The main subject of Aristotle’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ are a group of prisoners who have been kept chained their entire lives in a cave with one opening to the outside. By way of this opening, in addition to a strategically placed wall and fire, they are able to see the shadows of individuals who pass by carrying different objects. The fire causes the shadows of the objects being carried to be projected onto the back wall of the cave, but the placement of the wall ensures that the individuals actually carrying the objects are not visible.
Because they can only see the shadows of these objects, their knowledge of the outside world is limited to the knowledge of shadows, a fact that, when one prisoner is released and taken from the cave, causes hardship due to his inability to accept the three-dimensional outside world as the truth and the shadows as a falsehood. In the cave, the truth of the people who are carrying the objects is hidden from the prisoners by the wall, just as in today’s society, there are individuals whose path to the truth is being hindered by an outside source.
One example of this phenomenon is illustrated in the 2003 novel by Emily Donaghue, Room-victims of child kidnappings or children who are born into a situation of captivity. The novel follows the progress of a young child whose mother was abducted at the age of 19 and imprisoned for seven years, during which time she gives birth to the main character, Jack. In order to protect her son from the horror of the reality that they are being held captive in a small storage shed, Jack’s mother allows him to believe that their shed constitutes the entire world.
In this instance, Jack’s mother is representative of the wall; shielding him from the truth (Likewise, the mother’s kidnapper represents, quite literally, the binding chains of the prisoners by way of his continued imprisonment of the main characters). However, this causes an issue when Jack, much like the prisoner in the cave, is thrust into the outside world. Because he has lived his entire life in the shed believing only the things within are real, he is unable to see the outside world as ‘truth’, and only wants to return to his actual world.
Over the course of the novel, Jack, much like the escaped prisoner, must learn to view the rest of the world as the truth. In addition, like the prisoner who escapes and then returns to his former home, once Jack returns to the shed, he is able to recognize that what he had previously believed to be the entire world appears much smaller when examined again with his new knowledge. Another example is that of children brought up in a cult setting.
Here, the wall could represent multiple individuals, from whoever began the cult and first decided its teachings to the parents of the child in question. This can be be illustrated using the example of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. In this instance, the members of this group most adversely affected by the obstructed knowledge are young women, as children are brought up to believe that women are inferior to men, and that their worth is dependent upon how well they please their husbands and how many children they bear.
Additional teachings include discouragement of close friendships with other women, the idea that socializing after marriage comes at the expense of their children and results directly in said children failing, negative emotions ‘disturb the spirit of God’, and that women must not hold any position of authority or have a leadership role of any kind. Alongside these teachings, the flow of outside information is tightly controlled, and choosing to leave the church has been described by former members as ‘escaping’.
The entire FLDS church system is analogous to the cave in that members, especially children, are denied access to the ‘truth’ that the majority of civilized society believes that women are NOT subservient to men, or at least that they do not openly proclaim it as the FLDS church does. The prophet of the church is representative of the wall shielding his prisoners from this knowledge.
The purportedly restricted methods of excommunicating from the movement are the binding chains, and the members who have left the congregation and forced to adjust to a world radically different than the one they had always known are clearly the prisoner making his way in a world that is not two-dimensional. The FLDS church is an obvious example due to its nature of having restrictive, harmful teachings while not allowing the subject of its teachings the possibility of garnering an alternate opinion by way of acquiring other knowledge.
However, it is not just this specific church that could be considered symbolic of the Cave. In fact, most, if not all, mainstream religions in America today could fit these requirements, especially in the southern portion of the country. To elaborate, most mainstream religions, much like the FLDS church, have a number of statements that are taught to its followers as the ‘truth. ‘ These may vary slightly according to the religion in question, but the main tenets of most American monotheistic religions are as follows:
1. There is one all-knowing, all-seeing Creator, 2. This Creator has the power to punish or reward humanity both in life and in death, 3. This Creator has certain rules that must be followed in order to receive these rewards, and 4. Deviation from the path dictated by these rules result in adverse consequences. It is common for these tenets to be taught as the only truth; refusing to follow these, as well as the rules the Creator or any human followers speaking on its behalf can result in not only presumed postmortem punishment by this Creator itself, but punishment on Earth by human followers.
Due to the fact that merely questioning the established teachings is seen as deviation and insubordination worthy of punishment, a child brought up in a specific monotheistic religion in America and not permitted to question this religion (openly OR internally, as the Creator is allknowing) for fear of reprisal could be representative of the prisoner.
Because the child while underage is largely under parental control, if the aforementioned outside force attempts to discourage the flow of knowledge pertaining to other beliefs, the parent is representative of the binding chains that force the prisoners to look only at the half-truth shown by the wall-in this case, the wall is the lie told by religion. A prime example of this is the refusal of at least one monotheistic belief system that will remain unnamed to reconcile the teachings of their holy book with recent scientific discoveries, namely the theories of evolution and the Big Bang.
While the evidence for the Big Bang is mostly circumstantial, the fossil record and even organisms living today clearly illustrate the trend of evolution in our history. The issue then, is that this religion has in its holy book an alternate story of Creation, in which their Creator formed every animal alive today, as it is today, separately from humankind, and then formed humans in its image and gave them dominion over the earth and all of its ‘lesser’ organisms.
This anthropocentrism being taught as fact is the entire reason why many followers of this religion are unable or unwilling to believe that the ‘superior Man could possibly be directly descended from a ‘lesser’ primate. The examples of cult followers and the victims of child kidnappings offer very little room for disagreement, as the adverse effects of physically being held prisoner are widely known and accepted in our society. However, the idea of religion being compared to the wall HIDING the truth can surely be a point of contention.
Proponents and followers of mainstream religions can argue that the idea of an established religion cannot be compared to the Cave as, generally, followers of an established religion see that religion as a way to seek the truth and gain higher knowledge. While this point can surely be argued by pointing out that a religion seeking higher knowledge would most definitely not only question their own beliefs, but also attempt to learn as much as possible in the way of alternate beliefs.
However, the simplest response to criticism of this comparison is that it is only true in that religion is a set of beliefs usually taught from birth, while at the same time hindering knowledge of other accepted truths, and that may be challenged upon careful inspection of established ‘truths’ within this belief system and consideration of other options. Because Aristotle’s Allegory is fairly vague, it can be applied to nearly any situation in which a person or group of people are prohibited from some higher knowledge or truth by an outside force.
In the case of Room, this outside force, or wall, is the main character’s mother protecting him from the Truth that is the entire world outside of their small shed; the prophet and leaders of the FLDS church prohibit the members of their congregation access to currently accepted ideas about gender equality, and in this way THEY are the wall; the entire Westernized system of mainstream religion today is helping to prohibit an entire group of people from accepting the knowledge of scientific teachings that may contradict the teachings of this religion, as the wall prohibited the prisoners from knowing the truth about the three-dimensional world. Accounting for just these examples, the Allegory of the Cave is shown to be not only relevant today, but that its relevance will continue as long as there are those who would deprive anyone of the ability to seek the truth.