In the Allegory of the cave, Plato describes the human condition that existed in the society at the time of the persecution of his mentor Socrates, for corrupting the minds of the youth [Durant 12]. However, what Plato was able to identify is a fundamental characteristic of mankind that exists even today in our society. Plato’s depiction of the cave is composed of two strata’s of human society that are relevant even today – the prisoners (the common man) and the puppet handlers (establishment). The prisoners are ignorant of the truth, because they accept what they see as reality and do not think beyond what they see. They see shadows dance on the cave wall in front of them their whole lives and think it is the only reality possible because they have been “in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed [on the wall]” [Plato VII 514b]. The shadows are distortions of truth that are presented to them by the rulers that use them as a “throng of lies and deceptions for the benefit of the ruled” [Plato V 459d]. Similarly, the common man today is ignorant of the truth, because he has been been forced into narrow-mindedness since childhood by the establishment (puppet handlers). In the course of human history, very few men have broken these shackles of narrow mindedness and escaped from the cave by the use of reason to be enlightened by the truth and see the reality that we live in.
It wasn’t until two millennia after Socrates was persecuted for corrupting the minds of the youth with his reasoning, that Nicolaus Copernicus used logic and reason to question the foundations of Ptolemy’s model of the universe. For over 1500 years since Ptolemy, it was accepted that the Earth was stationary and the center of the universe, because it conformed with the established view of the church – that the Earth and our place in the universe was special [Ridpath 62]. However, Copernicus didn’t accept the perception of his senses as reality and thought about the shadows on the wall, just as the escaped prisoner in the Allegory of the cave did. Breaking away from conventional thinking, he realized that what Ptolemy perceived to be the motion of the Sun revolving around the Earth, wasn’t a real motion, but only apparent motion due to the rotation of the Earth. He realized, the Sun, not the Earth was the center of the universe and Earth went around the Sun just as other planets did [Ridpath 62]. Out of fear of persecution by the church, Copernicus delayed publishing his thesis for decades, finally publishing it the same year he died. In the preface he confessed to Pope Paul III:
I reckon easily enough, Most Holy Father, that as soon as certain people learn that in these books of mine in which I have written about the revolutions of the spheres of the world I attribute certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage … when I weighed these things in my mind, the scorn which I had to fear on account of the newness and absurdity of my opinion almost drove me to abandon a work already undertaken (Hawking 8).
However, ultimately he was compelled to publish his thesis, just like the escaped prisoner returns to the cave to tell the other prisoners of the truth, in an attempt to make them realize they are in a cave. It didn’t receive much attention until seven decades later, when Galileo Galilie, with the advent of the telescope discovered that Saturn and Jupiter too had moons revolving around them, thus contradicting the church’s view that all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth [Ridpath 80]. Galileo was ostracized for supporting Copernicus’s view of a heliocentric solar system and persecuted by the church when he tried to open the eyes of the people and show them the distinction between the illusions of the merely empirical and the realities of the heavens [Sagan 115].
Only a quarter millennia later the church got another rude awakening when Charles Darwin published his book ‘Origin of the Species’ in which he questioned the premise of the church’s assertion of creationism. While aboard the H.M.S Beagle in 1837, Darwin was surveying the wildlife in the Galapagos Islands when he saw that the same species existed on several isolated islands but with slight distinctions [Darwin 528-40]. Rather than taking what he saw at face value, he tried to look beyond what his senses perceived to be real and set forth on a journey to discover the truth. Similar to the experience of the prisoner going from the cave into the light, when his eyes take some time to adjust to the brightness as they are illuminated by the truth, it takes Darwin a few years before he is convinced of his ideas of natural selection. He reveals his scepticism in the theory of natural selection in Chapter VI of Origin of Species in the ‘Difficulties with the theory’:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. (Darwin 227).
Darwin saw the truth because he realized what he was looking at were reflections and shadows of the truth, and he tried to unshackle himself from his own ignorance and rise above it to see the truth. In 1858, he published his findings in the ‘Origin of species’ which won him wide criticism and ridicule from the people, who, like other prisoners still in the cave saw the distorted shadows of truth and believed them to be real, and scoffed at Darwin for suggesting otherwise.
In many ways, the cave is our society in microcosm and while many people have become enlightened over the centuries, Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin are the epitome of Plato’s prisoner that escapes from the cave. While most of mankind is stuck in the cave confined by its own ignorance and self-content believing everything in front of them as reality, only a few individuals unbound themselves to escape the cave and explore the world we live in. They do not seek their knowledge from their senses or their experience, but by looking beyond their senses and using reason to find the underlying causes of things. However, they are often ridiculed for their perceptions of reality when they convey them to the people, who are too familiar with their own version of reality.
1) Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species.
New York: Random House, 1998.
2) Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
3) Hawking, Stephen. On the Shoulders of Giants.
Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002.
4) Plato. Translated by C.D.C Reeve. The Republic.
Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004
5) Ridpath, Ian. Book of the Universe.
London: Parkgate Books, 1991.
6) Sagan, Carl. The Cosmos.
New York: Random House, 1985.
7) Yonge, C.D. The Lives and Opinion of Eminent Philosophers. Nov. 25, 2008.