An allegory is a story with a hidden meaning. The characters and events in the story are metaphors for ideas about life. Plato was a Greek philosopher, and student of Socrates. Plato wrote several allegories about life, and one of them is called “The Allegory of the Cave.” It is still considered one of the most profound metaphorical allegories in history. Let’s examine this story together.
There are a group of people who have been imprisoned in a cave since childhood. They are chained so they can only face the wall in front of them. This wall is filled with very scary shadows. The people in the cave have never seen anything else, so they assume the shadows are real. The shadows are all they know about life. They also hear sounds which coincide with the shadows.
Unbeknownst to them, outside of the cave is a fire, and there are other people outside of the cave who walk past this fire holding objects and puppets which cast the shadows they see in the cave. These objects are very small but appear big and scary when portrayed as a shadow. The sounds they hear in the cave are made by the people outside holding the objects. They are the creators of the perception of life that the prisoners believe is reality.
Then one day, one of the prisoners is set free. At first the light hurts her eyes and she could not see clearly. So, she keeps looking back in the cave at the dark reality she has known her entire life. Yes, it is scary in that cave, but it is all she knows. Then someone outside of the cave grabs her and drags her all of the way out. It takes time, but her eyes start to adjust to the light, and after a while she sees the new reality clearly and realizes that the scary shadows in the cave were not real. She realizes that the real world is better and decides to go back and tell the others. She wants to help them escape the chains and come out in the real world too.
She goes back and gives the good news to the people in the cave. But now, her eyes have become adjusted to the light, so she is again blind while being the cave. This is the opposite of the prior experience of seeing while in the cave, but being blind upon exit. She tries to tell the people in the cave that life is better on the outside, but sadly they don’t believe her. In addition, they see that she is now blind, so this confirms their fears that life on the outside is scary. They do not listen to her, and now DECIDE to stay in the cave. They decide life on the outside is just as scary as they thought and even go so far as to say they will kill anyone who tries to free them. They stay in the cave for the rest of their lives, never knowing the shadows are not real.
Now let me tell you a true story. My cousin and I went to dinner a few weeks ago. She works in a center that services clients in Work First. Work First is a requirement that people who receive cash assistance from the government must attend. They receive assistance for identifying employment, and other related resources. She spoke of a conversation with a young lady attending Work First. The lady (an adult) did not know that people spent money on groceries. She thought everybody received food stamps. When my cousin told her that she, nor anyone in her family received them, the lady could not believe it. She asked how they bought groceries? My cousin told her that she purchased groceries with money that she earned from her job. So the lady then asked, so you spend like $200 in actual money on food!? My cousin answered yes. The lady’s response was that she would never buy groceries if she had to spend money on them! I have encounters like this all the time in my work. Discussions about real life topics such as rent, vehicles, food, furniture, the needs of their children, clothes, and on and on. Many (not all) of the people I work with do not know that people pay for these things on their own, or they think only “rich” people do.
Most of the interpretations of the cave allegory relate it to politics, truth, and even religion. However, the first time I read this story some years ago I related it to poverty. People in poverty are living in the cave, they see the scary shadows and think they are real. Let me give you some examples. These are examples from actual conversations and/or experiences, none are made up:
- Only rich people can afford to go to college.
- Having an education doesn’t matter, you will still not be able to find a job.
- Having children is in God’s hands and they have no control over getting pregnant and having children.
- Having your expenses covered by resources means you are independent, and not depending on anybody. This one needs explanation. House is through a housing program with either no rent, or very little for example $50. Receives food stamps. Has Medicaid health insurance completely free. All or most children’s needs met through give aways, donations, etc. = I’m independent and do not need anybody, I provide for my family.
(These are the shadows)
Now, are any of these descriptions a put down or a judgment? Absolutely not! While you are in need, you should utilize the resources available. However, what we are discussing today is that when you think this is “real life” and all there is, that is the problem.
What about the person who was set free and tries to go back and inform the others? She (Social Workers, Teachers, Judges, Police Officers, Pastors, Parents) tell them that the shadows are not real, and they can have a different life if they only cut the chains, and leave the cave. It will be hard work (eyes getting adjusted to the light), but they can do it. She evens informs them of some of the things they can do:
- Get an education.
- Do not have children (or more of them) until you can afford to provide for them.
- Choose a career instead of a job.
- Do not use substances that are not good for you, and also create an additional barrier to your future. i.e. cannot pass a drug test for employment because of marijuana use.
- Carry yourself with respect and dignity.
Unfortunately, too many of the people in the cave do not listen. They think that she is now blind. “You sold out.” “You are acting/speaking white.” “You forgot where you came from.” “You are being judgmental.” They tell her to get out, and that they will kill anybody who tries to remove them.
The Cave: Poverty.
The people living in the Cave: People living in generational poverty, people lost in the system, too many of our youth, the forgotten ones.
The fire: Society and all of the hardships that come with it.
The people outside of the cave holding the objects and puppets and making the sounds: The government and people who want to keep you bound and trapped.
The shadows: The traps set for us – drugs, violence, prison, hardship, unemployment rates, education dropout rates, the expense of education, single parenthood, ratio of available men to women, financial lack, the system, the government, etc.
The person who is freed: The people who made it out.
The period of adjustment to the light: years in low paying jobs, years in college, times of delayed gratification, commitment to God, church involvement, sacrifice, making positive choices, knowing there is a such thing as positive choices, and most of all change of personal behavior.
The person who returns to the cave to help others: Social Workers, Teachers, Judges, Police Officers, Pastors, Mentors, Parents, community members, founders of programs and non-profit organizations.
The people living in the Cave who never make it out: The people who do not believe and/or change.
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square, on top of the walls she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech. Proverbs 1:20-21 (NIV)
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. Deuteronomy 30:15-16 (NIV)
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36 (NIV)
There are many more interpretations of the Allegory of the Cave. Feel free to leave your thoughts and interpretations below. I’d love to hear from YOU!