In The Republic by Plato, Socrates (who was a real historical person and the teacher of Plato, but who functions as a mostly fictional figure in Plato’s writings) introduces certain philosophical positions through the use of an allegory involving people in a cave.
As Socrates describes it, the people in the cave are sitting with their backs to the cave opening, and their only knowledge of the outside world is via shadows cast on the wall that they are facing. They are so used to this situation that they do not conceive of the shadows as shadows or reflections of something else, but as the only reality there is. They take a great deal of interest in learning the sizes and shapes of the shadows, the speed with which they pass by, which shadows tend to be followed by which others, etc., to the point that those who are particularly knowledgeable about such matters garner much respect, praise, and rewards.
One day one of the people realizes there’s a cave opening behind them and stumbles up into the light. His eyes do not adjust readily to the brightness, and he has no conceptual framework with which to describe what he dimly sees, but he rushes back to the others and attempts to relate to them what he has experienced. They scoff at such vague and ill-articulated fantasies, and resist being drawn away from their continued pursuit of knowledge of the shadows.
So what does this all represent for Plato?
Plato believed that as valuable as anything that philosophy could do would be to reorient people toward ideals and away from their imperfect manifestations.
He held that the ideals, in fact, are more real than what we think of as reality.
For example, there are things we call “circles” which can be found on blackboards, in books, on pieces of paper, etc. There is also the abstract idea of a circle, which is a two-dimensional shape with all points the same distance from its center.
The idea of the circle is the “real” circle, in Plato’s view. Those other circles are only circles in a lesser sense insofar as they approximate the real circle, the abstract one. For really none of them has all points the same distance from its center. If you measured them closely enough, no matter how carefully they were drawn, no matter what high tech equipment was used, they would always be “off,” even if it’s only by 1/10 of an inch, or 1/1,000 of an inch, or a single atom. But we, loosely, call them circles because they reflect in some imperfect way the real circle.
To learn more about circles, we concern ourselves with the abstract one. If we want to know the geometric consequences of taking a half of a circle, or taking a segment of a circle formed by a straight line that doesn’t pass through the center, we don’t ascertain these things by cutting up circles and measuring. For since the physical circle was imperfect to begin with, those measurements too will be subtly off.
More importantly, if we want to know what it means to be a doctor, what it means to be a statesman, what it means to be a parent, what it means to love, what it means for a society to be just, we should be focused on the abstract ideals.
We should ascertain as best we can what the perfect doctor would be like, what the perfect doctor would do, if we want to know the essence of that profession. We don’t simply empirically study all the flesh and blood people called “doctors,” note that most or all of them have certain characteristics, and infer that that’s what it means to be a doctor. (It may be, for instance, that most or all of the doctors we come across are male, or have a lot of money, or are more arrogant than the average person, or order their steaks medium rare, but there’s nothing about the essence of “doctorhood” that requires a doctor to have any of these characteristics.)
Love as we experience it always falls short of the ideal (there’s some degree of selfishness to it, some conditions, etc., etc.), but it’s that ideal that’s “real” love. The closer what we experience comes to that ideal, the more worthy it is of being called “love,” though it’ll never constitute love more than the abstract ideal itself does.
The wise person, in Plato’s view, is one who seeks knowledge of the ideals, and seeks to bring his or her life in line as much as possible with them, rather than getting too bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day life.
If you prefer a little more religious spin on this idea, you might say that spiritual truths are more important than material truths. Consider, for instance, the Christians who approach a decision by asking “What would Jesus do?” In their worldview, Jesus is a representation of perfection, an ideal person. So in effect, they are asking what is the ideal thing to do, what is the right thing to do, what is it my obligation to do (and not, what do I typically do in this situation, what would the average person do, what did my Uncle Fred do last week, or anything else specific and imperfect like that).
So how does this relate to the cave allegory?
The overwhelming majority of people rarely if ever think about matters beyond the material and the mundane. Like the people in the cave, they’re deluded enough to think that that’s “reality.” They see what “is” and nothing more, instead of realizing that what “is” has only a partial, less valuable, reflective reality insofar as it resembles abstract ideals and perfection and what ought to be.
The person who ventures out of the cave comes to realize that the three-dimensional figures passing by the cave opening are a lot more interesting and important and “real” than the two-dimensional shadows they cast on the cave wall. Just as the philosopher cares more about understanding “love” in the abstract than trying to infer its meaning from observing the unavoidably imperfect versions of it we experience in life.
But it’s tough. Because we’re so used to looking at the world empirically, we’re so used to thinking of the material world as “real” and ideals as dubious speculative things best ignored, that when the person does reorient toward the ideals, it’s hard to have any clear vision of them or to even know how to articulate what one seems to be learning about them. It’s easier to fall back into our usual ways of thinking, instead of challenging ourselves with a lot of “oughts” and notions of perfection.
Especially in the early stages, spiritual or philosophical enlightenment can feel like the fellow stumbling around at the entrance to the cave, more blinded and confused than he ever felt just watching shadows.
And there’s social pressure against that path of wisdom. Folks are mostly caught up in “Don’t bother me, I’m watching the shadows!” to appreciate more idealistic or abstract pursuits.
But ultimately, the wise person will guide his or her life-whether in parenting or solving math problems-by ideals and abstractions and not by only what can be gleaned from the unavoidably imperfect physical and social world. He or she will realize that reality lies outside the cave and not in its flickering reflections within.