In the allegory, Plato allows Socrates to describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Plato’s Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. To them, shadows are reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.
Outside of the philosophical comparison, I hadn’t seen many other writers invoke the allegory to describe an experience. But Peg O’Connor does this brilliantly in her reflective essay “In the Cave: Philosophy and Addiction.” She writes:
This allegory is richly wonderful for understanding addiction, relapse and recovery. Most people who become addicted become enchained to their drug of choice. The word “addiction” comes from the Latin verb “addicere,” which means to give over, dedicate or surrender. In the case of many alcoholics, for instance, including my own, this is just what happens. What had perhaps started as fun and harmless use begins to grow troubling, painful and difficult to stop. The alcoholic becomes chained to alcohol in a way different from others who “drink normally.”
In various scenarios of addiction, the addicted person’s fixation on a shadow reality — one that does not conform to the world outside his or her use — is apparent to others. When the personal cost of drinking or drug use becomes noticeable, it can still be written off or excused as merely atypical. Addicts tend to orient their activities around their addictive behavior; they may forego friends and activities where drinking or drug use is not featured. Some may isolate themselves; others may change their circle of friends in order to be with people who drink or use in the same way they do. They engage in faulty yet persuasive alcoholic reasoning, willing to take anything as evidence that they do not have a problem; no amount of reasoning will persuade them otherwise. Each time the addict makes a promise to cut down or stop but does not, the chains get more constricting.
Yet for many reasons, some people begin to wriggle against the chains of addiction. Whether it is because they have experiences that scare them to death (not uncommon) or lose something that really matters (also not uncommon), some people begin to work themselves out of the chains. People whose descent into addiction came later in life have more memories of what life can be like sober. Some will be able to turn and see the fire and the half wall and recognize the puppets causing the shadows. Those whose use started so young that it is all they really know will often experience the fear and confusion that Plato described. But as sometimes happens in recovery, they can start to come out of the cave, too.
The brightness of the light can be painful, as many alcoholic or drug dependent people realize once their use stops. Those who drank or used drugs to numb feelings or avoid painful memories may feel defenseless. This is why they will retreat back to the familiar darkness of the cave. Back with their drinking friends, they will find comfort. This is one way to understand relapse.
Others will make it farther out of the cave and have their eyes adjust. They will struggle to stay sober and balanced. So many of their old coping behaviors will not work, and they are faced with a seemingly endless task of learning how to rebuild their emotional lives. Some will stay clean and sober for a good while and later relapse. People relapse for all sorts of reasons, and often these have to do with old patterned ways of thinking and behaving that make a roaring comeback. When people who have had some sobriety relapse and go back to the darkness of the cave, they may be met with derision ― an “I told you so” attitude.
Those who do make it out of the cave and manage never to relapse again are few and far between…
Peg O’Connor also mentions other allegories in her post: Montaigne’s cat, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, Nietzsche’s myth of eternal recurrence, and Wittgenstein’s fly in the fly bottle. You can imagine what kind of rabbit hole those references opened up…