The allegory can be summarized briefly: “The existence of a cave, in which men remained prisoners from birth, tied by the neck and legs against a wall, in which only they could look at the wall of the cave where shadows projected were figures of humans and animals carried by people and reflected by fire, these people sometimes kept conversations heard by prisoners, that’s why the only knowledge that slaves had were the conversations and that the shadows reflected were not anything but real objects ” – Plato’s The Republic
Who are the prisoners in the cave? The prisoners represent humans, particularly people who are immersed in the superficial world of appearances. People have lost the ability to know reality and the world’s authentic needs. Humans are prisoners of a new reality based on superficiality, and can no longer see the true meaning of life. More importantly, humans have lost the ability to connect with their true origin – each person’s purpose of giving to others. This is symbolized in the allegory by the shadows: the prisoners can only see the shadows cast by fire onto the cave walls; they cannot see actual human bodies moving on the earth above them, nor can they see the real source of light, which is the sun.
However, not all of the prisoners are chained by their inability to see the world’s truth. In his allegory, Plato discusses a type of prisoner that is freed from their chains. Plato believes that these freed prisoners are the philosophers. These philosophers are the people who decide to confront challenge, hold a true desire to find the meaning of life, and most importantly, decide to guide others, using their knowledge to open other people’s eyes. In Plato’s allegory, the sun represents Truth. It is this Truth, which the philosophers can see and seek to help others to see.
Plato wrote this allegory over two-thousand years ago. Does this ancient myth have anything to do with today? The answer is yes. We need to understand what type of prisoner we want to be. Do we want to be the type of prisoner who mistakes superficial or material surfaces for true reality and misunderstands the deep purpose of our lives or do we want to recognize that a respect for human dignity must be a priority in our living and in the actions we decide to take?
This article is not just about famous philosophy. We need to understand that the deepest task we were born with is to make positive impact on the world. When we contribute positively to the world, we can see beyond the illusion of mere appearances. We see the truth; we break out of our caves and we can see the sun.
By Alicia Romero, an intern alum at the WYA Latin America office