Less than a hundred years ago, women in the United States and in many other parts of the world were not permitted to participate in politics: they were deemed inferior to men by nature of their gender. In spite of rampant sexism in modern society, the thought of women being unable to vote seems preposterous. The shift in consciousness that took place with the nineteenth amendment to the American Constitution reflects a similar consciousness breakthrough as Plato describes in his Republic. In The Republic, which was penned millennia ago, Plato presents a perennially popular metaphor: the general public is living as if in a cave, without access to direct sunlight and without contact with the outside world. The sunlight nevertheless creates shadows on the cave walls, shadows that the people mistake for reality. When one person ventures outside the cave, he or she realizes that the shadowy images are merely illusions, created by shadows formed by the sunlight. However, instead of applauding the discovery, the public represses and criticizes him or her: the idea that the reflections on the cave walls are illusions is threatening to their worldview. Threats to our worldview are similarly suppressed today. Thus, Plato uses his cave metaphor for two distinct purposes: first, to suggest that the general human populace is ignorant of the truth and unwilling to entertain alternative concepts of reality; and second, to note that all ideas are merely reflections of their archetypes.
Plato's metaphor proves to be one of the most meaningful and relevant metaphors in modern life. In almost every realm of human social, political, scientific, and metaphysical realities, the cave allegory makes sense and proves to be true. The most obvious manifestations of Plato's metaphor can be viewed in specific examples in human history, examples that school children laugh at today but which were taught as truths only the generation before. For example, children today know that the earth revolves around the sun. Yet before Copernicus, the Earth was believed to the center of the universe and the sun was believed to have revolved around it. Just as the people in the cave mistook shadows for reality, so did the general populace before Copernicus mistake cosmological illusions for scientific truth. Nothing could seem so preposterous today than the notion that the sun revolves around the earth. Our collective illusions were eventually shattered by scientific inquiry. Plato suggests that the people living in the cave could have awoken to reality had they been equally as willing to embrace scientific truth: that the sunlight outside was creating the display of shadows on the cave walls. Yet until Copernicus' beliefs were broadly accepted, human beings clung to the illusion that the sun revolved around the earth. In the case with mistaken cosmology, the prisoners were the entire human race; and the chains were the false beliefs that the sun rotated the earth. The metaphorical shadow would be that the cycles of day and night appeared to be created by an orb circulating the planet: from our vantage point, the sun indeed does appear to be rotating around the earth and not vice-versa. The light outside the cave, the sunlight, and that which Plato conceives of as the Good, is awareness.
Similarly, until eerily recently, women were believed to be inferior to men and blacks were considered to be inferior to whites. Neither women nor blacks were permitted to receive education or allowed to vote. In this case, the entire human race was again the prisoners; and their chains were again ignorance. The shadows were nothing but self-fulfilling prophesies: persons who had no access to education would obviously demonstrate little intellectual prowess. The Good, the Light existing outside the cave was the same Truth that prompted human beings to accept Copernicus' cosmology. If all these preposterous beliefs: from mistaken cosmologies to mistaken social realities, could have been upheld as truths, then it is reasonable to assume that many of the beliefs we hold dear today are just illusions. Just as the people in Plato's Republic mistake shadows for reality and just as human beings believed that the universe revolved around the Earth, perhaps many of the concepts we take for granted are completely false.
Today's populace is groping in the darkness as Plato suggests, curious but often too ignorant to see or accept the truth. We are taught certain lessons in school as being absolute and are rarely instructed or encouraged to step outside the cave, even if just for a moment. Children are presented with dazzling displays of shadows and light on the cave walls of our human consciousness. Especially religious fanatics teach children that shadows are realities. For example, Christian fundamentalists, however well-meaning, instruct their youth in creationism. In spite of numerous evidence to the contrary, Christian fundamentalists teach children that evolution is but an illusion. However, the Light in this case is not the Light of God, as the Christians would suggest but rather the Light of scientific truth. Just as Copernicus shattered illusions of human consciousness centuries ago, modern scientists are trying to shatter illusions of human consciousness today through the Big Bang theory and other theories of physics, evolution, and cosmology. Granted, the truths that stand strong today may be the shadows of tomorrow. The illusions on the cave walls are always susceptible to higher levels of truth, subject to being displayed for the illusions that they really are.
When adventurous people venture outside the cave and hint that the sunlight, the metaphorical Good, might be causing the shadows, people inside react negatively. As in The Republic, people believe that the shadows dancing on the walls are far too realistic to be cast by some external source. In this vein, many people reject the notion that intelligent life exists on other planets. The shadows being displayed on the wall include that we human beings are the most intelligent life on this planet and therefore we must be the most intelligent life in the entire universe. We watch the glory of humanity unfold itself on the cave walls, forgetting or denying the sunlight outside. Another illusion, or the metaphorical shadow, is that we have yet to see absolute proof of extraterrestrial life. In this sense the lack of proof becomes a sort of puppet master. Ironically, scientific inquiry becomes an obstacle to truth and therefore to Goodness. No account of alien presence has yet to be scientifically corroborated, and most alien abduction stories have not been proven. However, ten years from now the notion that we are the only intelligent life in the universe might be proved to be nothing but a shadowy illusion. In the case of extraterrestrial life, the puppet masters are the scientists; in Copernicus' time it was the Church. In both cases, the Light outside the cave was the Truth.
Regardless, Plato's cave metaphor refers to humanity as a whole. The shadows that dance across human consciousness are mistaken for reality. Whether those shadows are social: such as the presumed inferiority of certain groups of people, or political, such as the presumed workability of certain forms of government, or scientific, such as the presumed truth of certain theories, shadows will eventually be revealed for what they are. Therefore, modern educational systems need to be prepared for the eventual revelation of Goodness and of Truth. At some point an adventurous soul will venture outside the cave walls and note that the sunlight is casting shadows and that the people inside are mistaking illusions for reality.
Human beings are, however, doing the best they can to digest as much truth as is available at any given time. If we know nothing but the shadows on the wall then we can be forgiven for not wanting to venture outside the cave. Shadows are, after all,…