You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.
― Plato, The Allegory of the Cave
The Allegory of the Cave is probably Plato’s most well known contribution to philosophy. It was written over two thousand years ago and yet still has great relevance. The story describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, only able to see a blank wall before them. They watch shadows projected on to this wall and their entire reality is defined by these projections. They have no idea that the shadows are being created by people passing objects in front of a fire behind them. They believe the shadows to be all there is to the world. In the allegory the figure of the philosopher is described as a prisoner who somehow escapes their chains and makes their way from the cave. Over time the philosopher comes to understand that the shadows are only a tiny part of the reality that the people chained to the wall inhabit, a world the philosopher can now see far more clearly.
A fairly standard interpretation of this is that the people chained to the wall are the people of society and the people casting the shadows are the power elite manipulating them and keeping them enslaved. However, the supposed power elite don’t seem to be leaving the cave either, they don’t seem aware that they can, they too continue to behave in the same way, except they aren’t wearing any chains and they should have the advantage of being able to perceive things from a different perspective. When someone who is chained is released though, it may take a while, but they leave. If we take this as a metaphor for society, it seems that those casting the shadows are just as trapped, if not more.
I prefer to view the story of the cave as a metaphor for consciousness, that all we perceive is a small portion of what we project out as reality and we can become aware that we are the ones creating these interpretations, but that doesn’t stop us or necessarily allow us to see beyond them. There remains part of us though, that can become able to try to perceive beyond our limitations, but it takes incredible effort and courage. This is our muse; the part of us able to journey beyond the confines of our reality tunnel and bring back new ideas and inspiration, without which we would just perceive whatever our preoccupations and tastes draw us to.
One of my favourite myths to describe this aspect of consciousness is the myth of Icarus. In this myth, Icarus’s father Daedalus is ordered by King Minos to build a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, a part man part bull, pan-like nature spirit. Daedalus and Icarus end up trapped in the labyrinth themselves and in order to escape Daedalus creates wings from wax and feathers so that they can fly away. What is often emphasised about this myth is Icarus’s hubris and exuberance ultimately being his downfall, as even though Daedalus warns him not to fly too close to the sun, he does so, melting the wax of the wings and causing him to fall into the ocean and drown. Daedalus himself flies on to shore and goes on to use his skills to create many more works of genius.
Courage doesn’t always involve physical heroism in the face of death. It doesn’t always require giant leaps worthy of celebration. Sometimes, courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say. ― Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception
Daedalus means “skilful artisan” and is associated with many innovations in arts and crafts in the ancient Greek world. To me, like the philosopher of the cave, he also represents the creative and imaginative capacity of the human spirit; he represents that often misunderstood part of us that can journey beyond our limitations. The labyrinth is the reality tunnel we each build to explain our world, trapping our inner natures in the work of art that is our minds. But the same art that builds the labyrinth can build the wings we use to free ourselves and embrace our full capacity; by taking wing Daedalus overcomes his own Minotaur, by embracing his nature instead of trapping it.
Icarus does serve as a reminder not to get too carried away, but, as Seth Godin points out, to the ancient Greeks the most important advice that Daedalus gave to his son was not to fly to low. He did not, he reached as high as he could, and this is why we remember him. For who do we remember for being merely ordinary? Icarus may have gone too far, but, like an ecstatic mystic, he flew toward the light and for that he found glory.
We all have this capacity; this architect of consciousness that I equate with Daedalus, the part of us that may awaken to and transcend the reality labyrinth it constructs. It is part of what makes us human, as is the power elite in each of us, not in terms of power over each other but in terms of power over ourselves and our consciousness. If we can recognise our shadows as shadows ― our realities as relative constructs ― we are no longer imprisoned as the bull of our own mind (fnar fnar); we can see beyond that, we can see the labyrinth and have the courage to show others what we find above.
It is the task of the enlightened not only to ascend to learning and to see the good but to be willing to descend again. ― Plato, The Allegory of the Cave