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The Allegory of Plato's Cave


by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. and Diane Olson, Ph.D.


The allegory pictures an underground cave with its mouth open toward the light of a blazing fire. Within the cave are people chained so that they cannot move. They can see only the cave wall directly in front of them. This is illuminated by the light of the fire, which throws shadows of people and objects onto the wall. The cave dwellers equate the shadows with reality, naming them, talking about them, and even linking sounds from outside the cave with the movements on the wall. Truth and reality for the prisoners rest in this shadowy world, because they have no knowledge of any other.

However, as Socrates relates, if one of the inhabitants were allowed to leave the cave, he would realize that the shadows are but dark reflections of a more complex reality, and that the knowledge and perceptions of his fellow cave dwellers are distorted and flawed. If he were then to return to the cave, he would never be able to live in the old way, since for him the world would be a very different place. No doubt he would find difficulty in accepting his confinement, and would pity the plight of his fellows. However, if he were to try and share his new knowledge with them, he would probably be ridiculed for his views.

For the cave prisoners, the familiar images of the cave would be much more meaningful than any story about a world they had never seen. Moreover, since the person espousing this new knowledge would now no longer be able to function in the old way, since he would no longer be able to act with conviction in relation to the shadows, his fellow inmates would no doubt view his knowledge as being extremely dangerous. They would probably regard the world outside the cave as a potential source of danger, to be avoided rather than embraced as a source of wisdom and insight. The experience of the person who left the cave could thus actually lead the cave dwellers to tighten their grip on their familiar way of seeing.

The cave stands for the world of appearances and the journey outside stands for the ascent to knowledge. People in everyday life are trapped by illusions, hence the way they understand reality is limited and flawed. By appreciating this, and by making a determined effort to see beyond the superficial, people have an ability to free themselves from imperfect ways of seeing. However, as the allegory suggests, many of us often resist or ridicule efforts at enlightenment, preferring to remain in the dark rather than to risk exposure to a new world and its threat to the old ways.

I once worked for an organization that ventured outside of the cave. The journey was exciting with undreamed of results. Sadly, the light was too threatening and the organization soon retreated to an imagined security even deeper within the cave. Today continual reorganization gives the appearance of progress as, in reality, the organization slips deeper into darkness.

Many organizations are trapped in a belief system (worldview) that drags them deeper and deeper into the cave. There are many pressures to conform and to stay in the cave. Courageous change agents are those who are willing to venture outside of the cave, stay there, and embark on a journey of personal transformation that prepares them to lead others.

Each of us needs to be mindful of our emotional reactions to new ideas, new learning, and new ways of expressing these ideas and learnings. If we find ourselves reacting in a negative way to new ideas we might reflect on our reactions and what they tell us about ourselves - our fears, our doubts, our weaknesses, our insecurities - before we reject the message or the messenger. In a time that cries for the conscious evolution of our selves, we need to rise above our instinctive tendency to reject thinking that makes us uncomfortable.