The Existential Cave
In a famous dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon found in his Republic, Plato develops an allegory that bears profound political and philosophical implications. Above all, the Allegory represents the path and purpose of the philosopher, leaving the "world of shadows in order to rise to the luminous world of ideas" (Caverero 2). Plato's epistemological search for Truth contrasts with the Sophist's relativism and their pursuit of power and victory through debate and argument. The search for Truth is a continuing element of Western philosophy, and in his development of modern existentialism, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre echoes elements of Plato's Cave in elucidating his concept of absolute freedom. Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" examines the flaws that Plato saw within the Sophists’ rule of Athens while also serving as a basis for modern philosophy, particularly for the existentialist freedom of Sartre.
Plato's Allegory is a political message that decries the "men who fight one another for shadows," namely his despised contemporaries, the Sophists (Plato 752). The Cave is a microcosm of Plato's Athens; "[it] represents a political world; a world of the democratic polis, in the hands of the demagogues" (Caverero 8). The shadows that are cast onto the wall of the Cave are the frivolous arguments that the Sophists use to hold power in Athens. Plato argues the need for a philosopher-king, the "waking minds" to which Socrates refers (Plato 752). This individual is no longer a part of the masses with their "legs and necks fettered" but is one who has seen the philosophical light outside of the Cave (Plato 747). For Plato, the search for Truth presupposes a tension between belief and fact, emphasizing the difficulty of leaving the Cave, the way out being "rough and steep," of leaving opinions that are purely rhetorical (Plato 74). Thus the path to becoming this philosopher-king is challenging yet necessary.
The crucial facet of the one prisoner's escape from the Cave is his condition of freedom. He is forced to be free and realize the situation of the Cave; in Sartre's terms, he is "condemned to be free" (Sartre L’Être et le Neant 186). With this freedom, he bears the responsibility to embrace it in the face of existential anxiety, the pain of the bright light. To Sartre, evading this responsibility constitutes "mauvaise foi [bad faith]," whereby one cedes to the pressures of society and acts inauthentically, denying his own innate freedom. Further, Sartre recognizes that one "cannot not will the freedom of others," similar to how Socrates posits to Glaucon that "a man returning from divine contemplations" would "pity” his fellow prisoners (Sartre L’Existentialisme 70; Plato 750, 749). Though both Plato and Sartre make explicit that the enlightened individual cannot force an acceptance of freedom onto another, as the other is already forced to be free, he must embrace his own freedom.
To examine this freedom, Sartre utilizes the mauvaise foi of the prisoners to craft his own Cave in Huis Clos, a room in Hell furnished in the style of the Second Empire. There, three characters contend with the decisions they made in life, yet none accept these decisions as their own, instead preferring to have the others evaluate their actions. These prisoners of Hell, much like the prisoners of the Cave, deny their freedom, figuring, "L'enfer c'est les autres [Hell is other people]" (Sartre Huis Clos 92). However, the three are in Hell due to their own actions, and, in refusing to accept that fact, they are punished by eternally defining themselves through the false lens of the others.
Though the Cave does not exist in reality, its very essence bears a philosophical weight for all humanity. Perhaps, the Cave is indeed the Sartrean Hell of Huis Clos, or even Dante's Hell, a grotesque construct of torment that embodies our condition in life, characterized by contrapasso. As the mass of humanity is blinded to the Truth, the conditions of the Cave reflect this blindness to actual reality. Furthermore, humanity's acceptance of false truths and ideologies, a way to soothe our existential anguish, equates to the prisoner's acceptance of the shadows as reality. Existentialism, as both a political and philosophical belief, is the path out of the Cave of our own construction, out of despair, and into the light; the intention "is not in the least that of plunging men into despair" (Sartre L’Existentialisme 77). Thus the only way to authentically live as human beings is to embrace our freedom, prioritizing what we do over what we believe we are.
Cavarero, Adriana, and Paul Kottman. “Regarding the Cave.” Qui Parle, vol. 10, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1–20, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20686057.
Plato. “Allegory of the Cave.” Translated by P. Shorey. Random House, 1963
Sartre, Jean-Paul. L’Être et le Neant [Being and Nothingness]. Gallimard, 1943.
---. Huis Clos suivi de Les Mouches [No Exit followed by The Flies]. Gallimard, 1947.
---. L'Existentialisme est un Humanisme [Existentialism is a Humanism]. Gallimard, 1996.
© 2022 Lucas Delille