Tuesday, February 2, 2010


A Depiction of Plato's Cave Allegory from The Republic

Ever since I was introduced to Plato’s Cave Allegory by my college professor, it has held a particular fascination for me. As a missionary in Asia, I even developed a series of messages using it as a launching pad to reach young people with the unseen reality of God. Later, while teaching philosophy in a junior college, I was able to take Plato’s example and apply Christian truth. Now, many might say that using a 3rd Century B.C. philosopher to teach Christian truth is a stretch, particularly when the philosopher made no claim to relate his philosophy to belief in the God of Jewish thought.

What redeems the Cave Allegory and Plato’s Philosophy of Forms, I believe, is the extent of his discovery, beyond his contemporaries and earlier thought, to reach further toward the realization of something or someone higher than the earth-bound intellect of man. Well, allow me to capsule the essence of his Cave Allegory, then make some applications to our understanding of what is real.

Plato wrote the Allegory as a dialogue between his teacher, Socrates, and a student. He believed that the world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it, and that the real world can only be known intellectually. Thus, the mind beginning to understand the “unseen” world can begin to impact the values of the “sensed” world.

As depicted in the drawing, Plato described a cave in which there were prisoners bound with chains. They were bound in such a way so that no movement to turn their heads to see anything but that directly in front of them was possible. And this was their state of life for all of their recollection. No memories of any other life existed. (Now, don’t begin to question the possibilities of such for that is not the point.) Behind them in a raised area is a fire which is constantly burning. A raised walkway is between the prisoners and the fire, and on it individuals walk and talk in daily interaction, some carrying objects and images of every sort. Get the picture?

Now, realize that what is seen by the prisoners is their reality, the only one they’ve ever known. And what is that reality? Combine the constant flickering of the fire with the reflected shadows of those walking, their burdens, and the shadows of the prisoners themselves, and add to it the conversations of those on the walkway. What “sensed” reality do the prisoners have? At best, images are varied and in a constant state of movement due to the flickering flames of light. Put yourself in their place and all you have ever known is that wall of wavering shadows created by the fire.

Now, let us imagine that one of the prisoners is released from his bonds. (Again, how is not important – just stay with me.) At first, he is resistant to change his stance and turn around. Why should he? After all, it goes against his trained life tradition, and to do so would be to deny the reality that had been his perception. His fellow prisoners might even call him a heretic to explore such an act. But he yields and immediately receives the pain which comes to the eyes when one turns from darkness to a brighter light. But as his eyes adjust and he begins to observe all that is around him, he comes to the realization that the wall of shadows is not real, for it in an only limited way reflects the reality which was behind him. He is finally led up an incline and out of the cave, where again he suffers pain from an even greater light. Adjusting to it, his awareness of reality is expanded to realize that the reality of the cave becomes less real than that which he senses now in the world and sun.

After a time of digesting this new perception of reality, he is struck by the plight of his friends still bound in the cave, staring at shadows. He returns to try and explain to them their error, but receives for his act of concern only rejection. We will leave him at this point, and the analogy’s possible continuance, and begin to interpret and apply the story to our perceptions of what is real today. I will begin by identifying the various persons and objects found in the cave.

The PRISONERS represent man as a sensing and perceiving creature with the ability to see and interpret what is seen in light of its basic inner logic. Putting two and two together, as it were, they deduce that the shadows are real, for they have no knowledge of fire, other objects or people as having separate existence. The voices and sounds are meshed into coordination with the shadows before them. The FIRE and the SUN are those which create of the real images that are outlined shadows. The other PEOPLE and IMAGES simply press the point and provide the fire with a variety of shapes and content to enlarge the shadows’ influence.

The FREED MAN is the one who begins to open his mind to another plane of reality. It brings him initial pain and, perhaps, the persecution of his fellows, but he preservers to discover higher planes of reality that exist. First the fire, then the sun, and his deductions about the place of shadows in relationship to them. He represents further the returning enlightened and caring freed prisoner, with the desire to help his fellows to their own discoveries. A commendable character he is.

Plato’s allegory illustrates his point that true reality is always above and beyond our sense capacity to perceive. It is a reflected image of what is real. He would slap his hand down on a table and say, “This is not real! It is a temporal manifestation of that which is the perfect FORM!” And by the word FORM he meant that which is the invisible and perfect pattern from which the table is imagined and built. He doesn’t call it God, but his logical approach of discovery would only require one more equation to do so, connecting the sun to that which is far beyond it and the True Light that shines everything into existence.

It was out of his philosophic thought that St. Augustine of Hippo, a great theologian of the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., began to set forth the great Christians doctrines of the Scriptures, and form a bridge between the Greek philosophy of Plato and that which would enable deeper Christian study and thought to advance God’s kingdom purpose.

Now, again, stay with me. I realize this is somewhat a heavier subject than usual, but I am drawing close to my conclusion and application.

As I weigh Plato’s allegory, I see first, the natural perception of those of a worldly mindset, that only that which is experienced through the five senses can be said to be real. If I can see, hear, smell, touch or taste it, it qualifies. If one cannot find God in any of these, He can’t be REAL. But all of these Plato would call experiencing SHADOWS. Augustine would say they are images reflecting God’s hand in all that is. The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork.” (19:1) John wrote, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (4:24) In the beginning, when God created man, He made him in His own likeness and image, made him to reflect the spiritual makeup of man. (Genesis 1:27; 2:7) His likeness, however, was not the fleshly form, but possessing the spiritual capacities of love and choice. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (John 1:18)

Plato’s philosophy might describe the FORMS as FOREVER, perfect and unchanging, whereas, the SHADOWS are constantly changing with the fire’s flicker and even the sun’s movement across the sky. Sometimes they are smaller, sometimes larger, often distorted. And they disappear with dying embers and the sun’s setting beyond the horizon. Man’s life is described like a shadow that’s fleeting, too. “Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.” (Psalm 144:4)

Paul describes a similar allegory which could have fit in Plato’s Cave. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (I Corinthians 13:12) And again in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not see: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (4:18)

Oh, yes! About the freed prisoner and his return to the cave to help his fellows to grasp their REAL REALITY, welcomed or no. The Scriptures are full of references to the call and care of those who have “seen the light” to share it with those who have not, the bound by, not physical chains, but those spiritually forged by earthly tradition and ego-flamed pride. The call to go armed with the light of truth is recorded specifically. Paul references this in the Colossian letter, chapter 2, verses 16-17. He calls for no man to judge in the tangible things, “which are a shadow of things to come.” Then John writes this word of promise. “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ.” (I John 1:3)

Now, let me leave you with this prayer of Paul to the Ephesians, as he said he would, “Cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers; That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints…the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head overall things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” (1:16-23)



Ray Edwards said...

Broco, A great reminder that all truth comes from God, wheither it comes through a third century philosopher or the Christian Apostle Paul. Plato's philosophy does reflect truth. Paul came along and through the revelation of the Holy Spirit filled in the gaps to help us see that reality is not a what but a who. IN THE BEGINNING GOD, WE ARE TOLD IN GENESIS. IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD, WE ARE TOLD BY JOHN. THAT IS THE REALITY.



Amber said...

I've always loved that analogy.

Just finally catching up on all my blog reading....good stuff, Daddio.