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The Allegory of the Cave: An Introduction

photo of man sitting on a cave


Has your education taken you to where you want to be?

Years ago, one of my friends wrote the following regarding modern education: 

“We can take loving care to build a staircase. It can be a labor that absorbs us and is extremely satisfying to our soul. Our workmanship can be the finest possible. It can be admired far and wide for the quality of the design and the elegance of its structure. But when we ascend the staircase, does it take us where we want to go? Or did we build it to take us to a room we would not want to visit very often?”

The epiphany resulting from this question sent me on my own educational odyssey. I went looking for the answer. 

INTRODUCING “THE CAVE”

In the Spring of 2000, I attended a “Face to Face with Greatness” seminar where I was exposed to a new book, A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille. I read the book and immediately decided how inadequate my own education was. To overcome this deficit, I needed to change what I read and how I used my time. DeMille wrote something else that especially resonated with me. He said, “You will only be as free as what you know.”

I needed more education.

The Greeks knew and taught that education and virtue were the two things that would allow a people to self-govern.

“The Cave” is an allegory taught by Socrates and recounted by Plato in The Republic. Plato describes metaphorically the predicament in which mankind finds itself. Inherent in that predicament is the question of who should rule. He proposes a solution that entails discipline and rigorous education.

HOW ENLIGHTENED ARE YOU?

The Allegory of the Cave is meant to illustrate the degrees to which our nature may be enlightened or unenlightened. Imagine a group of people living in a cavernous chamber underground with an entrance open to the light and a long passage into the  cave. They have been, from childhood, chained by the leg and by the neck so that they cannot move. They can see only what is in front of them because the chains will not allow them to turn their heads. The visual is jarring. But there is more.

Behind the prisoners there is a fire, and in front of the fire walk people carrying objects that cast shadows on the wall for the prisoners to view. The Shadows present to the prisoner a sense of the world, but the prisoners do not know any better. This is the only world they have ever known. The Shadows are their reality, even though the shadows lack any substance at all.

You and I, dear friends, can already begin to put ourselves in the position of the prisoners. We’re fixed in our minds entirely on that wall of the cave. We see only shadows, yet we think we are seeing reality. We don’t have a sense of being chained, so we don’t even perceive the people next to us. We take comfort in and accept as truth everything in front of us. It is the only “reality” we have ever known.

Socrates managed to “get out of the cave” through education. He later returns to help others get the same kind of learning by critical inquiry or “Socratic Dialogue.” Returning to the cave is the essence of leadership and the ability to govern. However, the cave inhabitants, not understanding and upset by his words, seek to destroy him. 

Outside of the allegory, the real-life Socrates was sentenced to drink hemlock in 399 B.C. Not all inhabitants are ready to be shown new perspectives, even if those perspectives are of a higher truth.

But I was ready. Humbled by the task before me, knowing that there was much to learn… but eager.

HUMAN EXCELLENCE

Robert M. Hutchins put it this way, “The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public… its object is the excellence of man as man and man as a citizen.” The more I learned, the more I wanted the education of great citizens and souls. I wanted the education of a free man. As I grew in learning I became invigorated discussing great ideas with my wife and children. The quality of our family time was directly impacted for the better.

You may be thinking, “Isn’t reading a classic book something that sounds good, but you never actually do it?” However, as I worked through them page by page, I entered into “The Great Conversation.” 

What is my purpose? 

What does life expect of me? 

Why am I here? 

I intrinsically brought these thinkers and heroes to my children in the car, on vacations, at the dinner table and before bed at night.

As I became acquainted with great books and minds, I discovered a new hunger for learning that I could not satisfy. The learning and light outside the cave were exhilarating, abundant and joyous. I was throwing off the shackles of bondage in a dark cave for a bright new world of truth, beauty, and goodness that answered my questions. I was now going in and out of the cave, inviting others to see what I had discovered.

DISCUSSION

Now that I have introduced you to the Allegory of the Cave, I invite you to continue into the light with me and discover your genius and excellence. There are some discussion questions below. Assess the gaps in your own education. Are there “classics” that you aspire to read? Join us in the comments to share how books and ideas from great minds you’ve studied have changed your worldview. What have you learned? What do you hope to learn still? 

●     What or who has inspired you to pursue greater learning?

●     Who would you consider listing among the greatest minds you’ve ever encountered in history or literature?

●     How do you think expanding your own education will impact you, your family, and your community at large?

●     Where should you begin?

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

4 thoughts on “The Allegory of the Cave: An Introduction

  1. I was fortunate to have a father who was an avid reader and who inspired me to devour books from early on. He taught me that my greatest education would not come from a college degree. He was right. I studied history in college, but I have learned far more by sitting on the couch with a new book selected from the stack that I continuously add to.

    I don’t want to be stuck in the cave. There is so much more for me to learn.

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