“The Myth of the Cave” is an allegory that represents the human condition as light vs. dark. The prisoners in the cave represent humanity and light is represented by the world outside of the cave and the light represented by the sun. A Christian worldview reveals a correlation between light vs. dark and sin vs. righteousness. Plato is able to use an allegorical style to show the reader how humanity is filled with darkness or sin, and how each individual has the ability to reach for the world of light or righteousness if she allows herself to believe and trust in God’s wisdom and have faith to move into the light. Essentially, then, Plato is rhetorically effective at using allegory to convince readers to strive for the path of the good, though it might be the harder path in life.
To back up just a bit, Plato was an Athenian philosopher (c. 482 BCE – c. 347 BCE) and was a student of Socrates. “The Myth of the Cave” appears in book VII of the Republic (Miller). It is commonly known that Plato used Socrates as the main speaker in many of his dialogues. In this story, Glaucon is the second speaker. “The Myth of the Cave” is written in the form of an allegory told by dialogue. Merriam-Webster defines allegory as, “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation”. Applied to “Myth of the Cave” the allegorical symbols that Plato uses are the cave, symbolizing the darkness that all humanity lives within; the prisoners, symbolizing humanity that is held captive in sin; the shadows, symbolizing the hidden world that all humanity lives within; the outside world, symbolizing the life humanity can live within once we trust in God; and, lastly, the sun, symbolizing the light that is God.
Why does Plato use Socrates as the main speaker in many of his dialogues and in this one in particular? The theory has been advanced that when Socrates was arrested and executed Plato then changed the direction of his career from politics to philosophy because he was disgusted at the political moves that brought about his mentor’s arrest. One of the thoughts about why Plato uses Socrates as the main speaker in his dialogues is that he wished to keep this man he admired in the forefront of peoples minds and to demonstrate Socrates superiority over the men who caused his execution.
Plato’s “The Myth of the Cave” tells the story of several men, or prisoners, who lived their entire lives from childhood upwards in a cave. These men were facing a blank wall and were chained around the neck and legs so that they could not move or turn around. Behind them there was an opening to the cave, and another wall. There was a fire between the wall and the opening of the cave. Other men, or puppeteers, walked along behind that wall holding up poles with figures of animals, trees and other objects as they walked back and forth. The figures they were holding cast shadows on the wall the prisoners were facing. The prisoners spent their time trying to name the shadows they saw, that they believed were real. As the puppeteers spoke to each other the prisoners thought the shadows were speaking thus reinforcing their idea that the shadows were real. It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate through the first part of Plato’s allegory that people often believe that the lives they live and the sin within those lives are the only reality. They don’t see the shadows for what they are, a mere camouflage covering what is true and good.
To continue the allegorical tale, one day a man came in and released one of the men and led him up out of the cave. For the first time this man saw the figures that cast shadows on the wall so he could see that the shadows were not real. Walking out of the cave the man faced the sun for the first time and the bright light almost blinded him after a lifetime of darkness in the cave. He saw real trees, animals and other real things for the first time. Likewise, scripture talks about prisoners being led by the Lord from darkness of the dungeon into the light. “I the LORD, I have you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, And I will keep you as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, and those who sit in darkness from the prison house (Life Application Study Bible, Isaiah 42:6-7). To put it another way, it is God’s desire for each of us to come out of the darkness of evil and to go into the light of salvation. In short, God will help each of us towards that path of righteousness if we allow Him to do so.
Plato’s allegory continues as Socrates tells how the former prisoner was excited about all he saw and ran back into the cave to tell his fellow prisoners about the joys he experienced outside of the cave. They laughed at him, ridiculed him and didn’t believe what their former fellow prisoner told them. It was too fantastical for them to believe since they had spent their entire lives believing the shadows were the only reality. Within our human condition called sin there lives doubt about the goodness of God and an ultimate lack of faith that we can ever move beyond the shadows of our daily existence. The Bible talks about how we are all prisoners or slaves of sin and we live in the darkness of our sin until we move into the light of Christ and become people of God. “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (Life Application Study Bible John 2:9-19). It follows, then, that we all live within the darkness of our sin until we move into the light of the Lord. In other words, Plato’s allegory speaks about the prisoners that all live in the darkness of the cave … or their sin … until one of them is released from his bondage and he moves into the light. He then receives the knowledge and wisdom that is the true light of God.
In ““The Myth of the Cave” Socrates is represented to address a series of questions to Glaucon in an attempt to explain that the world in which we live is a world of illusions and shadows – a mere reflection of the real world of the intellect” (Miller). He is using symbolism or allegory within his dialogue to show the darkness of our sin compared to the light of salvation.
To put it another way, the symbol that is represented by the cave is the world of darkness that humanity, represented by the prisoners, lives in until we are released into the real world of “enlightenment”. Also the prisoners believe that the shadows are real and so they spend their time naming them and as the men walk along the wall behind the prisoners and are talking among themselves the prisoners believe that the shadows are talking and so it reinforces their belief that the shadows are real.
Along the same lines, in the allegory when the man is freed and leaves the cave he goes into the real world of enlightenment and sees where he and his fellow prisoners were fooled. Moreover, he then goes out from the dark into the light and he sees the real world of trees, animals, and other objects that he saw only shadows of previously. When he returns to the cave to tell the other prisoners what he saw they laugh and don’t believe him. They, like all of us, until we come into the light that is Christ, are still living in a world of shadows and darkness where we feel safe. The world on the outside in the light is often scary for us and we feel comfortable locked within the darkness of our world. Similarly, Jesus discovered the same thing with the people He tried to reach with the Good News of salvation. Even despite many of the miracles that Jesus performed, some people did not believe that He was the messiah, for the thought of what others would think of them was too frightening. “But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted: Lord, who has believed our message? To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm? But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said, The Lord has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts—so that their eyes cannot see, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and have me heal them. Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory. Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue, for they loved human praise more than the praise of God. (Life Application Study Bible John 12:37-43). In other words, as humans we are often too afraid to step out in faith and believe that Jesus is Lord for the fear that our family and friends will laugh at and ridicule us.
To summarize, in Plato’s “The Myth of the Cave,” Socrates addresses a series of questions to Glauson in an attempt to explain that the “idea of the good” is the “universal author of all things beautiful and right, the parent of light … in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual” (Miller). In conclusion, then, Plato is using an allegorical tale to show the contrast between the evil and darkness of the sin that we all were born into, and the righteousness and light of Christ that we are all able to walk towards. In our human condition we are all sinners saved only by the grace of God when we choose to believe. Darkness always represents the evil of sin in this world in which we live, however, we can all of us choose to move into and live within the righteous light that shines in the love of God. In other words, we don’t need to be kept prisoner in our sin any longer. Unlike prisoners in brick and mortar prisons, those of us kept imprisoned in our sinful way of life can choose at anytime to be set free. We can choose to believe in our savior Jesus Christ and be set free from the chains (or sin) that so easily ensnares us. How about you? Do you want to be set free or do you want to be kept chained in the darkness of the cave? Just as the men chained in the cave in Plato’s allegory, you have the ability to make that choice through free will.
Life Application Study Bible. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1993. Print
Merriam-Webster. An Encyclopedia Britannica Company. n.d. Web. 12 May 2015. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/allegory
Plato. “The Myth of the Cave.” Miller, G. The Prentice Hall Reader. 8th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2007. Print.