The Allegory of the Cave

03 Nov

I was reading through Colossians chapter 1 and I was struck by something in verses 12 & 13: giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves,

I was thinking about the light and darkness imagery used here and it reminded me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It comes from The Republic which was written by Plato in approximately 360 B.C. The Republic is a classic in Western philosophy so if you haven’t read it, you should at least scan it to get the gist. Below is a synopsis of the allegory from Read this and see if you can see the gospel anywhere in this allegory. And if you look closely you may see Neo, Trinty and Morpheus in this too…

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Imagine prisoners who have been chained since childhood deep inside a cave. Not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains; their heads are chained as well so that their gaze is fixed on a wall.

Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which shapes of various animals, plants, and other things are carried. The shapes cast shadows on the wall, which occupy the prisoners’ attention. When one of the shape-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows.

The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game – naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of images. They are thus conditioned to judge the quality of one another by their skill in quickly naming the shapes and dislike those who begin to play poorly.
Suppose a prisoner is released and compelled to stand up and turn around.
His eyes will be blinded by the firelight, and the shapes passing will appear less real than their shadows.

Similarly, if he is dragged up out of the cave into the sunlight, his eyes will be so blinded that he will not be able to see anything. At first, he will be able to see darker shapes such as shadows and, only later, brighter and brighter objects.

The last object he would be able to see is the sun, which, in time, he would learn to see as that object which provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen.

Once enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would want to return to the cave to free “his fellow bondsmen”. Another problem lies in the other prisoners not wanting to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner’s eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be one of the ones identifying shapes on the wall. His eyes would be swamped by the darkness, and would take time to become acclimatized. Therefore, he would not be able to identify shapes on the wall as well as the other prisoners, making it seem as if him being taken to the surface completely ruined his eyesight. The other prisoners would then not go to the surface, in fear of losing their eyesight. If someone were to try and force a prisoner to come to the surface, the prisoner would become murderous, and kill whoever tried to force him to come to the surface.

(The Republic,VII, 516b-c; trans. Paul Shorey;’s_allegory_of_the_cave)

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Posted by on November 3, 2006 in Theology



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