The Allegory of the Cave

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platoTo illustrate his four levels of existence and consciousness, Plato relates his celebrated ‘Allegory of the Cave’ in the Republic. The story begins with human beings who have lived in a large underground cave since birth, chained in such a way that they can only see in front of them, being prevented by the chains from turning their heads. Here, deep beneath the surface, they are living symbolically in the lowest level of consciousness, Eikasia. We will see that everything they perceive is illusory.

There is a passageway to the surface which is always present, and sunlight always shines through it, but they are not aware of it since they cannot ‘turn their heads’, they cannot expand their vision to include it. And they have no reason to turn their heads:

In the back of the cave, unbeknownst to the prisoners, a fire is blazing, shining its light onto the cave wall in front of them. Between the fire and the prisoners’ backs, a Marionette Show is always going on, and the puppet shadows that are cast on the front wall are the only things these prisoners have ever seen. Voices are speaking behind them, but they can only hear the echoes which appear to be coming from the shadows on the front wall.

‘Truth’ for these prisoners is obviously nothing but the shadows of puppets. This is the consciousness of Eikasia, the level of consciousness in which we see surface images and reflections and take them for reality. We do so because that is all we have ever seen: we have no reason to suspect that anything else exists, unless some higher influence touches our lives and informs us. If that never happens we cannot ‘turn our heads’, we cannot see or think about anything else. And so, we pass through life with no inkling that we are prisoners in a cave witnessing nothing but dreams.
But if it does happen, the prisoners begin to realize their mistake:

At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows;

This is the first experience of the second level of consciousness, Pistis, and it is painful. We can all recall the pain when an early world-view was shattered, and the difficulty we had in accepting something new. The first inclination is always to refuse to believe it, and to retreat to our familiar, comfortable illusions.

Once in Pistis, the prisoners are no longer witnessing mere shadows. But notice what they are being asked to look at and to call ‘real’: Puppets! Imitations of real people, animals, and other things, “made of wood and stone and various materials”. This is a higher level of existence than the shadows on the wall – the puppets are solid, tangible, and substantial, and very much like real things. But they are still not ‘really real’. They are only copies. (“Like ourselves”, notes Socrates. We are puppets.)

Now suppose that a prisoner is reluctantly dragged up the passageway into the sunlight. At first his eyes will be pained, and the brightness will be dazzling. He will have to become gradually accustomed to the light. The passageway itself represents the level of consciousness called Dianoia, where false assumptions are discarded and Reason begins to search for higher principles that underlie the tangible objects (the puppets) of Pistis.

Eventually, after exiting the passageway, his vision may clear, and for the first time he will begin to see real things. He will become able to “gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heavens”. This, allegorically, is the fourth and highest level of consciousness, Noesis, the awareness of the archetypal Forms, the awakening of Nous and the direct apprehension of what is truly ‘real’.

Finally, with experience and practice, and time for the Eye of the Soul to adjust to the brightness, he may even be able to perceive the highest reality, the Sun, which here represents ‘the Good’.

[T]he idea of the Good appears last of all, and is only seen with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right…, and this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

This is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed. This final statement is the heart of the ethics of Socrates and Plato * the morality of aspiration. It answers the essential question of how an ethical human being ought to live. It simultaneously defines the unshakable foundation necessary for a just and ethical society. To do what is right, for oneself or toward others, requires that one’s inner ‘eye’ be awake and focused on what is truly, objectively, ‘the Good’ * and this is not a matter of opinion, to be determined at our usual level of Being. It requires a completely different level of Being, a high level of consciousness which can only be achieved through constant efforts of the soul to reach an ideal of perfection. Plato taught a method for realizing this goal. It is the aim of his teaching. It is the aim of the Western Tradition.