Plato’s Cave: Do You Know the Difference between Reality and Illusion?

Plato’s Cave: Do You Know the Difference between Reality and Illusion?

Have you ever been in a cave? Caves are dark, cold, and sometimes dangerous places—people who lose their light source in a cave often cannot find their way out and, without rescue, face the possibility of death from hypothermia or physical injury.

While on vacation several years ago, my family and I took the tour of Crystal Cave in California’s Sequoia National Park. To show the tourists just how dark caves really are, the park rangers turned off all the lights. It was so dark that I literally couldn’t see my hand right in front of my face. The rangers explained that tiny creatures living in the cave soil do not possess eyes because there is no light.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

The great Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) famously illustrated the difference between reality and illusion through a story about men who lived all their life in a cave. In Plato’s allegory, these men were chained to pillars and could see only shadows cast on the cave’s back wall by a fire that burned behind them, out of sight.

The men in the cave took great pride in their eyesight and in their interpretive abilities—yet all the time they were looking at shadows, mere illusions. Then, one of the men breaks out of the chains and makes it outside of the cave where he discovers a whole new world. When he reenters the cave to tell his friends about his marvelous epiphany they reject and resent him to the point of wanting to kill him.

Of course, there are several important philosophical lessons to be mined from Plato’s cave allegory, one being the fact that a real metaphysical world exists independent of human experience and observation (what Plato called the world of the “Forms”). But Plato also intended his story to illuminate the life of his teacher, Socrates (470–399 BC), who was killed by the Athenian government for challenging ancient Greece’s view of truth and reality.

As a Christian, my first reading of the cave allegory immediately brought to mind Jesus of Nazareth and His attempt to reveal His true identity and mission (Messiah and Savior) to the religious leadership of first-century Israel.

Reflections on Plato’s Story

Personally, I find Plato’s story disconcerting, if not downright haunting. Consider its application on three levels.

First, on an individual basis, it is easy to sleepwalk through life, especially for those born into privilege (like many of us living in the Western world). Many people accept the norms and categories they have been given without asking the truly deep questions of life.

Family upbringing, the media, school, and other cultural factors shape our practical worldview narrative of life. And these life narratives often point us toward goals of personal pleasure (sensualism), financial affluence (materialism), and prestige (egoism). These narratives and their end goals stand in stark contrast with the Christian worldview narrative, which encourages the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Second, as Plato no doubt intended, the message of this powerful allegory also challenges our political thinking. It is amazingly easy to accept a political ideology, especially when we talk only to people who agree with us. Unfortunately, in that case, we fail to benefit from hearing the best argument from the other political side and there is an absence of much-needed checks and balances.

Third, it seems to me that Plato’s story challenges committed Christians as well. Believers in Christ must exercise a reasonable faith by appropriately putting their beliefs to the test. A faith seeking understanding should replace blind faith. God’s gift of the life of the mind is meant to safeguard us against an undiscerning and excessively dogmatic religiosity.

If this article and its content trouble you in one of the three ways discussed above, then I’m not alone in my philosophical angst. I know philosophical angst isn’t easy to live with—but it’s much better than living in a dark cave.