The Allegory of the Cave
Those having Lamps will pass them on to others. – PLATO
In The Secret Doctrine we are told that Plato was not merely the greatest philosopher of Greece but also an Adept who belonged psychically, mentally and spiritually to the higher planes of evolution, a ‘Fifth-rounder’ in the Fourth Round, immensely higher than is our present humanity. He imparted spiritual truths through myths and allegories as his aim was both to awaken the Manas and to arouse the Buddhi of his hearers. In the ratiocinative climate of our own age, his myths have been often dismissed as mere poetic fantasies, and some have even suggested that they were employed to cover up deficiencies in his chain of reasoning. As a result his system of philosophy and political thought has not been properly grasped by his critics.
One of Plato’s most well-known myths is the ‘quaint parable’ with which the Seventh Book of the Republic opens. In this allegory of the cave he intimated the teaching that there is a truth beyond sense, pertaining to the eternal noumena underlying earthly phenomena, a deeper realm of reality which cannot be adequately apprehended except by the philosopher who has been initiated into the Mysteries. Even to realize the distinction between the intuitive standpoint of the true seer and the shared delusions of most men is an important step forward from the region of avidya, ignorance, to the realm of truth. Our tragedy lies simply in our refusal to recognize that we live in a condition of perpetual imprisonment, clinging tenaciously to the sights and sounds of earthly life, mistaking slavery for freedom and shadows for realities.
The allegory begins with a graphic picture of the pathetic condition of the majority of mankind. We are like chained slaves living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den. Here we have been from our childhood, unable to move or to see beyond, being prevented by the chains from turning round our heads. Above and behind us a fire is blazing at a distance, but between the fire and ourselves there is a low wall like the screen which marionette players have in front of them to foster the illusion necessary for a puppet-show. We are like the strange prisoners in this den who see only their own shadows or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave. To them the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images, and they cannot distinguish the voices of one another from the echoes emanating from the surrounding darkness.
Given this allegory, we might think that if only the prisoners were released from their chains by some external agency, they would cease to mistake shadows for realities and would be automatically disabused of their former errors. The allegory points out that no such simple deliverance from illusions is possible. At first, when any of the prisoners is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains. Further, the glare will disturb him and he will be unable to see the realities he formerly identified with their mere shadows. If he is now told that what he saw before was an illusion and that now he is approaching real existence and has a clearer vision, he will be perplexed. He will continue to fancy that the shadows he saw for so long were truer than the objects which are now shown to him. If he is compelled to look straight at the light, the pain in his eyes will induce him to turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision that have acquired a false but greater reality than the things which are now being shown to him. If he is dragged up a steep ascent and forced into the presence of the sun, his eyes will be dazzled and he will not be able to see anything at all.
The liberated prisoner will obviously require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. He will first see the shadows best, then the reflections of men and objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; and then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars by night. At last he will be able to see the sun. He will come to see that the sun is the guardian of all that is in the visible world and in a certain sense the cause of all that he and his fellows had been accustomed to behold. He would remember his old habitation and the delusions of his fellow prisoners, pity them and felicitate himself on the change in himself and in his position. He would no longer care for the honours conferred upon one another by the ignorant prisoners on the basis of who were the quickest to observe the passing shadows.
The first test that the liberated prisoner has to face is to get accustomed to his new condition and to forsake his long-cherished illusions. The second test is to see the unity of all things. The third is to show compassion towards his fellow prisoners and not merely revel in his own happiness. The fourth is to detach himself completely from the false valuations and hierarchical distinctions made by the men in the den. His fifth and much more difficult test comes if he is then made to re-enter the cave of darkness, for he would appear ridiculous to the prisoners who still cling to their former illusions centered on the shadows. They would say that he had become blind to realities since leaving the cave, that it is better not even to think of ascending, that they would be entitled to put to death anyone who tried to free another and lead him up to the light.
The allegory then explains that the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and the journey upwards is the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world. In the world of knowledge the archetypal idea of Good appears last of all and is seen only with an effort. It is only then inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, the lord of light in this visible world and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual world, the power upon which the eye must be fixed in private and public life in order to act rationally. It is not surprising, we are told, that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell. Those who do descend from divine contemplations to the underground den will not find it easy to deal with those who have never yet seen Absolute Good or Justice.
The bewilderments of the eyes, the bodily eye as well as the mind’s eye, are of two kinds and arise either from coming out of the light or from going into the light. The plight of the soul as soon as it comes from darkness into the light is to be pitied, and there is no reason to laugh at the condition of the soul which has come out of the brighter life and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark. It is wrong to think that we can put sight into blind eyes or knowledge into the soul, which was not there before. The power and capacity of learning exist in the soul already, and just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too it is only by the movement of the whole soul that the instrument of knowledge can be turned from the world of Becoming into that of Being, and can learn by degrees to endure the sight of the good and the true. Whereas the other so-called virtues of the soul can be implanted by habit and exercise, the virtue of wisdom or of spiritual sight contains a divine element which is the identifying property or function of the soul. Sensual pleasures, like leaden weights, drag down the soul and turn its vision upon the things below, but if the soul is released from earthly impediments, the faculty of seeing the truth comes into full play.
Every detail of the allegory of the cave has been mentioned here because everything in it is significant. The entire allegory could be interpreted in several ways – mystically, psychologically or even politically. It was Plato’s great genius that he could give us a parable, archetypal in meaning and full of occult truth, that is rich in its symbolism and suggestive of several profitable interpretations. His method was to descend from universals to particulars, to use his insight into the process of Becoming or of cosmic evolution to derive lessons for personal and social life. He exemplified the ancient maxim: “As above, so below.” Recent interpreters have concentrated on the political moral to be drawn from the parable and some have wrongly regarded it as a poetic rationalization of a particular political outlook designed to make the philosopher acceptable in a polis. Plato explicitly states that the founders of the State must compel the best minds to continue to ascend until they arrive at the highest truth or ultimate good and then to make them descend again into the den and partake of honours and labours for which they do not care. They must become the benefactors of the entire community. They are not obliged to share in the toils of politics, but if they were deliberately encouraged in their quest for truth, they must share the fruits of their vision with their fellow men. Being Just Men, they will comply with the demands made upon them. The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best.
The entire political moral of the parable has a close resemblance to the Kumaras, who refuse to create but are induced by cosmic necessity to complete divine Man by incarnating in him. The unwillingness of the sower in the field to heed the voice of his master involves the latter in unearned and unnecessary suffering, but he accepts this burden flowing from his decision to become involved in the process of evolution. The incarnation of the Kumaras, which makes cosmic evolution possible, is paralleled by the sacrifice of the Nirmanakayas who resolved, even before attaining perfection, to renounce its fruit and re-enter the world of human ignorance and suffering. Similarly, the Avatar who descends amidst humanity cheerfully accepts the risk of ridicule and rejection, so that at least a few may be called to the pursuit of spiritual truth and many more aroused out of their state of slavery and illusion. The probationer on the path of the spiritual life has to emulate the example of the Avatars and the Nirmanakayas. He has both to isolate himself from humanity in his all-absorbing pursuit of pure truth and to heed the voice of suffering humanity, ever ascending on the pathway of the soul and ever preparing himself for the perfect service of humanity.
The parable also contains the mystical truth that, as the soul is initiated into the higher realms of being, it experiences a sense of strangeness, a new birth, until it has become accustomed to the sights and sounds of its higher plane of consciousness and become wholly indifferent to the lower impulses of earthly life. In his ascent the mystic comes to worship the spiritual Sun, which gives sustenance to the whole universe, and to perceive the unity of all life and being. At the same time the mystic who has chosen the path of renunciation and not of liberation has to learn to preserve his vision of the unity of the unseen universe while moving among the shadows of earthly existence, to bring back the soul’s memory of its inward ascent and spiritual faculties while also becoming able to cope with the limitations of incarnated existence in a phenomenal world. These truths pertain not merely to the mystic and the Initiate but also to the psychological evolution of our entire humanity. We are so overpowered by the shadowy attractions and images from the Astral Light that we shut ourselves from the archetypal ideas radiating from Akasha. Our earth – Plato’s den – is only “the footstool of man in his ascension to higher regions; the vestibule –
“. . . to glorious mansions,
Through which a moving crowd for ever press.”
“Kosmos – the NOUMENON – has nought to do with the causal relations of the phenomenal World” (The Secret Doctrine, 1. 3). We are told by Shankaracharya that the knowledge of the absolute Spirit, like the effulgence of the sun, or like the heat in the fire, is naught else than the absolute Essence itself. The Dhyan-Chohans do for the universe what Plato’s guardians do for the polis. “They are the Intelligent Forces that give to and enact in Nature her ‘laws,’ while themselves acting according to laws imposed upon them in a similar manner by still higher Powers” (The Secret Doctrine, I. 38). Where the normal eye sees only blackness, the average mystic sees a grey twilight and the spiritual eye of the Initiate sees absolute Light. The One Being is the noumenon of all the noumena which must underlie phenomena and give them whatever shadow of reality they possess, but which we have not the senses or the intellect to cognize at present.
The ascent of the soul is beautifully described in The Secret Doctrine and its descent into the world is referred to in The Voice of the Silence.
The existences belonging to every plane of being, up to the highest Dhyan-Chohans, are, in degree, of the nature of shadows cast by a magic lantern on a colourless screen; but all things are relatively real, for the cognizer is also a reflection, and the things cognized are therefore as real to him as himself. Whatever reality things possess must be looked for in them before or after they have passed like a flash through the material world; but we cannot cognize any such existence directly, so long as we have sense- instruments which bring only material existence into the field of consciousness. Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached ‘reality’; but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya.
The Secret Doctrine, I, 39-40
The Secret Doctrine, with its teaching about planes of reality and appropriate states of consciousness, generalizes at a metaphysical level the truth underlying the allegory of the cave. In The Voice of the Silence we are given the practical and ethical corollary of this metaphysical truth. We are made to realize the helpless condition of the hosts of souls who will not avail themselves of Maya, and we are firmly told: “Give up thy life, if thou wouldst live.”
The seeds of Wisdom cannot sprout and grow in airless space. To live and reap experience, the mind needs breadth and depth and points to draw it towards the Diamond Soul. Seek not those points in Maya’s realm; but soar beyond illusions, search the eternal for the changeless SAT, mistrusting fancy’s false suggestions.
For mind is like a mirror; it gathers dust while it reflects. It needs the gentle breezes of Soul-wisdom to brush away the dust of our illusions. Seek, O Beginner, to blend thy Mind and Soul.
Shun ignorance, and likewise shun illusion. Avert thy face from world deceptions: mistrust thy senses; they are false. But within thy body – the shine of thy sensations – seek in the Impersonal for the ‘Eternal Man’; and having sought him out, look inward: thou art Buddha.
The Voice of the Silence
Hermes February 1975