Even in this abridged version, Plato’s fable “The Allegory of the Cave” reflects the vast wisdom of Plato, his teacher and the philosophers of his time. The story’s meaning and lessons are as significant today as they were then, and its inclusion in The Republic is well earned.
The intentions of Plato in sharing this story seem to be fairly simple. As with all of the works that he included in The Republic, he is attempting to convey a message that relates to government and leadership. I also believe that this story conveys a message to, not just leaders, but people in general. The message that is expressed by this work is that, ” A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”(-Lenin), and when someone is convinced of this lie, the liar can control them. This fable also tells us how, what some people believe to be true may be in fact the exact opposite to truth, and that people must always be open minded, just in case their beliefs are wrong.
In the story, the prisoners are convinced that the shadows they see are alive, real and able to speak to them. In fact, however, they are being lied to by puppeteers. Because they have seen this lie so many times, and because it is all that they have seen, for them, it has become the truth. As such, the puppeteers are able to control their lives, by speaking to these prisoners as the shadows. This lesson becomes quite relevant to today’s society. It is portrayed in works such as The Matrix and Animal Farm, where the characters are lied to, but because they hear the lie so often, they perceive it as truth. In reality, we find this message to also be evident in the forms of such things as propaganda, in which a message is repeated by so many times, that each person hears a relay from numerous sources.
Eventually, because of the numerous sources and repetition of the message, it seems to them to become normal to hear and hence believable. This of course relates to our leaders and government. If such administrations were to use methods like propaganda to convince the public that, for example, the stock market was free trade when in fact it was government controlled, then the government would be able to effectively control the flow of money, and hence people’s lives, without anyone being the wiser. In the end, the ultimate message is that people are able to use lies to exploit others and so we must all be wary.
This then relates to the second message conveyed by the work. The piece tells us that the prisoners have extreme difficulty in accepting the reality that the shadows they had seen weren’t real and how these prisoners would rather return to the shadows over staying in the light. At the end of the story, when a prisoner who has seen the truth returns to tell others, it is implied and can be seen from the reactions of the freed prisoners, that those who still believe in the shadows would prefer to keep doing so.
These parts of the story bring to mind two intertwined messages. The first is that, in general, all people have their own views and beliefs on life, and they are happier living under whatever delusions they have convinced themselves of, rather than considering contradictory beliefs. Essentially, for most people “ignorance is bliss.” Just like the prisoners who are freed from the cave and forced to see the real world, people fear the knowledge of something that might interfere or contradict the beliefs they rely upon. For the most part, they would much rather go on not knowing, and “turn from the light and long to return to the shadows.”
The second seems to be a warning to do the exact opposite of what has been stated above. The fact that the characters in the story, whose views are wrong, are prisoners is very symbolic. Not only are these people prisoners of the puppeteers, they are also prisoners of their own beliefs. Because they do not want to find out about what is real, they are condemned to believe in what is not. The piece warns us that we must not blindly follow our own beliefs, without continually viewing and considering other views that may be true as well.
If we do not always consider the ideas of others, we will essentially be trapped by our own adamant conviction in what we think is real. This lesson has become evident in countless cases throughout history, where beliefs about a geocentric universe, a flat earth, etc. were all held to e true and the introduction of the ideas we hold as true today was ridiculed and deemed ludicrous. Today, we believe that the galaxy is heliocentric and that the world is round, but we must always, at some point, question that which believe in.
Through this simple story, we are able to see a seldom-realized aspect of human nature, in that many of us blindly follow what we are told, and consequently believe. We can relate deeply to the fable, because, like the prisoners, we as a whole prefer to not know some truths, believe some lies, and have difficulty accepting some realities. By the end of the work, we are left with new thoughts about the reality of our beliefs and faith and are encouraged to re-evaluate our paradigms.