Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: An Original Translation

I’ve spent a few hours today translating Plato’s “allegory of the cave”. For about a year, I have working on and off on a full translation of Plato’s Phaedo, however Plato’s famous passenger in Book VII of the Republic kept showing up for me, so I decided to do my own translation and post it here. Walking with Plato is a quite a journey, and and it grows deeper, as your consciousness expands. This is why it is so challenging to translate his dialogues. However, the cave metaphor, and other metaphors that Plato expresses, are easier to mange, since they are formulated as stories or pictures. Everyone can look and understand a picture.

The “allegory of the cave” is a description of the awakening process, the challenges of awakening, and the reactions of others who are not yet ready to become awakened. Remember, Socrates was put to death for teaching the youth how to ask questions about what Athenian’s took for reality. In our world today, where people are being censored, not only for their political views, but for even questioning the view of others, this passage of Plato is even more relevant and is why I have been called to take a break to translate it, and include a good amount of footnotes.

Footnotes are really necessary, due to the fact that the Ancient Greek cannot be translated directly into English. Plato is a master, if not the master, of the Ancient Attic Greek language, and he used it in many interesting ways to help his readers make correlations, connections, and insights into the world that Plato would have understood as the invisible realm of heart-intelligence, or phronesis. Phronesis is the activity of the soul, in its search for truth, unimpeded by the illusions of the physical senses and distractions. The heart is, after all, the place where we see all things as much as we can, as they are, in their true light form. For Plato, the true nature of the beings (the things we talk about) can be seen through phronesis, and, yet, as Socrates says, cannot be taught directly. The reason for this problem is revealed in the cave allegory, where human beings consistently and mistakenly believe that the shadows of things are the things themselves. In the end, the things themselves are the object of the seeker, or the lover of wisdom or truth, and it is a journey that doesn’t end, not even in death. But that is a whole other story that is reserved for that other dialogue I am working on, the Phaedo.

It’s important to consider the images of bondage in this allegory. To be unawakened, is to be transfixed, and held in place, beneath the surface of the earth.  Plato calls them puppeteers, but the translation could easily be “magicians”. The deceivers are the facilitators of this bondage and are the ones who are “putting on a show” for the captives. The captivation with the show, and the lies of the show, are what entertains the human beings when they are disconnected to nature and her true essence.  In this passage, the folly of being disconnected with true nature, is a disconnection from the soul and the heart spaces, phronesis. The opposite, could be considered synthetic, a phantasm, the lie, or the artificial. Yes, you can extend this to include artificial intelligence. Plato, through this single allegory was combining the problem of entertainment as mind control, artificial intelligence and representations, such as Deep Fakes, and various other technologies. As the Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun. That is the truth.

The deceptions that human beings are subjected to are created by other beings, who do “tricks” like puppet masters. To this day, we still refer to powerful people as those who “pull the strings” of others. Those who follow and do what they are told, are simply the puppets on the stage. The one’s watching only believe what they see in front of them. To them, there is no other reality than what they seem to see, whether they like it or not.

Plato doesn’t talk about, in this passage, who the puppet masters are, but their desire is to keep most of humanity in bondage, in their lies, instead of leading them out into the light. These are, in fact the gods, the theoi, the ones who see, but they are the ones that want to keep the humans in bondage, in worship to them. Socrates was sentenced to death because he didn’t believe in the gods that the Athenians believed in. Socrates, as the philosopher, which means “lover of wisdom” is the guide, or representative of the light, who wants to assist others in their awakening and their autonomous freedom. As such, he was a threat to the “gods” of the caves. It is remarkable that caves, in antiquity were always associated with holy places and the worship of gods/goddesses. By Plato’s day, these cults had become corrupt and dedicated not to wisdom, but to enslavement. Not dedicated to expansion and the light of consciousness, but determined to keep human beings in the dark and limited in their ability to see.

And that gets me to the light. Plato had no word for “consciousness”. In fact, the word “consciousness” is from the Latin, and it mostly means guilt.  In Ancient Greek, and during the Neo-Platonic era, consciousness as we understand it is simply the light, for the light is what enables us to see, to be able to watch and become aware. In this passage, Socrates uses the metaphor of the physical sun, to represent the light as consciousness, which to him is the ultimate good, or the Good, and, so is the God, of all things – beyond the gods.

Four Tips for Reading Plato

I will give you four tips in reading this small passage.

The first tip is to consider that it might be best to forgo the footnotes until a second reading. Get a sense of the linear story, and then dive into the footnotes.

The second tip is to understand that “being” is Plato’s way of referring to the essence of “things” or “stuff” we see. It may sound like abstract philosophical stuff, but he is only trying to express in language the truth, as opposed to the seeming/lies/deceptions in the cave.

The third tip is to notice that I have left out all punctuation for direct speech. There is no punctuation in Greek, and by putting it in, it creates a distinction that Plato didn’t intend. Plato often tells us something by moving in and out of embedded direct speech. It is best to be a little confused about who is talking, rather than try to make it clear and lose the ambiguity.  The entire Republic is told to us from the person of Socrates. So, the “I” always refers to him. In this case, the character he is dialoguing with is Glaucon, who was actually Plato’s elder brother.

The third and most important tip is to know that the Platonic dialogue is designed to make you notice things you didn’t notice before, to see something that wasn’t there in your mind previously. It encourages you to ask questions, and the more questions you have, the more you seek, the more richer your experience will be.

I hope you enjoy reading this translation as much as I have enjoyed writing it! I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Norman Maclean.

Plato’s Cave (The Republic, 514a – 517a)

So then, I said, liken[1] our nature in relation to its education and lack of education [2] to the following condition[3].   Consider human beings as those who live in a subterranean cavelike home, and although there is a passageway towards the light[4] beyond[5] the cave[6], the human beings are kept there since childhood, with their limbs and necks tied up in chains to keep them in place and to only see what was right in front of them. Because of their bondage, they are unable to move their head around, and so, to them, the light, burning from afar, comes from above and behind them[7]. In between the fire and the prisoners is a pathway that leads up towards a wall, just like the walls that are setup by puppeteers over which they present their wonders.

I see[8], he said.

Look further, and notice the human beings who are holding all sorts of props over the wall: artificial objects and statues resembling both men and the other life-forms, all made of stone and wood, and all sorts of things. As they carry these over the top of the wall, some are silent, but some make sounds like the animals and human beings they are carrying about.

You are describe a strange likeness, he said, and strange prisoners.

But they are like us![9], I said: Do you believe these people are able to see[10] anything of themselves or each other, other than the shadows that the fire projects to the opposite side of the cave?

How could they?, he said, if they have been forced to keep their heads fixed and unmoved their entire lives?

What about the objects being carried about? Isn’t it the same thing with them?

How do you mean?

Well, if they were able to dialogue[11] with each other, would you think that they’d believe that the things are[12] the very things they are seeing?

Necessarily.

So, what if the prison could carry an echo all the way to the opposite side? Do you think, if someone passing by made a sound, that they [the prisoners] would believe anything other than the shadow passing before them is the one making that sound?

By Zeus, not I!, he said

So then, in every way, I said, these human beings would believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.

Unavoidably so, he said.

So, consider, I said, what might be their possible release from bondage, and medicine for their folly, if they naturally encountered the following situation:[13]  As soon as someone is freed from their bondage, he would be compelled to suddenly stand up, turn his head around, walk and look up towards the light. While doing all these things, he would suffer pain and, due to the extreme bright light[14], would be unable to see those things, the shadows of which he saw before. [In that circumstance], what do you believe he would say, if someone else should tell him that what he knew previously was foolishness, but now he is closer to being, and that, by aligning himself more with being, he will see more correctly. Furthermore, by showing him each one of those who have been moving around [behind the scenes/wall], he would compel him to answer, by asking him what they are. Don’t you think that he would be confused and would believe that the things he used to see to be more true than the things he is being shown now?

By far, he said.

So then, even if the light itself forced him to look at the light, would he experience pain in his eyes, and turning away, would he run towards those things he was able to gaze upon, believe those things to be in reality clearer than the things that were being shown to him?

It is like that, he said.

But, if, I said, someone should drag him by force through the difficult uphill ascent and, refusing to release him until he is carried out into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he kick and scream as he was being dragged? Then, when he would finally arrive at the light, wouldn’t his eyes fill with the light of the sun, and he would be unable to even see what is now being called true?

No – at least not right away! he said.

I believe he would need to get accustomed to it, if he wanted to see the things above. First, he would be able to see the shadows quite easily, and after that, he would see the images of human beings and everything else in the waters. Then, finally, he would see the things as they are, from which things he would also see the stuff in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night, by gazing on the light of the stars and the moon, rather than the light of the day and the sun.

How not?

Finally, I believe he would gaze upon the sun itself, not its reflection of the water, or in another place, as an illusion of the sun, but as the sun is by itself and in accordance with itself, he would see and wonder as to what it might be.

Necessarily, he said.

After all this, he might converse with himself and think that the sun is the bringer of the seasons and the years, nourishing all things in the visible realm, and that the sun in some way is the cause of all these things they[15] have been seeing.

It is clear that he would come to these conclusions, he said.

What then? After remembering his first home, what [is called] wisdom there, and all those who are in bondage there, don’t you think that he would count himself blessed from his transformation, but would pity the others?

Very much so.

So, if at that time there were any honors, praises, or gifts amongst them, to award the one who could with greatest clarity see the things that go by, or the one who could remember which things were carried first, which things afterwards, and which things at the same time, or even further, one who is most powerful at predicting what would arrive in the future, do you think that he would be enthusiastic for these awards, and would be envious of those amongst them who were honored and the most powerful there, or would he instead experience the saying of Homer, and so would rather “be a farmer of the soil, a serf to another even poorer man, and to suffer anything else whatsoever, rather than to think or live  as they do?[16]

I believe this is so, that he would rather accept suffering than to live in that way.[17]

Consider this, then, I said. If such a one returned and sat in his old seat, wouldn’t his eyes be full of darkness, having all of a sudden arrived from the sun?

Very much so, he said.

If it was required that he search for knowledge in terms of the shadows there, where his eyes were still dim, and argue with those who have always been prisoners, before he could get clear vision – for it could take a long time before his eyes to adapt – wouldn’t he receive ridicule, and would be said to have ruined his eyes ascending above, that it really isn’t worth it to even attempt to do such a thing? Furthermore, if it were possible for them to take and kill the one who attempts to free and lead others, wouldn’t they do so?[18]

Absolutely, he said.


[1] Socrates calls on Glaucon to look at our human state of education in terms of a likeness. Remember, this is a parable that is about how we confuse the likeness of the beings, with the truth of the beings. The parable itself is a likeness about the condition we face as being attached to likeness. The metaphor of the cave is a paradox of mirrors.

[2] Education in ancient Greek is παιδείας. The root -παι- means child/of a child and so this word refers to all aspects of child rearing at home and at school. The word, education mostly focuses on institutionalized learning. The Greek is more expansive. It is good to keep this mind, as Socrates is not making a critique about the school system. To Plato, the world is where we learn, from childhood to adulthood. Education is synonymous with living. Learning is growing, expanding, and cultivating every day of our life.

[3] The word for condition is πάθει, from which we get our word pathos, or pathetic. It means suffering, in the sense of experiencing things outside our control. The human condition, in this parable, is one of slavery and imprisonment.

[4] This light is the light from outside the cave. It is not the fire that is described below.

[5] The preposition παρὰ is ambiguous. It is used a lot in this passage. It can mean besides (parallelogram), passed over (paraleipsis), beyond (para-normal), outside (para-dox), against (para-sol). So, the idea is that the light enters the cave, but it is not “in” the cave. It is there, but not there. I translate παρὰ as ‘about’ or ‘around’, just to keep that sense of ambiguity.

[6] Socrates refers to the cave-like home as σπηλαιώδει. But here, he uses the word cave, σπήλαιον. Notice that he quickly substitutes a world indicating likeness, with a word indicating being. This is important: language conceals that we are referring to likenesses. Keep this in mind as you continue to read the passage.

[7] Like cave and cave-like, Socrates is equating fire with the light, as if they were same. In the cave, the people can feel the fire at their backs, and they can, as we shall see, see the fire-light behind the shadows.

[8] Socrates told Glaucon to liken our nature to the conditions describe. “I see” has replaced “I liken”, which is a replacement of likeness, with identity/being. ἄτοπον

[9] Glaucon has distanced himself (projected) from the likeness by calling them “strange”.  The word is ἄτοπον, from which we get our word topology. Literally, it means “no place”, and therefore “non-existent”.

[10]

[11] Glaucon and Socrates are now dialoguing with each other. This is, after all, a dialogue of Plato.

[12] The things are represented by the objects, and those carrying them. Remember, the prisoners only see and dialogue with the shadows projected on the wall of the cave.

[13] The word that I translate as ‘folly’, ἀφροσύνης, is impossible to translate in English. The word derives from the Greek word for heart, and it describes a folly that originates in the blindness of soul, connected to the heart space.

[14] Like when you turn the light on in the middle of the night, and it is painful to the eyes.

[15] All of a sudden, it seems that the one person who ascends towards the light, is actually not alone. This is a fascinating passage. “They” and what the “they” have been seeing is actually all humans everywhere. It’s just the not all see it as clearly as the one who is awakening. It is worth meditating on this passage, because the suggestion is that the beings, in their illusion and in their being are all emanations or creations of what Plato understands to be the realm of the Good or God.

[16] The awards are given to those who see, those who can remember, and those who can predict.  In other words, the awards are given to those who deeply believe in the false reality structure, a structure that defines past, present, and future. This is how the cave-puppeteers control the narrative and award those who are able to repeat and reinforce it. Plato is showing us how timelines can be used to entrap consciousness in ignorance if we believe the stories we are told about the shadows on the wall. Public honors and awards keep the show going.

[17] The philosopher always chooses to live in truth, rather than chase the rewards of receiving good public opinion. Living in alignment with light consciousness, in the light of God is its own rewards. This sentiment is also amply expressed in the New Testament.

[18] This is hypothetical because awakening is not something that someone does to something else. Awakening is truly the awakening of the soul in connection with the Source/God/The Good, which cannot be “killed”. This is why Socrates did not hold any fear at his deathbed. They cannot kill the seeker of truth, because it is an emanation of who we are, as divine emanations of Source.

One thought on “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: An Original Translation

  1. Pingback: Prison Planet: Choices vs. Free Will – Oracular Intelligence

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