Socrates believed that most people live in a world of relative ignorance. We are even comfortable with that ignorance, because it is all we know. When we first start facing truth, the process may be frightening, and many people run back to their old lives. But if you continue to seek truth, you will eventually be able to handle it better. In fact, you want more! It’s true that many people around you now may think you are weird or even a danger to society, but you don’t care. Once you’ve tasted the truth, you won’t ever want to go back to being ignorant!
Plato, in his book, The Republic, writes about a conversation between Socrates and one of his young followers named Glaucon. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave in which prisoners are kept. These prisoners have been in the cave since their childhood, and each of them are chained so that their legs and necks are immobile and they can only look at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners are puppeteers carrying objects in the shape of human and animal figures as well as everyday items. The prisoners are unable to see these objects and can only see the flickering shadows of these objects on the wall.
Then Socrates offered a twist in the plot–what if one of the prisoners were to be freed, and made to turn and look at the fire and then back at the shadows? The prisoner would then realize that the shadows were just images and not real. If the prisoner was then taken from the cave, and brought into the open, the prisoner would be taken even farther from the world of shadows and he would be able to see even more of the world .
After learning of the reality of the world, the prisoner now sees how ‘pitiable’ his former colleagues in the cave really are. If he returned to the cave, he would take no pleasure in the shadows and the other prisoners would probably see him as deranged, and accuse him of not really knowing what reality is.
Like all good myths, parables and allegories, the richness of this story lies not in the literal details of the story, but, rather, in the larger philosophical questions implied by the details. The following are some of the thoughts that I gained:
- Our understanding of reality is limited by our experiences and what we believe from the experiences of others. For example, the prisoners did not know that they were actually inside a cave and assumed that their surroundings constituted the entire universe. And though the cave was dimly lit, the prisoners did not feel that it was dark and blurry because to them, everything looked normal.
- The first step in enlightenment is to change your view. As illustrated by the prisoner looking at the fire, change isn’t simply about embracing something unknown — it’s about giving up something that has given meaning to the world and embrace the possibilities of something that challenges that understanding.
- Change can also be painful as illustrated by the prisoner looking upon the fire after spending a lifetime in the dark. We try to hold on to our well known, familiar life even if it is not perfect or not working anymore because it is what we know. It is predictable so it is safe, it is comforting. When something changes we enter into an unfamiliar territory which is unpredictable and new so it is scary. We imagine the worst possible outcomes and that creates the emotion of fear.
- Those who are ignorant will resist change and will often oppose you and ridicule your enlightened views. Researchers have proven that xenophobia can be easily—even arbitrarily—turned on. In just hours, we can be conditioned to fear or discriminate against those who differ from ourselves by characteristics as superficial as eye color. Even ideas we believe are just common sense can have deep xenophobic underpinnings. For example, research conducted at Harvard reveals that even among people who claim to have no bias, the more strongly one supports the ethnic profiling of Arabs at airport-security checkpoints, the more hidden prejudice one has against Muslims.
- Awareness makes it difficult to return to the world of ignorance as illustrated by the prisoner returning to the cave. Eckhart Tolle in the book, Power of Now, wrote “Being an outsider to some extent, someone who does not “fit in” with others or is rejected by them for whatever reason, makes life difficult, but it also places you at an advantage as far as enlightenment is concerned. It takes you out of unconsciousness almost by force.”
- Change is only possible when you start looking in new places, listen to other views, or try different things. The prisoner changed when he looked at the fire instead of the wall. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” To assist others to achieve enlightenment, you should not tell someone what they should see, but rather help them look at the world differently.