From Plato, Republic, chapter 7:
Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads.
We read this illustration and pass over the reality of the chains on the legs and necks of Socrates' human beings. How else could their sight, hearing and understanding be limited to the shadow-puppet show projected directly ahead of them? Once the scene is set with the chains, we focus on the limitations imposed and we are taken quickly to the case of one such human being "liberated" and immediately forced to stand and to turn his head around toward the source of the light for the shadow-puppets. The individual is then dragged out of the cave altogether and held in place, forced to stand in the light of the sun. Discoveries follow.
I read it again and again, and I see the violence of those opening sentences again and again. The dragging, the chains, the dazzling pain- they are all supposed to fade away once Socrates' points are made. They do not.
The "liberated" individual returns to the cave, feels pity for his former colleagues-in-chains. The "liberated" individual cannot go back to the pitiable world of the shadow-puppet-show. Socrates is telling us why philosophers have difficulty in acting as judges and authorities among the less enlightened. The chains, the dragging out, the forcing to turnh toward blinding light, first of the cave-fire and then of the sun- it all seems to be nothing more than some collateral damage on the way to a brilliant argument., with Plato's brother Glaucon and readers walking away smarter than before.
Strange things happen on the way to enlightenment, I find. The shadows on the cave wall may be only appearances, second-hand experiences of things, but the chains on necks and legs, the tight grip on the one dragged away, are real. I read it again and again, and the chains and the grip and the dazzling light hurt each time. The "liberated" one discovers that the sun is responsible for the seasons and harvests. Now he is back in the cave, pitying the others because they are not aware of the sun nor of anything else but the shadow-show they see on the wall.
Pity him, I say. The distinction between wall-shadows and sunlit reality seems much less important than awareness of the body by which he lives. Once he is out of the cave, he is further from this awareness than his former colleagues. He has a story to tell them, and it is lost in the clash of shadows versus daylight. The violence he suffered is real. Giving words to that should come first.
Socrates later daydreams aloud about a childhood "circumcision" of attachment to those sensual pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below. His example features a clever criminal, but his daydream appears intended for all of us. I read it again and again, from the top, and I say no, thank you to the surgery that Socrates prescribes. There is some thing much more interesting than the points Socrates makes. The cave story could use a retelling.