The Cave: Plato’s Fable and Christian Salvation
Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet-shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
~Plato, The Republic, Book VII
Many Christendom students are familiar with Book VII of Plato’s Republic, in which the philosopher recounts the Myth of the Cave. In this fable, the prisoners in the Cave stare at shadows of artificial puppets, cast by an artificial light, accompanied by voices which appear to emanate from the shadows. Deluded, they base their entire conception of reality on these shadows. Even if one were forced to ascend to the real world and see the light, the other captives would hold fast, even violently, to their supposed reality. Unaware of the huge lie they perceive as truth, they resent any denial of their pretend universe.
For Plato, the cave is the material world, beguiling man to trust the fleeting images he apprehends with his senses. The man who truly seeks truth should, in Plato’s opinion, strive to distance himself from the things of the body and contemplate the higher world of forms.
Plato’s theory regarding the superiority of the world of forms has provided generations of philosophy majors with ample discussion material. Indeed, the truth behind allegory often serves as great food for thought.
For the Truth exists, and the Incarnation happened. In Christ, the truth of the cave which Plato surmised is renewed and fulfilled.
For Catholics in the modern world, the cave presents a very real and dangerous trap. In John 11, the Evangelist recounts the moving story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead in an exercise of His divine power. Lazarus was Jesus’ beloved friend, yet our Lord did not arrive in Bethany until nothing remained of his friend but a buried corpse. All seemed lost; even Lazarus’ grieving sisters had despaired.
But where God is concerned, there is always hope for mercy. Jesus called Lazarus, and Lazarus answered, coming forth from his silent tomb.
In a recent address, Pope Francis compared prideful man to Lazarus in his tomb. We sinners are dead, dead to Christ, dead to Grace, dead to salvation. Our vices entomb us in graceless silence, and we recede into the depths as we fall into greater sin. Spiritually dead, we fool ourselves into thinking the shadows that we idolize are what is most real. We force ourselves into ignorance of truth which they mock. Our chains, our attachments to our sinful lives, hold us with what seems an iron grip. We resent the truth when it slaps us in the face, shut it out to foster our delusion.
To a great extent, the world as it is presented to us by government, media, and our fellow man is one huge, glaring lie. For those who cannot rise above the material, sensual, animal level, the lie is reality- A dark, dead, enclosing reality. Entwined like a corpse wrapped in faults and bad habits, we cease to struggle, allowing our base passions to take over our intellectual soul.
But we are not eternally chained in place. No matter how strong our bonds, how strong our entrapment in the ways of the world, there always remains hope. For a voice is calling, a voice which called Lazarus with the same words: ‘Come forth!’ And still we hesitate; still fear the anger of the secular world which will try to kill us if we try to correct its mistakes.
Why be afraid? His mercy is infinite. There is hope and Salvation for the prisoner that breaks his chains and responds to Jesus’ call. We may have been dead for 3 days or for a lifetime of worldly sin, but His love and compassion can break the toughest bonds. It is with difficulty and confusion that we can ascend from the pit to the summit, but with Him by our side, nothing is impossible.
‘Come Forth!’ He calls.
What is our answer?