Allegory of the Man Cave

“Behold! Human beings living in an underground den…here they have been from their childhood…they cannot move, and can only see before them.”  (Plato, as Socrates)

In his classical work commonly referred to as “The Allegory of the Cave”, Plato spins a tale steeped in metaphor to illustrate conceptual versus perceptual reality; a tale which echoes through time to reflect the quandary of modern-day man. As a character in the story, Socrates describes a scene in which people have lived their entire lives chained to a wall of a cave. They cannot move their legs nor turn their heads; seeing only what is on the wall in front of them. Behind them burns a great fire; a raised walkway stretches between the fire and those in chains.

Plato’s Allegory

Socrates further defines the scene: “…and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.”.

Shadows, from shapes and figures on the walkway, are cast by the glow of the raging distant fire onto the wall before the prisoner’s eyes. It is from these apparitions, morphed into form, that a common reference is conceived…a reality created from what can only be imagined…perceptual truth from a limited world view.

“Behold!”…look now upon modern-day man as he sits “glued” to his big screen TV, appearing unable to move; engrossed in the comings and goings of images cast before his eyes. As this self-imposed prisoner stares forward, does he observe reality or illusion? Life in this “man cave” embodies his world; without care as to whether he is watching a live performance or a delayed broadcast…he believes that what he sees is true.

Man envisions those beings cast on his television screen as a race of helmet-heads. He watches as some helmet-heads glide along a glass-like surface, using their blade-like feet to propel them; while other helmet-heads push their way up and down a striped field, repeatedly crashing into still more helmet-heads…one step forward and two, maybe three, steps back…knocked down, helped up. Again and again they repeat this violent dance. Man smiles with amusement for, unlike Plato’s prisoners, he is in on this illusion. Knowing full well what lies beneath the perception, he fantasizes how wonderful life would be, lived as a helmet-head.

In Plato’s  “Allegory”, Socrates imagines a prisoner released from his chains: “…reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.”

 In time, the freed prisoner comes to realize that what he believed was real, of his life in the cave, is not the truth he now sees; he had been foolishly entertaining “false notions” and living in a “miserable manner”. Socrates continues: “And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?”

Modern man becomes a prisoner of his man cave…by his own choosing.  He willingly enters with an awareness that a true reality exists outside of this dwelling: family, work, friends…sunshine, and fresh air. Yet, still he succumbs to the seductive lure of the cave and yearns to settle into its simpler lifestyle. His reality is quickly confined to, and defined by, what lies within the walls of his man cave…awareness of the outside world fades into darkness.

As necessity forces modern man to exit his cave, he does not pity the other cave dwellers, as in Plato’s view. He longs for the time when he can return to that sanctuary away from the chains of outward reality, and once again sink back onto the couch to stare straight ahead at a fantasy world of his own design.


Click here to review the translation of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” referenced in this article.

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