In Plato‘s Republic, he asks us to imagine a Cave in which prisoners live from birth. These prisoners are chained in such a way that they can’t move their heads or bodies, therefore they all face the same direction. Behind them is a screen and behind that is a fire.
The prison guards move about behind the screen and the fire casts their shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. This is their reality.
Plato then asks us to imagine what would happen if one of these prisoners was released. This man would first find it difficult to look at the fire in the Cave behind him. But this difficulty would be nothing compared to what would happen if he was dragged above the ground, where he would be completely blinded by the natural light.
But gradually, the released prisoner would be able to look at shadows, then reflections, then objects themselves. After that he’d be able to bear looking at the sky at night and finally – once he’d developed an ability to see – he’d be able to look at the day-time sky and the sun itself.
This famous Simile can be interpreted in many ways but one of the most useful is to see it as a description of the search for truth.
It’s a hard job this quest. It definitely requires us to move and often to be uncomfortable. It’s easier to stay where we are and not bother looking for the reality of things. Plato refutes the idea that real knowledge can be planted in a human mind and instead suggests that it can only be acquired by making the effort to acquire it for yourself. Because, according to Plato,
…the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind.(1)
But also – according to Plato – getting access to this knowledge within us requires a voluntary turn towards truth.
In other words – come on out of the Cave – it’s sunny outside and who knows what wonders you’ll see if you make the effort to search for truth yourself?
(1) The Republic, Plato (To read The Simile of the Cave itself, click on More About…)