Plato may not have realized, but his allegory of the cave was one of the most profound truths of our time.
Never heard of it? You are not alone. But you should, and here’s why: because it will jolt you out of ever wanting to settle for anything less than a full, awake life.
Here’s Wikipedia’s summary, which you can go read for yourself, but essentially it’s about people who’ve been chained from birth in a cave, and the only thing in front of them is a wall. There’s a fire behind them, and all they see is the shadows on the wall cast by the people moving on the other side of the fire. To them, the shadows are real, and they represent the extent of the known universe. Until one day someone breaks his chains, turns around and sees the fire. It burns his eyes and terrifies him. So he turns right back to the safety of the shadows on the wall. Next, someone unshackles and drags a prisoner outside, beyond the fire, and forces him to stay there until his eyes get used to the bright light of the sun and all the colorful people and objects around him. That prisoner suddenly realizes the world is much brighter and bigger than what he used to think, that the shadows are but a poor, incomplete reflection of what life ought to be. He wants to go back to the cave and tell everyone about it. Upon re-entering the cave the sudden darkness temporarily makes him unable to see anything. The prisoners conclude that his blindness was caused by the outside world refuse to even hear about its existence, intent on killing anyone who might try to drag them out.
This allegory was written in or around 380 BC. If you know how to count, or own an iPhone that does it for you, you know that was a long-ass time ago. Yet it’s so relevant today it’s almost scary.
I am not personally keen on the chains and the shadows on the wall, however. Too Ancient Greek. So I’ll take the liberty of replacing them with mental blinkers and television, that way everyone will be able to follow.
Most people today live in the cave, with their blinkers on and the idiot box blaring. Quite possibly including you; most of us have at least spent some time in it. I grew up there myself.
It’s safe, in the cave. Clean and cozy. No dangerous ideas live there. It’s perfectly climate-controlled. There’s no rain or snow that gets in. The fridge is full on lovely leftovers. There’s a big comfy couch to lie on.
Life in the cave is eminently predictable. It’s pleasant. It’s not particularly exciting, but you know, excitement is dangerous. It leads to things.
The cave is filled with ordinary people. Small people. Small of mind, of spirit, and of limited ability. They’ve learned to do one job well, and they are content with that. They are people who don’t want trouble. They live in suspended animation, not having to make too many important decisions. That’s why they devote so much energy to insignificant ones, like what channel to settle on or what snacks to stuff their face with.
Cave people never really grow up, in the sense that they never develop into the persons they could be. Full potential is not for them. Way too scary. They’d much rather be in evolutionary hibernation and call it maturity. But they are not mature. They’re just permanently old.
They’ve given up trying to improve themselves, beyond the odd knitting or ancestry course. They never push themselves physically. Their blinkers impose limits on their growth. Hard ceilings that are easily reached.
These are people who’d rather stay in a unfulfilling marriage because the comfort and predictability of their daily routines is more important to them than finding the love their heart aches for. They are people whose devotion to family blinds them to the need to treat each child as a person unto themselves and their sacred duty to raise them in ways that allows them to mature, in the sense of one day becoming all they can be.
They’re not bad people. On the contrary. They take the time to learn the rules, and then proceed to apply them. They like simple things and steady tempers. They prefer their options black and white. They have worked out what their opinions ought to be, and they hold them all the way to the grave. Steady as she goes, on auto-pilot, from birth to death everything is ordained, and reassuringly orderly. You’re supposed to know your place and stay in it. You do what’s expected, and get the reward that goes with it. A soft Daddy chair. A spa certificate for Mothers’ Day. Presents at Christmas. All progress is linear, which means there is in fact not much progress at all.
There is little doubt in the cave. You know where you’re going. That’s pretty easy since you’re going nowhere.
There is no failure in the cave. And very few risks. You get peace of mind, but no significant achievement to celebrate.
The people of the cave are aware that there are other kinds of humans out there. People whose lives are always unpredictable and exciting. Or seem to. They don’t mind watching it from a safe distance. They enjoy second-hand excitement. But they’d never want to experience it themselves. Well, maybe they would. If only it could be done safely, right here in their predictable, safe spot in the cave.
If the real kind of excitement ever manifested itself at their door, they would chase it away with a broomstick and go back to watching it on tv instead.
They exercise so much social control over who gets to be in their corner of the cave that they can live their entire lives without encountering serious crime. Which makes them think a crime-less society is possible. No wonder they react so harshly to it.
You think the cave is a physical place, but you’re wrong. The cave is a state of mind. A mental merry-go-round.
Occasionally one person will go outside. Either dragged by someone else or out of curiosity that there must be something more to this existence than small comforts and no purpose. He will at first be blinded by the bright sunlight. But once his eyes adjust he’ll never be able to go back to the cave even if they’d let him back in which they can’t because at that point he’s too dangerous for them.
Some people reject the cave altogether. They don’t care for rules or predictability. They often call themselves free spirits but they are usually anything but, prisoners of a different sort of state of mind.
Unlike cave-dwellers, they reject order and social rules. They tend to drift from one random excitement to the next, displaying no concern for the next day or the one after that. Except to the extent that there should be something new and thrilling happening to them.
The good ordinary people of the cave despise these outsiders. Leeches, they call them. Useless layabouts. People who are beyond the pale reflected light of the distant, unseen fire. They resent having to provide for the layabouts when one or several random bits of excitement lead to trouble or illness. Far from displaying forgiveness and empathy, they believe those suffering from their troubles should have known better and for that reason ought to be banished to a dark subcave the key to which is mercilessly thrown away.
The danger for these “leeches” is in being too close to cave-dwellers to be noticed. The smart ones, those who usually manage to avoid landing in trouble, stay well out of reach and out of sight of the cave, and enjoy their carefree existence unbothered.
There is another group of people, who are not so much a drain on the cave dwellers as a clear menace to their existence. These are the people who see the cave for what it is: a mental prison designed to keep people small and obedient for the benefit of minor potentates who stand to gain from a predictable, orderly class of quiet, predictable folks.
This smaller group of outsiders know truth and happiness can only be found outside the cave. They believe in the need to fulfill our true potential as human beings by reaching up and out, towards the unknown, into the unpredictable and sometimes scary realm where there is no need for television. They reject the notion that happiness means never being disappointed.
These outsiders are not afraid of effort or failure. To them, pain is nothing more than information. They can listen to it or not, but they are not paralyzed by an overwhelming desire to avoid it at all cost. Quite the opposite; to the dumbfounded puzzlement of cave-dwellers, these people actively seek out pain and discomfort because not only are those the only way to achieve something one can be genuinely proud of, they are also reminders that one is alive.
It’s not like they’re never afraid. Of course they are. But they refuse to be paralyzed by their own fears and to impose limits on themselves just because trying and possibly failing might hurt.
Cave-dwellers hate these outsiders with a passion. Because they are a constant reminder that if only they tried hard enough, they too might accomplish something. But they’re too scared and pointedly refuse to see anything other than the shadows on the wall. They are so dependent on their mental blinkers that they would fight to the death to keep them on.
I grew up in the cave. My father was typical cave man. But not my mother. She wanted excitement but never knew how to get it. She didn’t know how to ask for it. She spent her life in the cave, kicking and screaming against the walls. You can imagine what effect that inner turmoil had on our domestic lack of peace.
She didn’t belong in the third group of people — the one who are awake and go through their days with intent and purpose. She was mostly in the impulsive, random excitement bunch, while also desirous of security and social standing. What she should have done really is marry a high achiever, someone with the success and income commensurate with her desires for adventure. But for whatever reason that wasn’t possible so she settled without ever wanting to.
It was a mess. And it won’t surprise you to hear that I wanted out of there as quickly as I could. I started kicking and screaming against the walls of the cave myself around the time of puberty. I moved out on my own the minute I reached the age of majority, because I knew they’d call the cops on me if I left earlier.
I never went back to the cave after that, except for a brief stint after a bad financial meltdown left me broker than broke. I was 20 or 21 and didn’t know what to do with myself. I moved back with my parents for a bit of a breather, which was anything but. They said I should go back to school (which I’d already dropped out of) and get some kind of useful degree so I could have a job that pays well and has security. They were keen on law school. I hadn’t done the qualifying schoolwork for it, but there was a back door into law school, if you successfully passed a particularly grueling exam that was sort of like a cross between an IQ test and a medieval torture chamber. There were over 100 people taking the test and only one spot available.
I got it. I registered for law school and moved out of the house shortly afterward. It was necessary to avoid World War III. I did get myself through law school, got the degree, and left the law to pursue writing, which is what I’d always wanted to do.
Plato knew the attraction of the cave for people of small minds. People who are afraid of success because they can’t stand the thought of failure. People who’d rather settle and sleepwalk their way to the grave than have their neighbors see them try. People who are so terrified of who they might become if only they gave terrestrial existence all they got that they settle for Doritos and some Netflix.
You don’t have to make that choice or, worse, default to it because that’s all you’ve ever known. The world is bigger than the cave. It has real light and real people and beautiful things all over the place. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, there’s failure. But there’s also growth, which nobody gets by coasting.
The thought of going back to the cave makes me want to scream. I have yet to achieve all my goals, and perhaps I never will. But every single day I try. People say I’m a risk taker, unstable, unsettled even. I prefer another word.
I am alive. And you should be, too.