The allegory of the cave appears in Plato’s Republic [circa 380 BCE], and, for those of you who may be unaware, tells the story of a man, surrounded by others, who has spent the whole of his life imprisoned in a cave. All he knows of the world are the silhouettes, cast by flames from a fire, which lift and lilt on the wall of the cave. This is his reality; the limit of his experience.
One day he, and only he, is freed, and clambers outside of the cave. Initially, he is blinded by the light of the sun, but as his eyes adjust he begins to see. He sees another landscape, he sees water, and he sees other people. He sees another reality, and his experience has thus grown considerably beyond the limiting world view of the cave.
Upon his return to the cave, the other prisoners believe that the man’s journey has been a damaging one. After all, it’s caused him physical pain; the sun has hurt his eyes. This deters them, and even if released from their imprisonment, they would not venture out. Indeed, they would kill those who would encourage them to leave, rather than be forced to see this other reality.
This allegory is often referred to in philosophy, and demonstrates the unwillingness of many to broaden their experience. As the 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so”. However, daring to traverse beyond long established beliefs and opinions can be an unsettling experience. During the Renaissance, the Catholic Church opposed the Polish astronomer Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the solar system, because it destabilised the world as many understood it. Indeed, it undermined the Church’s authority in a deeply religious age. This can be difficult for us to appreciate now, but consider how you would feel if tomorrow’s news headlines read: ‘Scientists prove God exists’. For me, this would certainly be life changing, and force me to look at the world quite differently.
Looking at the world differently is a potentially dangerous and disconcerting enterprise, one where your most cherished beliefs may be questioned, not only by others, but by yourself. For many, myself included, this is an enticing possibility. The possibility of learning new things, questioning received opinion; trying to think of better ways of doing things rather than simply accepting our inherited lot, dismantling and rebuilding my values, my beliefs, myself.
That is why I have started this blog. To clamber out of the cave and, through the application of philosophy, engage in a debate about the world we find ourselves in, to question it, and to consider better alternatives to society’s accepted norms.