The Parable of the Cave, Traditionalist Version

Once there was a cave where a small group of people lived. These people had never seen the outside world, but they were well aware of its existence. The people were not chained down, and they could wander freely in the cave. They could even leave the cave, but they prefered the dark and cool environment of the cave.

The cave was quite dark, and the people could only make out basic, simple shapes. During the day the bright sunlight outside made it impossible for them to look out of the cave, and the avoided the doorway to the outside. At evening time, when the outside light was subdued, they would sometimes sit at the exit and look at the little they could see of the outside world.

The people valued knowledge, and they realized that there was much more to the world than what they could see in their cave. They also valued the lifestyle they had developed in the cave, and they knew that outside they would not be able to maintain their traditions. They even felt that not only their traditions would dissapear, but they would not even be able to maintain any sort of society, as the great expanses of the world outside the cave would let everyone go in their own direction and spread far from each other. But yet they valued knowledge, and did not want to be limited by their life in the cave.

The elders of the people took counsel how to satisfy the people’s yearning for knowledge while also maintaining the society they had cultivated for so long. The leaders did not reach any conclusions of their own, but they took note of a recent habit of the young people, which showed them the solution. The young people had begun painting the walls and cieling of the cave with images of what they had seen from outside, and what they had heard of it from people who had gone outside and from the the occasional visitors who came in. The elders looked approvingly at these paintings, and saw in them a way for the people to know of the world without having to leave the cave.

With time the walls and cieling of the cave were covered with paintings. On the walls there were trees and animals and the larger representations of human society which could not develop in the cave. On the cieling there were the sun and the moon and stars, as well as birds and clouds and some atmoshperic phenomena.

The paintings were of course only caricatures of the world outside the cave, and hardly reflected the true reality. Yet the people valued them and studied them, seekng to increase their understanding of the real world. The people in the cave even had some ancient texts which had come to them from their long-forgotten ancestors, who had lived outside the cave. The texts were short and cryptic, and studied in depth. The people often compared these texts with their paintings to better understand both, and the cryptic comments often reaffirmed the accuracy of their paintings as representations of the outside world.

There were those people who would occassionaly venture out of the cave, and people from outside would sometimes venture within. These people would sometime observe to the people of the cave that their paintings were not faithful representations of the outside world. The people would respond by telling of their great dedication to the truth and how exacting they had been in making the paintings. They would also point to the ancient texts which reflected the reality of the paintings, and to new texts their scholars had written recently which very clearly connected the reality of their paintings with the truths of the ancient texts.

The travelers and the visitors would try to show them how their texts were quite fitting for the outside world, and that for someone familiar with that world it was quite impossible to apply those texts to the paintings in the cave. Yet the people who had never left the cave could not relate to that possibility, never having seen the external reality. Their interpretation of their texts and their paintings became so fundamental to how they thought that they could not allow anyone to challenge either, for any challenge was a heresy against their books and a mockery of their reality.

The people of the cave soon reached the point where not only was leaving the cave a threat to the stability of their society, but any interaction with the outside threatened the ideas which held them together, and which allowed them to understand the world. Despite the still imperfect state of their paintings and the limitations of their understanding of their ancient texts, they decided that they had reached the limit of the possible extent of their knowledge. Any further exposure to the world outside the cave would lead to more loss of knowledge and understanding than it could contribute to further scholarship. The elders had the people block the entrance to the cave, forever perserving the truth of their paintings as the exclusive intellectual posession of the people of the cave.

I don’t know why I bother to write a parable to present something obvious. The impetus to write this was a conversation I had recently with an acquantance who lives in an ideological cave, and it really struck me that not only was he ignoring the real world, but that he had constructed a full caricature of it, which formed the basis of his understanding of the world. He was essentially studying his own creation, and thinking he was studying the world.

Nothing in this little parable should be seen as against religion. I am religious, and quite in favor of religion. Religion often does lead to people seeing the world through their own misunderstanding of religion, and to people retreating from the world in order to protect their religious beliefs. This is a failure to correctly utilize the teachings of religion. Religion must be applied to the real world, and only through the study of both can either one be known.