HERMETIC - ESOTERIC - MYSTICAL PHILOSOPHIES
HERMETIC - ESOTERIC - MYSTICAL PHILOSOPHIES
PLATO'S ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE
Plato's Allegory of the Cave
Plato's Allegory of the cave
" And now, I said (Plato), let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
- I see.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
- You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
- True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
- Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
- Very true.
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
- No question, he replied.
- That is certain.
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
- Far truer.
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
- That is true.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.
- Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
- Certainly, he would.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were
quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which
followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw
conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and
glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,
- Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
- To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the
prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before
his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit
of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that
up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of
ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them
only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
- I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.
Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted.
- Yes, very natural.
- Anything but surprising, he replied.
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two
kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into
the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who
remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too
ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter
light, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from
darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his
condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh
at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than
in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the cave.
- They undoubtedly say this, he replied.
And whereas the other so-called virtues of the soul seem to be akin to bodily qualities, for even when they are not originally innate they can be implanted later by habit and exercise, the of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other hand, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue --how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eyesight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness.
- Very true, he said.
- Very likely.
Yes, I said; and there is another thing which is likely. or rather a necessary inference from what has preceded, that neither the uneducated and uninformed of the truth, nor yet those who never make an end of their education, will be able ministers of State; not the former, because they have no single aim of duty which is the rule of all their actions, private as well as public; nor the latter, because they will not act at all except upon compulsion, fancying that they are already dwelling apart in the islands of the blest.
- Very true, he replied.
Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all-they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.
- What do you mean?
And will our pupils, when they hear this, refuse to
take their turn at the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of
their time with one another in the heavenly light?
- Most true, he replied.
And now shall we consider in what way such guardians will be produced, and how they are to be brought from darkness to light, --as some are said to have ascended from the world below to the gods?
- By all means, he replied.
The process, I said, is not the turning over of an oyster-shell, but the turning round of
a soul passing from a day which is little better than night to the true day of being, that
is, the ascent from below, which we affirm to be true philosophy.