Many Paths Pavilion - Basic Spirituality area

The Cave

The following is an excerpt from an old play written many years ago. It is classic literature, and though it's style is dated, its wisdom is eternal.
We enter a scene in which S. is talking to a group (G.) of friends.

S./ And now dear friends, let me speak to you of how our nature becomes enlightened. An allegory:

Behold - human beings living in an underground den! Here they have been from childhood, and have had their legs and necks chained so that they can not move, and can only see what is directly in front of them. (For they are prevented by their chains from turning their heads.)

Above, and behind them, a fire is blazing in the distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised pathway. And you will see also, if you look closely, a low wall built along the pathway, much like the screen which marionette players have in front of them - over which they show the puppets.

G./ Yes, I can see the picture you are presenting.

S./ And can you also see that there are men passing along the wall? And that these men are carrying all sorts of things; vessels, and statues, and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various other things, which appear over the wall? And that some of these men are talking while others are silent?

G./ Yes I see. But I must say that this is a strange picture that you are painting for me dear friend, and strange prisoners, indeed.

S./ Strange indeed, but very much like ourselves. And they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire (which is behind them) throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

G./ True, for how could they see anything else but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

S./ And the objects that the men are carrying along the pathway; in like manner, they would only see the shadows?

G./ Yes, of course.

S./ And if these prisoners were able to converse with one another; would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? And suppose further that this cave prison had an echo which came from the other side; would not the prisoners be sure to fancy that when one of the passers-by upon the pathway spoke, that the voice which they heard came from the shadow?

G./ Yes, indeed. There can be no question about that.

S./ Then, to them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the real images?

G./ Yes! That is certainly the way it would be. But what a strange picture it is that you are painting for us.

S./ Yes, it is. But let us look again at this picture, 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 look towards the light of the fire, he will suffer sharp pains. The glare of the fire will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state, he had seen only the shadows.

And then conceive of some one, an instructor, perhaps, saying to him that what he saw before was only an illusion; but that now he is approaching nearer to being, and his vision is turned more toward real existence, and that now he is seeing with a clearer vision. What do you think will be his reply?

And further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass by above the wall, 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?

G./ But of course. He will think that they are far truer.

S./ And if he is compelled to look straight at the light of the fire, will he not have a pain in his eyes, which will make him turn away and take refuge in the objects of vision (the shadows) which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things that are now being shown to him?

G. This is true; this is surely what he would do.

S./ And let us suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged accent, up and out though the mouth of the cave until he is forced into the presence of the sun itself. Is he not likely to be pained, and upset, 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.

G./ Of course not; not all in a moment. It would take time...

S./ Yes. He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. At 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?

G./ Most certainly, that is the way it would be.

S./ And last of all he will be able to see the sun; and not the mere reflections of the sun in the water. He will see the sun in his proper place in the sky, and not in the water, and he will be able to contemplate the sun as it actually is?

G./ Surely that is the way it would be.

S./ And it would not be until this point that he would be able to reason that is it the sun that gives us the seasons, and the years, and is the guardian of all that is visible in the world, and in a certain way is the cause of all things which he and his fellow prisoners had been accustomed to behold?

G./ Certainly he would have to first see the sun in the sky, in its actual position, before he could reason about it.

S./ And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on his change, and new awareness, and pity his fellows who are still prisoners in the underground den?

G./ Certainly he would.

S./ And if the prisoners in the cave 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, "Better to be the poor servant of a poor master..." and endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

G./ Yes. I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain those false notions and live in that miserable manner.

S./ Imagine once more, that this one who now has become accustomed to the sun were to suddenly be replaced back into his old situation. Would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

G./ To be sure!

S./ And if there was a contest, and he had to compete with the other prisoners who had never left the den, while his eyes were still weak - before his eyes had become steady (And the time which would be needed to acquire and regain this 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 to not even 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.

G./ No question; this is how they would react.

S./ Okay, now this entire allegory dear friends, you may now append to our previous discussion. I will add that in this allegory picture I have painted, that the prison den 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 assent of the soul...

Understanding is timeless. The above is an excerpt from Plato's "Republic".
Plato was born in 431 BC and passed into history in 351 BC.

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