The allegory of the cave is an allusion taken from Plato's, Republic, Book VII. He used the allegory to help explain why a "philosopher" is the best person to head a community or society. In addition to the argument, Why the philosopher is the best to head a society? is a deeper exposure, it might be called an esoteric meaning. Plato and sages of his level of understanding, often communicated on several levels of consciousness. Thus, besides the main argument, the allegory also shows how the education and ignorance of humans determines the level of their consciousness. Essentially there are three levels of consciousness: first, from lowest to highest, ego consciousness, psyche consciousness, and spiritual consciousness. It maybe helpful to the understanding process to know, that these three levels of consciousness collate with the three compositions of humans: body, soul, spirit, and the three states of awareness: awake, dream sleep, deep sleep without dreams.
Here is the description of the allegory as set up by Plato: Imagine mankind as dwelling in an underground cave with a long entrance open to light across the whole width of the cave; in this they have been from childhood, with necks and legs fettered, so they have to stay where they are. They cannot move their heads round because of the fetters, and they can only look foreword, but light comes to them from fire burning behind them higher up at a distance. Between the fire and the prisoners is a road above their level, and along it imagine a low wall has been built, as puppet showmen have screens in front of their people over which they work their puppets. Bearers carrying along this wall all sorts of articles which they hold projecting above the wall, statues of men and other living things, made of stone or wood and all kinds of stuff, some of these bearers speaking and some silent.
Socrates comments to Claucon, "Just like ourselves. For, first of all, tell me this: What do you think such people would have seen of themselves and each other except their shadows, which the fire cast on the opposite wall of the cave?"
Claucon, "I don't see how they could see anything else."
Socrates, "Very well, what of the things being carried along? Would not this be the same?"
Claucon, "Of course it would."
Socrates, "Suppose the prisoners were able to talk together, don't you think that when they named the shadows which they saw passing they would believe they were naming things"
Socrates, "Than if their prison had an echo from the opposite wall, whenever one of the passing bearers uttered a sound, would they not suppose that the passing shadows must be making the sound?"
Claucon, "Indeed I do."
Socrates, "If so, such persons would certainly believe that there were no realities except those shadows of handmade things?"
Claucon, "So it must be."
Socrates, "Now consider, what their release would be like, and their cure from the fetters and their folly; let us imagine whether it might be naturally be something like this. One might be released, and compelled suddenly to stand and turn his neck round, and to walk and look towards the firelight; all this would hurt him, and he would be to much dazzled to see distinctly those things whose shadows he had seen before. What do you think he would say if someone told him that what he saw before was foolery, but now he saw more rightly, more real? What if he were shown each of the passing things and compelled by questions to answer what each one was? Don't you think he would be puzzled, and believe what he saw before was more true than what was shown to him now?"
Claucon, "Far more."
Socrates, "Then suppose he were compelled to look towards the real light. It would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning them away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him."
Claucon, "Just so."
Socrates, "Suppose now, that someone should drag him thence by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun, would he not be distressed and furious at being dragged ; and when he came into the light , the brilliance would fill his eyes and he would not be able to see even one of the things now called real?"
Claucon, "That he would not, all of a sudden."
Socrates, "He would have to get used to it, surely, I think, if he is to see the things above. First he would most easily look at shadows, after that images of mankind and the rest in water, lastly the things themselves. After this he would find it easier to survey by night the heavens themselves and all that is in them, gazing at the light of the stars and moon, rather than by day the sun and the sun's light."
Claucon, "Of course."
Socrates, "Last of all, I suppose, the sun; he could look on the sun itself by itself in its own place, and see what it is like, not reflections of it in the water or as it appears in some alien setting."
Socrates, "And only after all this he might reason about it, how this is he who provides seasons and years, and is set over all things which they saw."
Claucon, "Yes, it is clear, that after all that, he would come to this last."
Socrates, "Very good. Let him be reminded of his first habitation, and what was wisdom in that place, and of his fellow-prisoners there; don't you think he would bless himself for the change, and pity them?"
Claucon, "Yes indeed."
(fyi) The above quotes were taken from the "Great Dialogues of Plato," translated by, W.H.D. Rouse, New American Library. For a deeper, more comprehensive rendering of Plato's Dialogues, look for a translation by Thomas Taylor.
The first description of the Cave shows the prisoners fettered, neck and legs. They have been this way from childhood, and can only look straight away. This condition of the fettered prisoners represents ego consciousness. Our ego, can be thought of as an objectified self; created, sustained, and extended by our ideas and perceptions derived from our material relationship with life. All of the world's manifestations seem to our senses to be solid and substantial: objects that can be touched, moved, and manipulated, objects emitting distinctive colors, forms, odors, and tastes, and objects that occupy a duration in time and space. Since our immediate sensual encounters are primarily with physical objects, all of our experiences seem therefore, to originate and culminate with the physical. The logic behind this material reasoning is very appealing to us, for it reduces a multidimensional world into a three dimensional, more predictable, routine, and safe world.
Our material perception is the most immediate medium our senses contact. It tends to become the most dominate and influential field of our conscious involvement. All other modes of perception are undermined because of our preoccupation with the material world. Most of our life energy is given to feed and maintain our ego-self. This exclusivity of our energy develops an extremely thick shell of resistance to change. The energy that is bound up in the structures of the ego-self and world image, is immense. That is the reason Plato symbolized this first level of consciousness as "prisoners." That which incarcerates our ego-self, ironically, is our ignorance of true reality. The irony comes because we use errant material perceptions as bulwarks for our reality, when essentially we are spiritual beings with essential spiritual realities.
In truth, our world is multidimensional, and is in no way bound exclusively by length, breath, and width. The three dimensional aspect of our world is only a small outer portion of a considerably greater whole. A strict use of material perceptions as an exclusive measuring stick for understanding our world falls extremely short along side of an overall comprehensive understanding. Our world consists of realities superimposed upon realities, from the visible to the invisible. In effect, our world is a creative synthesis of multiple realities, mosaically wrapped and networked; speck and star united within a system and process so vast, so subtle, and so intricate, as to defy accurate definition. How many separate yet unified realities exist within our world? The answer is not available, for it would imply a knowledge beyond what can be known. What we can know, however, is that our senses receive input on a multidimensional field, but consciously interpret only a fractional part. Since our perceptions focus on a very small fraction of the comprehensive whole of our being, our understanding is consequently greatly limited. To this limit add, an inborn compulsion to maintain the status quo, and the emotional factors of anxiety and fear of change, and we have a glimpse at the formidability of our material based perceptions.
Now, one of the prisoners in the cave is released of his fetters and compelled to stand and turn his neck round, and to walk and look towards the firelight. This traumatic experience would be the cause of an instant breakdown of the reality he had known from childhood. After a time of integrating the truth of this new reality, his consciousness would have expanded. This expanded consciousness is the second level of consciousness, the soul consciousness.
The soul is the bridge between the material and the spirit world. This connection is vital for it allows us a portal to the spiritual aspect of our being. It provides a pathway from our powerful, mental, material barriers, to the essential aspect of our spiritual being. An encounter with our spiritual aspect causes a rebirth, a new reality, a soul consciousness. It is only through this state of metamorphosis that we can hope to fulfill our true human destiny.
Now, our prisoner is dragged by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stops until he was outside of the cave , into the Sun's light. This new reality is his spiritual consciousness. Notice that as the prisoner moves up the consciousness levels, he becomes more liberated of his original confinement. Instead of his original condition as a prisoner, the soul consciousness releases his confinement, opening the knot, so that the higher spiritual energy integrate his being. The involvement of the spiritual consciousness then opens the final knot for the awakening of the True Reality. The true reality is from I am I, to I am thou. There is a Sufi story, (a mystic branch of Islam) which brings some clarity to this wondrous metamorphosis: There was a human soul who spent millennium wondering, gaining discipline, holiness, devotion, and self-sacrifice, hoping to be accepted into heaven. He believed he was ready and went to the Gates of Heaven and began to ring the Bell of Entrance. He heard a thunderous voice asks, "Who goes there?" The soul answered, "It is I Lord." The booming voice answered, "I know no I." The Gates of Heaven remained closed. The soul once again began to wonder, focusing more of his energy on devotion to the Lord. Once again he believed he was ready, and went to the Gates of Heaven and rang the Bell of Entrance. The thunderous voice asks, : "Who goes there?" The soul answers, "It is thou, Lord." The booming voice responds, "Enter!," as the Gates of Heaven open.
It spans an abyss,
where siren sounds from an impetuous
wind, lure and snag curious souls.
The curious become ensnared, not by
eagerness to know, but by an affection for the abyss.
They are captured, by their own intentions. The
tantalizing, spinning, wind, gently urges and coerces them,
while filling their senses with tastes of euphoria.
It whispers, "All yours. All yours to have. Take and fill.
As they succumb to their affection, the wind
bends their souls until their head turns down
and their feet up.
Suddenly, the wind releases its hold, and head
long they fall into the heart of the abyss.
If only the poor souls' eyes, cleared, and glimpsed
the golden span within arms reach.
If only they could have grasped it, and held fast
with all their strength, instead of frolicking in
self-pleasure. What a price paid for such frivolity. Such
unworthy attention. Yet alas! Too late.
The bridge still spans the abyss, as a humble
signpost against grand illusion, and high conceit.
And he need only grasp it with sincere heart,
to escape the torments of mortality.