eyes lifted to the light, all these movements would be painful.” (229) Imagine the shock that
would come from realizing that the whole world as one knew it for their entire life was only actually a “meaningless illusion” (229.) It would be extremely painful, not just because of the physical affects of bright light on eyes that have never experienced it, but also the emotional struggle one would have to go through to accept a completely new reality. For some amount of time, they would have to be more alone than they ever had before, because they wouldn’t even have a reality. In that time of rejection of the first “reality” and acceptance of the new “reality”, they would have complete nothingness. It would be much easier for them to forget what they saw and go back to the comfort of believing in what they had their entire lives, rather than try to figure out and then accept a new “reality.” But this separation from their former reality is the necessary first “step” in the enlightenment process. Plato shows that one must leave what they know as real and step into nothingness before being able to grasp the new “enlightened” reality (which is the second “step” in the process he illustrates.)
If someone did go through this process and didn’t go mad after such alienation, why would they ever want to return from the “sunlight” to the “cave?” The only reason that they would have to leave the glory of “enlightenment” to return to society would be to help other people achieve the understanding that they had. But throughout history, people who have become “enlightened” and “come back” to teach what they have learned (in some people’s eyes, this could include Jesus, Ghandi and/or Socrates) have been tormented by the people. It would take an incredibly strong person with unbelievable moral character to actually complete the third “step” in this process, because people don’t want to listen to them. Rather than listen to what these “enlightened” people have to teach them, they shun them from society because they are scared, “If they could lay hands on the man who was trying to set them free and lead them up, they would kill him.” (231) If they chose to accept the teachings, they too would be forced to go through the terrifying realization that everything they thought they knew was a lie. Plato is clearly stating that the masses are not strong enough to go through this process, “.they would laugh at him.” (231) instead of trying to understand the “enlightened” person, they would rather just believe what they have been taught.
Can an “enlightened” person really teach what they have learned? Just as the prisoners still in the cave could not really understand what the “escapee” from the cave would try and tell them, what the “enlightened” person has learned can not be completely communicated. How could the sun be described to someone who had never even seen direct light? It is a big, bright ball in the sky, but what is the sky? It’s the blue area above the earth? Obviously, this process would go on forever, since the people in the cave would never have seen anything more than shadows and had no concept of the sun, the earth and the sky. The objects can be described, but the cave prisoners would not really understand until they actually experienced “enlightenment”, or until they saw the objects for themselves. Until a person actually goes through at least the first two “steps” (separation and “enlightenment”) and finds the “reality” themselves, they cannot truly understand, therefor the “enlightened” cannot truly communicate their wisdom in it’s totality.
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is clearly more than just an illustration of the way society works. He explains people’s resistance to change or to move out of the “comfort zone” of their realities to explore new ideas. Because of this fear and resistance to change, most people never even make it to the first “step” in the enlightenment process, which is leaving everything they believe in search of something better, or in this case more “real.” If they actually get past this and become enlightened, completing the third “step” of returning to try and communicate their experience and understanding, they are met with unbelievable opposition and rejection. What they now know cannot actually be communicated to those who haven’t experienced it, so these efforts must be fruitless. The only thing that these “enlightened” people can do is to convince people that there is more out there, and push them to find it for themselves, which is what we all must do.