June 7, 2009

Plato's Allegory of the Cave and Christian Salvation

The great Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) famously illustrated the difference between reality and illusion through a story about men who lived all their life in a cave. In Plato’s allegory, these men were chained to pillars and could see only shadows cast on the cave’s back wall by a fire that burned behind them, out of sight.

The men in the cave took great pride in their eyesight and in their interpretive abilities—yet all the time they were looking at shadows, mere illusions. Then, one of the men breaks out of the chains and makes it outside of the cave where he discovers a whole new world. When he reenters the cave to tell his friends about his marvelous epiphany they reject and resent him to the point of wanting to kill him.

Of course, there are several important philosophical lessons to be mined from Plato’s cave allegory, one being the fact that a real metaphysical world exists independent of human experience and observation (what Plato called the world of the “forms”). But Plato also intended his story to illuminate the life of his teacher, Socrates (470–399 BC), who was killed by the Athenian government for challenging ancient Greece’s view of truth and reality.

For Plato, what we experience is not reality. He claims that reality is transcendent; only the transcendent “forms” are truly real. Take a horse for instance. You can see and touch the horse, but the horse is only a glimpse of reality. Instead, the true reality of the horse is its form of “horse-ness”. Only by transcending this physical realm will we be able to truly experience reality. Plato explains this teaching by means of his famous Allegory of the Cave.

I won’t get into all the problematic aspects of Plato’s teaching on the forms. Let it suffice to say that for Aristotle and the Church Fathers, reality is immanent. The computer screen you are currently looking at is real. Metaphysical problems aside, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a great analogy for the Christian life.

Let’s say that the cave is the world we live in, the shadows are created goods, and the outside is the spiritual realm. Just like the many cave dwellers in Plato’s story, it is very easy for us to get consumed by the things around us. We can be so focused on the shadows inside the cave, lured by the promise of riches and material goods, that we forget there is more to this life. But like the man who escapes the cave, the Christian faces the bright light. This walking out of the cave is the very journey of the Christian here on Earth. The Christian walks out of the cave, realizes there is more to life than this passing world, and has a conversion of heart. Just as the bright light was painful to the cave dweller’s eyes, so the Christian life is not easy. For “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). We have to face our imperfections and embrace the trials in our life, always aware that these difficulties are oriented towards something good. We don’t embrace the cross because the cross is pleasurable, we embrace it for the sake of life with Christ.

Heeding the advice of Plato, we too must return to the cave. We cannot be content with our own faith and keep it locked up for ourselves. However, we must not return to lord it over others (cf. Mt 20:25), as Plato proposes. Instead, we must tell others about the light of the world (cf. Jn 8:12), so that they might experience the beauty of the Truth outside the cave. Plato only permits a select few to leave the cave, but Christ “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).