Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Life Lessons on How to Think for Yourself.
“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
What is reality? Does your reality really exist?
Over 2,000 years ago, Plato, one of history’s most famous thinkers, explored these questions in his famous “Allegory of the Cave”(audiobook)—Book VII of the Republic.
The “Allegory of the Cave” begins with a scene painted of a group of prisoners who have lived chained to the wall of a dark cave their entire lives.
In Plato’s, The Republic (book), he writes:
“See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their head all the way around.”
Every day, these people in the caves watched shadows projected on a blank wall. For them, these shadows are real and they shape their entire reality.
Now imagine that one of the prisoner’s leaves the cave and walks outside into the sunshine.
For the first time in his life, he is exposed to sunshine and light. He can now finally see the “true” forms, shapes and reality of the shadows he thought were real.
In this Allegory, Socrates asks, what would he think of his companions back in the cave? He’d probably feel sorry for them and their limited reality.
Now, if he returned back to the cave and told them about what he saw, they’d probably laugh at him and think he was crazy.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave explores the tension between the imagined reality that we think is “real” (shadows) versus the reality that is the “truth” (outside the cave).
This is a basic explanation of the Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but this TED video explains it better…
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave Summary
How Does this Apply to Your Life?
The best way to learn from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, is to think of the people trapped in the cave as majority of people in the world.
The cave people believed that the shadows they saw were the “truth,” just like majority of the world who believe in and pursue shadows based on money, education, fame, love and so on.
These are generally the ideas and social norms that we’ve been told to stick to from childhood because of the majority consensus.
Unfortunately, thinking like this often leads to a life of missed opportunities and mediocrity because you’d never realise how much more of reality actually existed outside the “cave.”
What about the person who escaped the cave?
This represents the small handful of people who dare to think and act in a different way from the crowd.
They don’t have an imagined “shadow” reality because they’ve stepped outside their comfort zone into the “sunshine” to uncover the true reality of life.
These people live a life with limitless possibilities and often change the course of history (think Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, Isaac Newton and so on).
It’s not because they’re better than everyone else that they’ve “escaped the cave”. It’s simply because they’ve made a decision to consistently step outside their comfort zone, face their fears and think in a unique way.
So, how can you escape this “cave”?
The key life lesson from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is to question every assumption you have about the reality you call “real.”
This is a powerful way to develop the skill of thinking for yourself and discovering your own unique solutions to any problem.
I’ve covered one method of doing this based on Elon musk’s First principles way of thinking.
The more assumptions you question, the less likely you’ll make bad decisions and errors that could significantly cost you.
It takes courage to step outside of your comfort zone and think differently than you’ve previously done. But, the rewards are always worth it (see my testimonial on experimenting with intermittent fasting).
Finally, remember that it’s not enough to leave the cave. It’s much more important that you stay outside of the cave.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a reminder that not everyone will understand or be happy for you, when you decide to change your habits and outlook on life.
Just like how the people in the cave responded to the escaped prisoner who returned—you can expect friends and family to laugh at your “stupid” ideas.
It’s normal to face criticism once you leave the cave.
In the end, if you can’t convince them through your words, convince them through your actions—because actions speak louder than words.
Food for thought:
What beliefs and assumptions (shadows) currently shape your reality?
How did you come to the conclusion that these assumptions were true?
Are you willing to question and adjust these assumptions? If so, what can you do on a daily basis to build this habit?
If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to get more well-researched, straight to the point strategies to think better and build better habits, join the free newsletter here.
Subscribe to the newsletter
Get thought-provoking ideas on technology, habits, and entrepreneurship.