The Allegory of the Cave: Why Leadership Means Staying Outside


In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave we're introduced to a man who has just escaped a cave to discover the outside world for the first time. Before this discovery, he had lived in darkness, with puppet shows in shadow educating him on the ways of the world. It wasn't until he ventured outside, however, that he realized the deception. 

For the very first time, he sees the true sun, smells real flowers, and experiences the natural world in all of its glory and truth. Excited by such a life-changing experience, he rushes back into the cave to tell his friends - all of the people who are still living in darkness and relying on the puppet shows to form their opinions of a world they have never before experienced. The man tells them of the wonders he has discovered, and tries his damnedest to persuade them to follow him back out into the true and wonderful world. 

But the others do not believe him, and so they conspire to kill this “crazy” man who spouts “lies” about the world they know to be “true.” Perhaps some are even afraid that they will lose their status, partner, children, or importance should they side with the tanned imbecile. And for that, they feel a desperate urge to squash this man’s speech by any means necessary. They do not want to change, even if that means that they must die in that cave. And so, the man’s message is ignored - even suppressed. 

But what if….

What if that same man, upon his discovery of the outside world, had learned to adapt to it? What if he had ventured to learn everything he could  - how to hunt, fish, or build a hut? And then, instead of racing back into the cave to tell the others, he simply set up a fire beside the cave’s entrance and began to cook a boar, so that the decadent scent of roasting meat might lure the others out?

What if, instead of returning to tell his friends how stupid they had all been, the man demonstrated the superiority of life in daylight vs darkness? What if, instead of saying “Change or Die!” the man showed each newcomer, as they emerged from the only world they had ever known, how much better their lives could be outside of the cave? If he had showed them how to hunt, fish, and build a hut? If he had taught them about the real properties of flowers and their healing abilities, or let them bask in the enriching rays of the sun? Would that not have ended better, for all involved? 

Instead of telling someone that they’re wrong, why not teach or build confidence in a new, untested way? The cave dwellers can always return to the dark if they choose, but if you showed them how to love the true world - why would they ever want to? 

Plato argued that the role of philosophers was to persuade people to leave the cave; but what if, instead, it was to make them never want to go back, once they’d found their own way out?