In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Socrates presents a society of people who’ve lived out their lives in a cave; never having experienced the light of sun, their only understanding of light being a single fire contained in a single area. The society is split; half are bound to chairs by their arms and legs, with faces forced forward, unable to see anything but the flat surface in front of them.
The other half spend their days marching back and forth across a raised wall, holding up figures to be caught in the firelight, casting shadows on the farthest surface, in front of those bound and forced to see the shadows. At the same time a shadow was cast upon the wall, an echo would ring throughout the cave, and by that echo would the bound know what to call the shadow.
To illustrate this scene more clearly, let us walk through it once more: Tom, a ‘carrier’ in this society, walks across the wall, hoisting above his head a statue of a tree. As he comes into the firelight, a shadow of the ‘tree’ is cast on the far wall, and those bound to chairs, unable to see anything but the surface upon which the shadow is cast, sees the image and hears the word “tree” echoed around the cave. It is by this process the society learns; as such, Tom, as well as other ‘carriers’, are teachers, inasmuch as they hold the most concrete form of a ‘tree’ this society has access to.
When one individual does eventually slip his bonds, he stands up and attempts to understand what he sees. He initially rejects the statue objects as seeming more real than the shadows upon the flat surface; how could he reject the only reality he’s ever known so easily? It is only upon closer examination, touching, feeling, that he eventually realizes his own knowledge was merely a foundation, and the statue objects resonate with that same knowledge, despite appearing so different at first.
This enlightened wanderer, now unable to remain in the cave, continues to edge of the cave and finds a tunnel leading upward. Knowing he cannot remain in a pseudo-reality, he begins to climb. The journey is harder and more painful than he could have imagined; there is no light guiding him, and he has no inclination of when the end may come. Worst of all is knowing he cannot return to the cave without knowing if there is more outside the tunnel.
Words cannot describe the experience of breaking through the surface to be overwhelmed by the sun all at once. Time alone could ease the shock, and allow the wanderer to finally realize what his fight was for: knowledge of the true forms- a real tree, in all its glory, and the wanderer’s journey from belief to understanding to knowledge to true wisdom is complete.
Sadly, is his eventual journey back into the cave to enlighten his fellows, the wanderer was met with resistance, ridicule, and anger. There was no desire among the bound to move from comfort, and even once they stood, they would not walk forward to touch the figures and understand another degree of reality. The wanderer eventually left under threat of death, again alone in his trek, confused at the prospect of a disinterested society content to live in the dark.
As a society, despite all our many advances in the areas of technology, medicine, science, and all aspects of what we, as humans, DO, are like Plato’s society: content to live in the dark, regarding all the aspects of what we, as humans, ARE. Who are we, as a society? What do our accomplishments and actions say about us?
We sing of religious freedoms, but make no attempt at building spiritual bridges between different religions, instead maintaining our differences to a point where we would rather fracture into new organizations than allow multiple interpretations to exist within a single space.
As a country, America has been viewed as a sanctuary by those desperate to experience choice. We have taken it upon ourselves to liberate the world from political tyrants and ruthless dictators, deploying soldiers to invade other countries and oversee the forceful implementation of a democratic system. We fought to take away nuclear weapon control from other countries, but reserve the right to manufacture, stockpile, and threaten the use of them. All this for what started out as battles for freedom, security, autonomous thought and choice without persecution.
Working in addiction recovery, I have taught many groups utilizing this allegory; discussing the ways we existed in the realm of illusion- be it within our addiction itself, or co-occurring disorders, behaviors, thinking errors, broken schema, collusion processes, dysfunctional relationships, unhealthy self-image- the list goes on and on. There is no end of ways in which we have lived in bondage [or FEAR] and remained there even after our binds were loosed.
We discussed the ‘teachers’ from whom we learned shadows of knowledge, and who maintained the facade, allowing us to live in a pseudo-reality. The wall-walkers are our enablers, co-dependents, users, abusers, manipulators, victims in their own ways- maintaining a broken system so they have a purpose. They, too, are trapped in a cycle, safely outside reality, and they, too, choose to remain in familiarity rather than find an overall Right.
Ah, an overall Right; the Absolute Truth to which Plato refers, represented by the sun. Without the sun, there are no true forms, thus no likeness of forms to cast shadows, and no illusions to inspire belief. Is there an Absolute Truth? This, I believe, is a question to which each individual must answer unto themselves. Isn’t the point of the allegory that unless we break free from fear, resist doubt and confusion, reject what is familiar and comfortable, and seek to find the root of what we believe in, then we will never truly KNOW the truth of anything?
I believe the true gift of addiction was the opportunity it gave me to step back and examine my life as though it were the allegory; only then was it as clear and simple as Plato’s cave: there were aspects of myself strapped to a chair, perceiving nothing more than echoes and shadows, and until I overcame the fear holding me there, I would never move beyond that point.
There is no end for the potential meanings of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; I challenge all who read this to apply it to your own lives; challenge the pseudo-realities perpetuated by your own non-action. Break free from the fears limiting you to echoes and shadows– demand a real tree, and don’t stop until you get it.