“...the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light...”
― Plato, The Allegory of the Cave
The Allegory of the Cave can be found in Book VII of The Republic—the best known and most influential work of the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In this fourth century BCE writing, Plato allows his audience to eavesdrop on a dialogue Socrates is having—as he wrestles with the true nature of life and reality. Socrates imagines a scenario in which there are some people who live in a cave. In fact, these poor souls have lived there since birth, and they have been chained up facing a wall in the dark. They are unable to move their bodies or their heads—unable to see anything but what appears on the wall in front of them. They have no knowledge of the world outside the cave. Behind these shackled people is a raised walkway and a fire that faintly lights the wall in front of their faces. Occasionally, free people passing by the fire on the walkway carrying animals and other objects cast shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. To the prisoners, these shadows are all they have ever known of reality.
They name the shadows and classify them because the shadows are all they can see.
Then, one prisoner is freed and is forced outside of the cave for the first time. The sunlight outside the cave is blinding and disorienting at first, but as the newly freed prisoner tries to process the world outside the cave, he learns that the animals and trees and objects he is seeing for the first time are actually real, and their shadows are only empty reflections. He has a hard time accepting this new reality. He doesn’t trust what he sees. The shadows had always seemed so real to him before. As his eyes continue to adjust, however, he is increasingly able to see the shadows for what they are. Eventually, he is even able to behold the sun and understand its light as the source for all he can now see. Logically, he determines to return to the cave to share his discovery and experience with those who are still imprisoned. When he gets to the cave, however, he can no longer see well in the dark. His eyes have adjusted to the sun. As he blindly walks around the cave, he can’t even see the shadows on the wall that used to define his reality. The other prisoners determine that whatever he experienced outside of the cave has caused him to become blind and incoherent. They, therefore, reject his attempts to explain and free them.
The allegory concludes with the assumption that were the remaining prisoners actually set loose by this man, they would kill him.
The 2,400-year-old Allegory of the Cave is certainly an ancient and well-known example of humanity wrestling with the nature of reality, but it’s most definitely not our only example. The idea that there is more to reality than we presently understand—that there is something more than the shadows we can currently grasp—is ubiquitous throughout history and across all cultures. One could even argue that this mystery is as ever-present with us today as it has ever been. Our desire to see clearly instead of through a glass dimly—to know the truth behind the truth—to experience deeper meaning and understanding fills the pages of our books and the screens of our lives. Consider Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis—all stories that imagine a deeper, more true reality unseen by those who refuse to look. Or perhaps more modern examples like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix or Michael Crichton’s Westworld. These intricately crafted narratives also wrestle with the possibility of a world outside the cave.
And if we are looking for a biblical example…enter, the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John may very well be one of the most complex, intricately and beautifully written pieces of writing in history. It is a masterful composition filled with symbolism, directional arrows, and enough theological layers to keep us busy for a lifetime. John is not doing one thing in his Gospel. He’s not just writing on one layer or storytelling to one cause. His storytelling has many causes and his writing, many layers. I want to invite you to consider the possibility that one layer of John’s Gospel is, in fact, a response to Plato. That at least one of the causes of John’s Gospel is actually to address The Allegory of the Cave—to examine, to push and pull on the very nature of reality put forth by Plato 400 years before John began to write.
John—the beloved disciple of Jesus the Christ—has learned a thing or two about the nature of reality, and he has some ideas to share about the cave.
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