Platos Cave

Plato’s Cave

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato is considered to be the grandfather of western philosophy, politics and scientific questioning. Around 2400 years ago Plato posited the allegory of a cave…

“Imagine” he said, “some people captured and held in a cave. Imagine also that the captives are chained to a bench in such a way that they can only see the back wall of the cave. Further, the captors build a bright fire behind the benched captives and parade puppets and assorted shapes in front of the fire so that their silhouettes are projected on the back wall.”

 “After some time” Plato continued, “would not those on the bench start to believe that the whole world was nothing other than those moving silhouettes? After many years, admittedly, would it not seem like the world was really just those images on the wall in front of you?”

And, while you were contemplating the likelihood of such a bizarre situation, Plato would continue: “Imagine further that one of the captives makes good an escape and he successfully breaks out from his chains, sneaks past the guards leaves the cave. After all his many years of captivity, just watching the shadows on the wall imagine his response when he eventually emerges outside. He will see the Sun, the sky, rivers, grasses and trees, birds in the air and animals hidden everywhere. Would this not be an exciting and overwhelming experience after such a captivity?

“As he explores the world, all new to him, would his senses not be overloaded? The wonders of his first sunset; the softness of a butterfly’s wing; the scintillating coolness of a babbling stream; the pounding of waves on the shore; the terrors of the first thunderstorm he encounters.” Plato further extends his description of the deluge of new sensations of the escaped prisoner as he further describes what he would consider the baffling complexities of human life. “Imagine how he would be fascinated by the daily routines of the men and women about their normal duties: farmers in their fields; scribes at work writing their parchments; the hustle and bustle of a market place; soldiers drilling; the orators and artists in the market square; theatre.”

This would truly be a mind-expanding experience. Plato then continued: “after experiencing all these wonders, imagine this escaped prisoner sneaking back into the cave, past the guards and resuming his place on the bench, so that he can tell all of his friends the wonders they have seen. What do you suppose their response would be? Would they be captivated by his telling or would they conclude that he was a madman full of fanciful daydreams?

“The sad truth is that they would consider him insane. They would find his descriptions so outlandish that they would be disturbed and upset. They would insist that he stops his telling so that they could get back to their usual routine. He would be outcast and reviled. For people do not like to be taken from their comforts, no matter how mean they are. People prefer what they know and are upset when new ideas are thrust upon them.”

Of course the allegory of Plato’s cave can only be relevant today if you were someone who is chained to watch a screen of shadow puppets all day.

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