Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
I’ve consumed a lot of critical material about Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), particularly that relating to the complexity of leaving this community. However, I’ve never come across an explanation that compares this phenomenon with Plato’s allegory of the cave. In fact, when I first read this ancient allegory, it immediately resonated with ‘Watchtology.’ This article will be devoted to explaining this allegory; the follow-up article will draw parallels specific to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Now, of course, Plato was a (Greek) philosopher; that mere fact alone is enough to distance most Witnesses, what with the organisation’s general negativity towards what it attributes as ‘worldly knowledge’ and ‘empty philosophies of men.’ Granted, there may be some radical thinkers out there. However, my feeling is that caution begs that we refrain from throwing the baby out with the bath water; not all philosophy is empty or circular, some can be very enlightening. In fact, I dare say, the Governing Body’s (GB) take on ‘New Light’ may be a borrowed variation of Plato’s allegory of the cave.
II THE ALLEGORY
The allegory is recorded in Book VII of Plato’s work entitled ‘The Republic.’ It is fashioned as a dialogue between Plato’s older brother, Glaucon, and his mentor, Socrates. Reading the full version is highly recommended, but a somewhat abridged version is as follows.
Condition is in the Cave
There is this descending cave, and in this cave are people who have been imprisoned since birth. They are shackled in such a way as to limit their movement. Their heads are confined in one direction, namely, the cave wall. Immediately behind the prisoners is another wall (a low wall) high enough to conceal an upright person. Behind that low wall, some distance, is a fire that burns, which gives a measure of illumination in the cave environment. Ultimately, of course, somewhere behind-and-above this cave is the exit.
Between the low wall and the fire are concealed people who walk from one direction of the low wall to the other, and they chatter as they walk. While walking, they elevate, inter alia, certain man-made objects (e.g. statues, figures etc.) over the low wall with the effect that these artefacts cast shadows on the cave wall that the prisoners are fixedly staring at. These shadows, of course, are a product of the light emanating from the fire behind.
This scenario is a daily affair, so eventually the prisoners become familiar with the projected shapes cast over the wall; these become real and the prisoners give them names; in fact, the prisoners reach a point where they are able to identify these shadows even by the sounds peculiar to each (which sounds emanate from the people concealed behind the law wall).
But then, mirabile dictu, one of the prisoners is unchained and for the first time he is able to stand, turn around and enjoy free mobility without restraint. As he stares in the general direction of the fire, his eyes are strained by the light of which he is unaccustomed; he’s unable to look at those objects whose shadows he previously saw. In fact, if someone were to approach him and say: ‘Look, man, those shadows you saw all along were not real, but these artefacts (objects) here are in fact the real thing, and now that you are able to turn around, you see them for what they are.’ The prisoner would struggle with this new information, because, to him, those shadows were indeed real and he knew this with unquestioning ‘certainty.’
Transition Out of the Cave
If this prisoner were forced to stare at the fire, would it not hurt his eyes? Would he not shrink back to what his eyes were capable of seeing without this visual strain? Would he not conclude that the shadows are in fact clearer? Further, if someone forcibly dragged him up out of the cave into the light of the sun, would he not be pained by this process? Would this experience not infuriate him even (‘Why am I being dragged out, why are you making me suffer like this’)?
As he’s dragged out of the cave, the light would blind him; he’d struggle to see. Eventually, though, if left out there, his eyes would incrementally acclimatise. Gradually he would see the shadows, then the reflections of people and objects in the water; eventually, though, as his eyes acclimatise, he would be able to view the actual objects themselves. As night approaches, he would be able to stare at the sky, viewing the stars and the moon, more easily than he would the sky during the day. At the height of his adjustment, he would be able to stare at the day sky; further still, he might escalate to a point where he is able even to look in the direction of the sun.
He Contemplates His Life Now and that Before
As he contemplates the sun, he would eventually gather that it is responsible for the seasons, it governs what things are in the direction of the sunlight and that it is ultimately responsible for the shadows that the cave dwellers are accustomed to. And when he compares what he ‘knew’ before (while in the cave) with what he now knows (outside the confines of the cave) he considers himself extremely fortunate, while viewing the state of the cave dwellers as truly lamentable.
Now, what if in the cave community, there were certain honours and prestige given to those capable of correctly identifying the shadows and able to recollect their sequence; also, if special commendations were given to those who could predict what shadow will proceed in the future. Would the liberated prisoner envy those cave dwellers with their numerous ‘wisdoms’ and ‘accolades’? Undoubtedly not! He would much rather prefer to be the lowliest person in the light, than the highest person in the dark.
His Return to the Cave
If the liberated prisoner went back down inside the cave and took his previous position; having come down out of the light, his eyes would be flooded with darkness. Now if, while in this state – his pupils not having fully dilated – he should ‘engage in the business of asserting and maintaining opinions about the shadows’ would he not be exposed to ridicule? Would he not be the subject of mockery? Would the cave dwellers not conclude that his ascent up out of the cave had in fact ‘ruined’ his eyes and that consequently such a course was manifestly destructive and inadvisable?
If the liberated prisoner then took it upon himself to free the cave dwellers from their shackles and lead them to the light, would his attempt not infuriate them? And, if possible, would they not kill him for daring to ‘corrupt’ them? They surely would!
And this is precisely the quandary that is to be found among Witnesses.
III MEANING OF THE ALLEGORY
The cave represents an isolated and closed-off ‘world.’ The light represents clarity; it illuminates the truth. The fire is an artificial source of light, so its effect is limited. The artefacts are not real, they are merely representations (i.e. models) of the real things, and the shadows that they cast over the cave wall are themselves a representation of the representation – thus it is a diluted representation to the second degree.
It would appear that the people walking behind the low wall understand the [mis]representation. The prisoners, however, are shackled in such a way as to limit their mobility (restricting any exploration); they can’t even turn their heads; they can only see what’s in front of them, that is, what their gaolers want them to see. They’ve been shackled this way since ‘birth’ and, thus, this is all that they know, this is their undisputed reality and they have built a wealth of knowledge around it.
The exit of the cave, where the true light is, is above-and-behind the prisoners. Ascending towards the exit is to experience elevation and enlightenment. Why? Because with every step, the light gets brighter and brighter as you approach (and this is the variation I was alluding to when I paralleled it to the Governing Body’s rendition of ‘New Light’).
The initial process of ascending is not without its challenges and discomfort; but the world outside the cave is real, the plants are real, the people are real, the animals are real (i.e. they are not models or ‘representations’). In this environment, the liberated prisoner can eventually distinguish between the real thing versus the representation. The shadow is a representation of the tree. The tree is the real thing. And what causes the shadow? The light from the sun – the ‘true’ light (not the artificial light). And it is this same (true) light that illuminates the reality of his surrounding and everything in it.
This source of light is elevated; the closer you come to it, the brighter things become. Previously, the light was a source of pain and frustration for the prisoner – it was too harsh; but now that he has bathed in the light, it has become a source of comfort for him. The liberated prisoner might progress to a point where he might even bear to look in the direction of the sun, unafraid of the light. Truly, he has become, not just liberated, but enlightened.
In his excitement, he dashes back to his old cave community to share this wonderful discovery with them so that they too can experience enlightenment. However, because of his time in the light, he’s no longer (visually) efficient in the dark; the community views this as a ‘sad’ state of affairs – a consequence of leaving the cave – thus, they satisfy themselves that leaving the cave is a positively bad idea.
When the prisoner proposes that they come up and see, the community thinks him mad for recommending this ‘vile’ course of action; they hold him in derision, this is because, in the cave, there are certain honours and prestige bestowed on those who have the visual eloquence to articulate matters relating to the shadows on the wall – it is a treasured thing (a thing that some have taken years to ‘acquire’), and the idea of forfeiting this is fear-inspiring. Consequently, the community refuses to even entertain the subject of leaving the cave, viewing it as a patently damnable idea (‘entheta’). Great effort, then, is made not to even ‘pollute’ themselves with this subject; they don’t want to talk about, they don’t even wanna think about it – they censor the topic and castigate anyone who brings it up.
However, the enlightened prisoner is zealous and he’s confident that if they could just come out of the (gaddamn) cave they’ll understand what he’s talking about and they’ll see the truth for what it is; so, he generously attempts to unshackle them from their bondage, but they fiercely turn on him, thoroughly convinced that he’s nothing short of an abominable agent bent on ‘corrupting’ them (as he himself has been). In fact, so fierce were they that, were it possible, they may very well have killed him for this – this ‘audacious’… contemptuous action. Instead, they banish him, they disenfranchise him… they ‘disconnect.’
The plight of the prisoner illustrates the position of the so-called ‘apostate’ (the ‘Suppressive Person’). The follow-up article will more precisely apply ‘Plato’s Allegory of the Cave’ to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
 Knowing how opposed the organisation is against higher education, I feel compelled to submit that my first encounter with this allegory (this ‘philosophy’) was, not at university, no, but from a movie: ‘Think Like a Man’(2012). That was the first time I came across the term. It was not from some university professor; I’ve not so much as taken up a philosophy course. Just had to get that on record, a’ight.
 The ‘New Light’ concept is taken from Proverbs 4:18, which says: ‘The path of the righteous one is like the light that is getting lighter and lighter until the day is firmly established.’
 Suppressive Person (SP) is the Scientologist’s equivalent of ‘apostate.’