Stepping Out of the Cave: The Never-Ending Journey in Search of What is True
In the dystopian world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the reading of classic, literary works has been outlawed. In the quest for unending “happiness,” the citizens of this future society have forbidden reading and any activity that might result in deep, thoughtful contemplation, for it is then, in the throes of serious thought, that melancholy can arise.
Guy Montag, the main character of the novel, is a “fireman,” one tasked with destroying books and the houses that contain them. Early in the novel, he is forced to witness the suicide of a woman who allows herself to be burned to death rather than surrender her home library to the firemen. This experience disturbs him deeply. Montag wonders what the books could contain that would be worth such a sacrifice. In this short excerpt, he is speaking to his wife, wondering if maybe reading books, an activity anathema to everything he believes, might help them better understand their world:
Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much? I’ve heard the rumors about hate, too, once in a long while, over the years. Do you know why? I don’t, that’s sure! Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave! They just might stop us from making the same insane mistakes! Don’t you see? An hour a day, two hours with these books, and maybe…(Bradbury 69-70).
Though Montag is uneducated and has no literary background whatsoever, Ray Bradbury, the novel’s author, knew exactly what he was doing with Montag’s line of dialogue here and the reference made to books leading us “half out of the cave.” The “cave” being referred to is the allegorical cave which Plato describes in Book Seven of The Republic.
The Allegory of the Cave is a “Socratic Dialogue,” a conversation between Socrates and a young would-be philosopher named Glaucon. When the dialogue begins, Socrates describes to Glaucon a “figure,” or allegory to demonstrate the degree to which the citizens of Athens are either enlightened or unenlightened:
“Behold! Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den: there they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; 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…
And do you see 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…
They see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?”
Glaucon responds: “True, how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?”
SOCRATES: “And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?”
SOCRATES: “And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?”
GLAUCON: “Very true.”
SOCRATES: “And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?”
GLAUCON: “No question.”
SOCRATES: “To them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”
GLAUCON: “That is certain.” (Plato 224-25)
Is this not true in the real world? If someone knows nothing else, would they not understand the world as they perceive it to be how things really are, even if their perceptions are logically or fundamentally false? If they have not been shown the error of their perceptions, will they then not continue to see the world through the same skewed lens? Will they not continue to mistake “shadow” for reality?
Socrates continues then:
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look toward the light, he will suffer sharp pains: the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned toward more real existence, he has a clearer vision—what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them—will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
GLAUCON: “Far truer.” (Plato 225).
Here we see an illustration of something Socrates was known to say in other contexts: ‘A man doesn’t want what he doesn’t think he lacks.’ If someone is unaware that he is missing something, will he be sad about that? If he is kept unaware of the truth, will the untruth of his “shadow” experience not continue to be seen as reality? He will be “sure” that the shadows in his cave are actually the real objects.
It is that certainty, that what we currently believe we know cannot be questioned, that is the enemy of truth. Truth’s ally is the examination and re-examination of belief. When shown light from outside the cave that banishes our “shadows,” we must not close our eyes and refuse to squint into it, even if we do not like what we see, or are “perplexed” by it.
Socrates presses on: “And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?”
“True,” Glaucon acknowledges.
SOCRATES: “And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is 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.” (Plato 225).
This pain and irritation in the presence of the light we might liken to “cognitive dissonance,” the holding of two contradictory ideas in our minds simultaneously. When we have held certain worldviews and beliefs for a very long time, it can be difficult to accept that which might question or challenge them. But why must this be? Should we not embrace truth, at least insofar as it can be shown to be a truth, once it is shown to us? What are we afraid of? If a scientist were to make a discovery that shattered her current beliefs about the universe (such as the recent discovery that measured gravity waves) would she not be overjoyed that a misconception or lack of knowledge had at last been corrected or supplied, and that human understanding had taken yet another giant leap forward? Human history has indeed shown us that such paradigm shifts are slow to occur; the world not being flat or not being the center of the universe were not popular ideas that caught on right away. Despite this, an idea’s popularity should not trump its validity. We must challenge and discard bad ideas wherever we see them, helping lead others into the light and dispelling the shadows that cloud their minds.
Socrates resumes: “He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?”
GLAUCON: “Certainly.” (Plato 225-26).
Socrates would suggest to us that the changing of a worldview or the surrendering of a long-held belief will not be a sudden or immediate process, no matter how compelling the evidence is that challenges it. This is as it should be. No one should surrender a strongly-held belief on a whim. It should take time to think about and process the new evidence, and it should be examined with a very critical eye for its reliability and validity. Its source should be critically examined and cross-referenced. Only then, if it holds up against intensive scrutiny, should it be given preliminary acceptance as a new way of seeing things. But in time, as Socrates now illustrates, the shadows will disperse and understanding will dawn:
“Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water; but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.”
SOCRATES: “He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?”
GLAUCON: “Clearly, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.”
SOCRATES: “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?”
GLAUCON: “Certainly, he would.” (Plato 226).
This “pity” Socrates mentions is key. Those who have been manipulated into believing in the shadows are not to be hated or scorned, but rather pitied and educated. They do not wish to live in ignorance, but do not as yet understand that their shadows are not realities. It is the duty of those who can see the shadows for what they are to shed light upon and thereby scatter them using the best evidence available to do so.
“This entire allegory, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world…but, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.”
“I agree,” says Glaucon. (Plato 227).
We must, as we seek the truth, keep our eyes fixed on the most reasonable and logical ideas, beliefs, and courses of action that present themselves, and be willing to modify our ideas and beliefs when it is necessary and appropriate to do so. All around us, there are metaphorical “caves” that hinder our understanding, enlightenment, and freedom. They come in many forms, and we often may not realize that we are shackled within them. They can be “inner” caves, imposed on us by our own thoughts, fears, doubts, and insecurities. They can also be “external caves” such as obsessions with technology, addictions to substances, or misinformation that keeps otherwise intelligent people in the “shadows” of ignorance. Each of us must learn to identify our own caves and work to break free of them. We must also strive to take the keys back down into the cave to release as many prisoners as we can and lead them into the light.
As Plato described, the prisoners see only illusions; truth is not available to them, nor do they seek it on their own. Our job is to show those still living in the caves, be they internal or external, that what is holding them back is but an illusion born out of ignorance or fear, and that they must instead seek the truth.
That truth is likely to prove elusive, and that is a good thing. That is what makes the journey such a rewarding one. Should we ever “find” the truth, then the journey ends…and what then? The greatest bumper sticker I have ever seen reads “Trust those who seek the truth; Doubt those who have found it.” Certainty is an enemy of truth; examination and reexamination are allies of truth. Aristotle, a contemporary of Plato and Socrates, while reflecting on the thoughts of those men argued that for an examined life to emerge we need questions and a hunger to pursue those questions. Absent any desire to know one is either certain or indifferent. How can anyone be indifferent toward learning the truth?
For me, the cave I fight against every day is the cave of ignorance. My own, as well as the ignorance displayed by those around me. I quote Professor Richard Dawkins here: “I do sometimes accuse people of ignorance, but that is not intended to be an insult. I’m ignorant of lots of things. Ignorance is something that can be remedied by education.” When I see ignorance in action, I cannot resist attempting to lessen it, and I always seek alleviation of my own. I do not wish to be wrong or misinformed one minute longer than I have to be.
I am an educator, and I feel that my paramount duty while working with young minds is to give them the tools to critically examine everything they are told and come to their own reasoned conclusions as to what is true. At the same time, many of those truths they come to hold dear may not hold up as they continue to learn and their experiences grow. It is the journey toward wisdom that is important. I don’t tell people what to believe, but rather give them the tools to examine what they themselves believe in an honest and critical way.
So how about you? Are you living in a cave? What are your shadows? I encourage you to lay your currently held beliefs, no matter what they are or how long you have held them, out on the table in front of you, and shine the light of truth on them. Even if they hold up under close examination, continue to seek that which might expose any shadows that might be lurking beneath, beside, or around them. You owe that to yourself. Shine that same light on the ideas of those you encounter and work with each day, for you owe it to them.
We all owe it to the truth to keep searching for it, but may that quest be an enlightening and never-ending one.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951. Print.
Plato. Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004. Print.