The Parable of the Cave

The parable of the cave

In The Symposium, Plato has Socrates posit an allegory in a dialogue with Glaucon:

Imagine a cave in which men from birth are tied to rocks, separated from each other by large partitions, and in a manner that they can only see the walls in front of them. Behind them burns a fire, and between them and the fire is a parapet along which other men walk carrying objects such as statutes, carvings, books, etc.  The men and the objects cast shadows on the walls in front of the prisoners. They mistake the shadows for real people and objects.

If one of the prisoners is set free, he would be confused and find it difficult to believe that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows.  Others would tell him that what he saw was an illusion, but he clings to his shadow life, which he assumes was the only reality.

Eventually, when he leaves the cave, he is at first blinded by the sunlight, but then is amazed by the moon and the stars. Once his eyes adjust to the brightness, he realizes that his life in the cave had been an illusion; he feels pity for those still in the cave and chooses to stay away.  

This is the human mind, or rather the ego. Our thoughts and judgments are the shadows cast by the real objects. When we see someone we dislike, we may only see a “dreadful person.” We perceive a shadow, an image of the person created by the mind.  That image may or may not be an accurate reflection of the person, but it certainly is not the real person, only the ego’s projection.

Much like Plato’s cave, our egos create a shadow world that we mistake for reality. The ego creates this shadow identity through the things we own and our experiences, all of which make a statement about who we think we are: our sports cars, designer clothes, being seen in the right places, owning grand homes, jets, and yachts, etc.  

Much of what we purchase is designed to enhance our shadow identity. Think back to how many purchases you made thinking that the item would raise your appraisal in the eyes of others.

The ego also creates shadow identities through its judgments of self and others.  “I’m smart or athletic”; “She’s short and ugly”; “I’m friends with Madonna”; “I’m on the Board of General Electric”; “She’s that famous opera singer.”

The ego creates a shadow identity of forms, ideas, judgments, status, and experiences. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we live trapped in these shadow identities our egos create, and we mistake for reality. Because this shadow world gives us our identity, we cling to and defend its fake semblance as if our life depended on it.  Having seen only shadows from birth, we are unaware of reality. 

Our clinging to this shadow identity causes great suffering because it is not real and will eventually change and fade away. Beautiful actresses cannot bear the loss of their beauty and become recluses as they age. Powerful CEOs lose their positions or are forced to retire. Shrewd politicians lose their elections or are cast out due to a scandal. Top athletes eventually succumb to younger ones.  

True freedom is to become aware of the shadows that we mistake for reality and to which we cling because they will inevitably change and fade away.  We must step out of the ego’s cave and into the sunlight of the real world to not be doomed to suffer the trappings of an illusion—however brilliant it may seem—which will inevitably dissolve one day and disappoint you.


My hope for these pages is to be a modern-day Academy, much like Plato’s Academy, in order to reduce stress and anxiety in our individual lives and perhaps even help mankind reverse course from its current ego-driven and lethal trajectory.   

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