Plato's Theory of the Cavern

From The Republic

In "The Republic" Plato studies the possibility of a soul, divided in three parts: The Tripartite Theory of the Soul. He was technically a dualist but at the same time embraced the concept of one eternal element separated from the physical world.

Plato asks the reader to imagine a deep cave where no sunlight shines in.

Facing a wall of the cave is a row of seated prisoners, chained so they cannot move. They cannot see the others or themselves, only the wall. They’ve been like this all their lives and know nothing about anything except what is reflected on the wall.

Behind them there’s a fire burning, at the other end of the cave, with a separation between the fire and the prisoners upon which people pass and speak. The prisoners can see the shadows reflected on the wall and they can hear the voices but they never actually see the people for real. The shadows are their reality because it’s the only thing they’ve ever experienced. What they think is a person is actually the shadow of a person, but they can’t know this.

If one of the men could shake off his chains, he’d be confused. The fire would blind him, his cramped body would give him pain and he’ll want to return to the wall - the only thing he knows for sure. If he were to be dragged out of the cave he’d be lost for a while but eventually he’d adapt.

If the man went back into the cavern and told the other prisoners about his experience, what people and things really look like, it would be inconceivable because it has nothing to do with their experience.

According to Plato it is possible to reach the Light, or the Higher Good, through dialectics. The philosopher must rid himself of preconceived ideas, self-interests and shadowy illusions to surmount the barrier that separates him from the “sunlight of divine realities.” The more man contemplates the source of this light the lighter will be his chains.

The symbolism of the cavern relates to the unconscious and our fear of monsters (unspeakable faults) that hide in the shadows. Jung says the shadowy side of our nature is potential to experience wholeness of being; that unknown, mysterious “inconceivable something.”