“Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before.”
“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?”
“What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?”
“If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes – coming suddenly out of the sun like that – be filled with darkness?”
“In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it produces both light and its source on the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or in public must see it.”
“Then the release from bonds and the turning around from shadows to statues and the light of the fire and, then, the way up out of the cave to the sunlight and, there, the continuing inability to look at the animals, the plants, and the light of the sun, but the newly acquired ability to look at divine images in water and shadows of the things that are, rather than, as before, merely at shadow in relation to the sun – all this business of the crafts we’ve mentioned has the power to awaken the best part of the soul and lead it upward to the study of the best among the things that are, just as before, the clearest thing in the body was led to the brightest thing in the body and the visible realm.”
– Plato, The Republic, Book VII
In the Republic Plato’s allegory of the cave is used to address matters of education, ignorance, enlightenment and the best approach to education and enlightenment in running a city, but the symbol and metaphor of the cave can just as easily be applied to the educating and enlightening experiences of life, especially life in a cave as dark and unenlightening as the society we live in today.
The cave, or tomb, also represented the womb in pagan custom. Entering and leaving the cave, or tomb, in reincarnation rituals signified rebirth, restoration of memory and enlightenment. In the cave, the “hero” would fight a monster – in the myths a dragon, a cyclops, or a gorgon perhaps, in prehistoric times, a cave bear, later a wolf – just as the uninitiated, the fetus, and the unborn ancestor, would “fight” the placenta in the womb. The cave is dark, the cave is terrifying, the cave could spell your doom, but as a womb, as a home, it can also make the would outside – the world of blinding light that Plato described – even more terrifying, and perhaps impossible to navigate. Sometimes we might feel defeated, lost in the cave, we might feel that we will never find the way out of the cave, that we will forever be prisoners there.
How do we leave the cave? In the dark, lonely “cave” we live in today, it is dark, and often seems hopeless, and it is easy to despair. How do we know those outside of the cave aren’t prisoners as well? What if we leave the cave only to fall and wind up trapped and lost in another one soon after? What if, try as we might to approach the exit and embrace the light outside and escape the cave, powers beyond our control bring the cave collapsing in on itself, trapping us inside forever? What if the monster inside the cave drags us back in? Even those among us who have glimpsed the light, who have seen how things work inside the cave, inside the prison, in the prison of modern society and at the mercy of alien ideologies and agendas, may be just as lost in the cave. Our life might still feel like some kind of nightmare out of a Franz Kafka novel, an oppressive and bleak world that feels suffocating, which we feel we lack any real control over, where powers beyond our control appear to make escape from the prison impossible. We may eventually embrace defeat, develop a sort of “Stockholm syndrome” response even toward our oppressors who bind us in ignorance, we may fear that the prison inside the cave is the only world we will ever know. We may feel we can only accept defeat, that this is all that life has in store for us, that we simply weren’t meant to make it out of the cave.
I do not preach from an ivory tower as someone who has “made it” and left the cave. This is a struggle I share. I have seen many traditional pagans, survivors, who have. But I remain focused on the way out, on the exit strategy, I have become aware of how, even when I felt guided by light, by enlightenment, I was resigned to staying in that prison, feeling that anything outside it seemed fantastical, that I had to just “make do” with what life had dealt me. I wasted a lot of valuable time in terms of study and employment that could have been put to much better use, that I could have spent going through the process of learning an essential skill in an area of work that’s always in high demand, that will serve me and my tribe well in the future, as well as allow me to escape from the endless rut of dead-end jobs, where you never feel appreciated, where sooner or later, you will be discarded. It’s easy to find comfort and distraction in the cave, and hope that everything will be alright, that the exit will reveal itself to us, but we must never lose focus, we must not lose sight of the way out of the cave. We must ask ourselves, as scary as the blinding light of the unknown world outside the cave might be, as much of a struggle it will be to learn and adapt to this new and strange world, what could possibly be worse than forever dwelling in darkness, in ignorance, in a prison, allowing ourselves to be lost to hopelessness, pessimism and despair?
Hope and optimism are important, but we need to do more than hope if we are to leave the cave, we need to believe, to know that with struggle, resolve, determination and persistence, we will find the exit from the cave, and we will embrace that blinding light and not look back. We need to know that those exits are there, that we have everything it takes, that we are meant to make it out. There will always be those who seek to sabotage the efforts of others to leave the cave, the liars, the cowards, the traitors, the schemers, either because they want it all for themselves, or because they have already decided that not only do they not want to leave the cave, but they do not want anyone else to leave the cave either. These people do not matter, however. They are hopeless, powerless and ultimately enslaved by their own greed, hatred and envy. They will remain in the darkest depths of the cave, while we press on to find the way out.
You may live in a location, a city perhaps, that makes you feel desperate, depressed and hopeless, a place with little hope itself, little opportunity that may also feel like a prison that you won’t escape from, with looming walls surrounding it that seem impenetrable, that may make the world outside seem forever out of reach. You may live in a home that makes you feel the same way, that feels suffocating, oppressive and hopeless. But the light of the sun – the light of the fire in the cave – is always there to give us clues, to guide us, to inspire us to find the exit strategy, as the ways out of the cave in any situation are always there.
Nothing is as simple as it seems, the world is complicated, we all have our own web that we must cut ourselves free from in order to escape the darkness of the cave, but nothing is as impossible as it seems either. The walls of the cave are never as impenetrable as they seem. We must use our resolve, our strategy, our talents, or determination to survive and thrive outside of the cave in the light and in the wilderness, the divine light and inspiration, to drive us forward. We must bask in each other’s light, guide each other, inspire each other, listen to each other, look at who else has already left the cave despite odds being stacked against them, and we must ask ourselves “why is it taking me so long? Why do I feel stuck in limbo? What is really holding me back from leaving the cave, and why am I letting it, when I am sensible enough to know better?”
I have to make up for some lost time, things aren’t simple these days, and many do, it often takes time, more time than is ideal, but regretting and dwelling on the past is pointless. I see some really inspirational people who have already escaped the prison, have already got to where they need to be, or at least well on their way to getting there. With the right focus, and by truly believing in ourselves, and forcing us to stay on the path and find the way out, we can all get there too, no matter how impossible and unbelievable it may seem.
Escape the cave, escape the darkness, escape from the system, escape from whatever you feel is holding you back, dragging you down and barring your exit. Through hard work, determination and positivity, ways out will reveal themselves to us, and we should seize the opportunity and dive through them when we can. When we finally leave the cave, we will be reborn, we will have braved the darkness, slain what beast dwells inside, and embraced the light, and we won’t look back. We will be who we are destined to be.