When first reading about the cave, I thought that in some way it represented safety, the bliss of ignorance, a comfort in the known. We all find safety, at times, by not knowing what is going on around us and surrounding ourselves with like minded people. The shadows on the wall do not scare us they are an escape from the world. John Lennon in his song, “Watching the Wheels” describes his life in his self-imposed cave, post-Beatles and solo career as such;
People say I’m lazy dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall
Don’t you miss the big time boy you’re no longer on the ball
Lennon at the height of his solo career retreats into Dakota to escape the pressures imposed on him by others to enjoy the simple life of friends and family. There is great safety in the cave.
However, while I might want to remain the cave there is a natural desire to explore and challenge one’s self. Many of us who are returning to school after a short or long break are in a way emerging into the world of day. We move from imagining to common-sense belief, to thinking and then finally to knowledge.
I had never really thought of how having knowledge could be frustrating until I watched my son try to help my wife work on the computer. Looking back I can see my wife was in the cave and my intelligent son was in there trying to help her out. While he could masterfully move from screen to screen and set up tables and graphs, she was struggling just to open files. The frustration they both felt was obvious, even though they were speaking the same language, they were not communicating. Yet over the course of the evening my wife was slowly led from the cave to the world of day.
I often felt the same frustration in reading Socrates. Plato’s allegory of the cave is interesting. He basically has two worlds, the world of light and the cave. In the world of the light there is the sun, visible objects and the shadows of visible things. The world of light represents knowledge and the sun is goodness. The forms are the visible objects, while the shadows of visible things can be considered mathematical forms.
The world of light is where the thinking takes place. While the individual my not actually reach a conclusion as to what the form actually is; they will have the ability to analyze the form and perhaps get a feel for what it might be. If I understand the concept correctly the mathematical forms can solve the problems of the shadows of visible things and put them into the proper perspective. Not being a math major, I would believe that this is the highest form of knowledge, as problems are solved by reason and deduction.
Here it seems that Plato draws a line. While the world of light is knowledge, the cave is a world of belief. The cave is divided into the walkway and fire, as well as the shadows on the wall. The walkway and fire are tangible things and objects of substance. The shadows on the wall are shadows, reflections and echoes. I believe that the Guardians are who Plato is using as an example here. They hold moral beliefs, but possess no knowledge. Guardians are taught what they are to believe.
It could be argued that the tangible things in one’s religious belief could be the Bible, church or church doctrine. The ceremonies such as baptism, the Eucharist, weddings and funerals are all real events that are part of a person’s set of beliefs. Plato may argue that these are taught activities that have no basis in fact. In today’s society it is not necessary to use the church for a marriage to be recognized. We have civil unions and even gay marriage, as we learn and accept this behavior it could be argued that this is another set of religious beliefs.
The shadows on the wall are, perhaps more than belief, faith. The difficulty Plato, or for that matter many educated people have, is believing in what can’t be seen. It is difficult for the structured, analytical mind to crunch numbers that are not there. I don’t mean imaginary numbers, but actual numbers that exist, yet are not seen. The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” The shadows on the wall, the reflections and the echoes could be considered all parts of faith; the spirit world, devotions and prayer. Plato and I may not agree on his thoughts on belief, but I would point out to the philosopher that shadows can only be created from real things.
The prisoner who leaves the cave and heads to the world of light starts out frightened and slowly, leaving behind what is familiar. Here, I believe, Plato is now focusing on education rather than religious belief. As the freed prisoner moves through the levels of educational growth, cognition, common sense, thinking and dialectic, he grows and becomes more confident in his new world.
With this new found knowledge the prisoner understands that the safety of the cave comes with a terrible price, ignorance and fear. He may not want to return to the cave, but knows that he has an obligation to the society he left. It is the responsibility of all citizens to improve the conditions of others when possible. It may be difficult to return and convince to leave the safety of the past or present condition, but we must. Think of the African-American who returns to his neighborhood after graduating college, building a successful career and is ridiculed for being “out of touch” with the black community, what is he to do? Is he to turn his back on the community?
Many conservative African-Americans, especially in the Republican Party, are not considered black enough, “Uncle Toms” or Oreos, black on the outside, white on the inside. An acquaintance of mine, who was the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, ran for the U.S. Senate and had Oreos thrown at him during campaign stops. Why? Perhaps because he left the cave and saw the world of light and those in the cave are comfortable with what is around them.
If we were to look around Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh and event the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it seems we are in the cave. I have had the opportunity to live in the Philippines, England and several different states and because of this I have left the cave. It seems that this area in particular is unwilling to set into the light and leave the cave. The leadership of local government has managed to totally bankrupt the city. Our young people leave the county in droves, we lose more citizens each year and yet those in power continue with the some policies.
It is quite possible that the modern day Democratic voters in Allegheny County are the Guardians of the party establishment. Those who are educated properly can then become a part of the ruling class. Unlike our prisoner who was freed, the Guardians of the party, Republican or Democrat, do not want to come back and educate the masses they left behind in the cave. The further they climb into the world of light, the less likely they are to return an enlighten us.
Here is where those of us who have left the cave must return. It is our obligation to get involved in the political system. I have been involved off and on in politics for years often getting frustrated, like the prisoner returning to the cave, unable to get others to become involved by helping candidates or becoming a candidate. I have been laughed at and called various names, all for leaving the cave and returning.
There is a safety in the known, in the cave. We have become a society that is willing to live in the cave as long as our needs are provided. In an effort to secure ourselves from attack, we are willing to sacrifice our liberty and freedoms. As long as we don’t perceive the shadows as something dangerous we are more than happy to keep our backs to the fire and ignore the reality around us.
Perhaps the real fear of leaving the cave is that the daylight exposes the truth and the truth is not pretty. Often when we learn the truth it can cause us to turn away from the difficult task that it presents. We prefer the shadows; they cannot be defined as good or bad, only there. However, for a society to improve and grow the citizens must educate themselves and leave the cave. While I often want to retreat to my cave I prefer the World of Day and the opportunities it offers. While Plato’s “Just City” may never come into being, we have an obligation to protect the “Shining city on the hill.”