The parable of the cave is a philosophical argument by Plato depicting the dilemma what human life is and what it means. In his vivid presentation, human beings live imprisoned in a cave throughout their lives, unable to see the world around them as they are chained in such a way as to prevent them from turning round.
There is a distant fire above and behind them, so they cannot move up or backwards. Furthermore, ahead of them, there is a wall that blocks their path. The bottom line is that movement is very limited in this cave. Occasionally, the carriers of the objects speak to one another, but their voices reach the prisoners in form of echoes from the wall ahead of them. Since they are not able to see who is speaking, they are convinced that the echoed voices are from shadows they see ahead of them.
With time, the prisoners begin to interpret the images and sounds they see and hear as constituting reality. The more they become accustomed to this world of illusion, the more it gets difficult to dissuade them to see what reality actually is. After observing the shadows keenly for a while, they get used to the pattern of movement, and whoever correctly predicts the shape that will pass next is applauded as being knowledgeable (Plato 90).
The analogy of the cave explains why many humans find the world of fantasy too comfortable for them to contemplate leaving it. They would rather live in illusions than face the truth, which is too much to bear. The cave idea is born of the fact that we go through cultural assimilations, and our characters are shaped by the environment we live in.
Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get out of such conditioning and adopt a broad mind that can appreciate other dynamics of life. This is what creates the “shadow people” who cannot move their head around and appreciate the outside world in totality (Plato 90).
The only way a prisoner can get out of the cave is through an emancipation of the mind from such mental slavery. This is a herculean task because their path is constrained by the fire behind them, the wall all around the cave and the chain to their limbs. The prisoners who are set free to explore the world will find themselves in a culture shock.
They will find most of the practices and beliefs of their fellow human beings from other socializations too strange and unacceptable (Benjamin, 67). If they are shown the objects that cast the shadows, they would believe the objects are a fictional creations of some very great mind. Their reality is the shadows and nothing else.
Things are much worse when the prisoner is actually taken out of the cave to sunlight. This is a move to greater levels of intellectual capability where one can distinguish between objects of reality and fiction with utmost clarity. According to Fullerton, “the eye is unusual among the sense organs in that it needs a medium, namely light, in order to operate” (56). The light must, however, be of medium intensity.
If it is too bright, especially when one has just moved from darkness, the eye experiences too much pain to bear and would either close or the person would turn around to avoid looking at the source. If it is too little, the human being will not see clearly and end up with an optical illusion. This is applicable to the intellectual eye as well. The prisoner who leaves the cave rather absorbs a little of the changes at a time than takes in everything in one swoop.
With time, however, the culture shock waves of honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery phases. In the honeymoon phase, the practices in the new environment are amusing, and a person links them romantically to his/her own culture. After the prisoner has made enough observations, he begins to get used to the culture and actually begins to love it. The most interesting part of the whole cycle is a reverse culture shock.
The prisoner begins to scorn at his/her own former culture which he found difficult to shed off. In other words, if the prisoner leaves the bright light of the sun and goes back to the cave, he will find it too dark for him to see his way around. Walking in the cave is difficult – he falters and even steps on people’s toes trying to walk. His former society begins to take note and you hear comments to the effect that he dropped his cultural orientation and his people’s way of life and exchanged it with the ways of foreigners.
However, Plato argues that we should not be quick to pass judgment on such a disoriented person before we discern the exact cause of the disillusionment (Dova 67). The whole idea of education is about pointing the student in the right direction to acquire knowledge by relying on the strength of his or her mental capabilities. Plato argues that it is the intellect that can understand the realities of the world, not the senses.
Dova, Benjamin. The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues. Grand Rapids, MI: Discover Publishers, 1992. Print.
Fullerton, George Stuart. An Introduction to Philosophy. Scotts Valley, California: CreateSpace Publishers, 2011. Print.
Plato. Apology: Crito and Phaedo of Socrates. Charleston, South Carolina: Bibliobazaar Publishers, 2007. Print.