The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

By Abel Merawi

Allegory-of-caveOctober 22, 2019 ( -- In Plato’s ‘The Republic’ there is a chapter that treats the idea of truth in relation to the people and their ‘intelligent’ leader. Socrates paints a picture of people living in a cave since childhood, their hands and necks chained facing the walls so all they see are shadows. Thus, they have no way of looking or knowing the existence of a world outside the den. There is a fire blazing outside, and they only see the shadows of the things and people. When they hear sounds, they assume it is the sound of the shadows. In the cave, the shadows and the echoes establish reality and truth.  

With this background, Socrates wants us to suppose that one of the prisoners or dwellers is released and walks out of the cave. The reality this person observes for the first time pains the eyes and makes it hard to comprehend. But eventually, the former cave-dweller questions the illusions once taken as realities and grows accustomed to the truth. Upon remembering the fellow prisoners in the cave, this person feels pity and decides to descend back to the cave and show the truth to the people. This task is the most difficult one because the cave people have already established their world around shadows and echoes, which makes them doubt the actual truth their former citizen has brought to them. This may make him regret coming back and reach the decision that it is better to abandon them or, even worse, trick them into becoming his unquestioning followers. Yet, assuming the intelligent possesses courage and compassion for the people, in the end, the truth triumphs and the people will be able to share the truth and get rid of their illusions.

Let us reflect on the allegory of the cave and learn from the lessons it embodies for our state of affairs. This story carries a lesson for the people, the intellectuals, and the leaders. We shall now treat each separately by showing the distinct and shared responsibilities they have in order to escape the cave – our false realities. To begin with, we shall consider the cave as a country and the reality outside the cave as the truth which ought to exist as the foundation upon which we build all nations.

Every person is born and raised in a society or a country which has already established the rules of the game. We all learn our realities and truths from the historical, cultural, religious and any other form of narratives that instill in us the values of life. The truth of these narratives is taken for granted and we try to live up to the expectations set by our ancestors. As we grow up and attempt to question the reality surrounding us, we begin to see that we hold conflicting views and values. At times our political views are contrary to our religious views. At other times, our family values are opposed to our societal values. To state it clearly, we begin to see that the things we hold as our values are contradictory to one another. This discovery does not lead everyone to the same path. Some may decide to suppress their questions and flow in the same direction the society had taken despite the consequences. These are the type of people who constitute the crowd, who dedicate their lives to the status quo, and who hold anyone and anything new as a danger to their survival. Others may continue questioning their existing values, feeling disillusioned until they build their values on the concrete foundations of truth. These are the brave ones who create new values, who show new paths to the people and who may lead the people out of the darkness.

The establishment of reality includes a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Thesis is the reality with which we begin our investigation, we see something lacking in it and doubt its truth. We then develop an antithesis, which is a counter-argument against the thesis. This leads to synthesis or a new form of reality created from the conflict between the thesis and antithesis. The synthesis now becomes the new thesis for others to present with an antithesis. Those who question their preconceived values and principles go through this process. However, not all questioning leads to the truth. Likewise, not all acceptance of the status quo lead to falsehood. As mentioned before, it is those who examine life that end up shaping reality. But not everyone who takes this road ends up with the same conclusion. After leaving the cave, some decide to either abandon or trick the people, while others return to the cave to bring their fellow human beings out of it by sharing their wisdom.

The decision taken by the wise in relation to the people can mean the difference between a true leader and a tyrant. As we see time and again, every intellectual does not operate with good intentions. Some even despise the people but still use them as a means to personal gain. Socrates clearly states, “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue -- how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eyesight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness.” Those with ‘narrow intelligence’ are not blind but evil. This is because their mischief and cleverness go hand in hand. Think of all the party members from leading and opposing sides, the activists, the opinion leaders or the supposed intellectual that use the people as an excuse to push their party or personal agenda. The leaders who make false promises, who favor a specific group over others, or who persuade the people to fight while sitting comfortably in their luxurious offices, are the true enemies of the people. Anyone who does not partake in the labor and honor of the people is not worthy of being a leader.

If the false intellects are the plagues of society, then the true intellects are the medicines or remedies for the people. Above all, the true intellect serves the truth rather than a specific class. Socrates claims that the true legislator or leader is one “who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State.” The real intellect strives to unite the people towards a national goal by making everyone benefactors of one another. It is a rare but important quality of the true leader to always seek the truth despite the popular beliefs of the time or the consequences. They are instruments of the truth because they have seen how beautiful, just and good the truth is for all of us. True intellectuals and leaders do not fight over power, because it is not their ultimate goal. Their ultimate victory is manifested in the triumph of the truth, which is the foundation upon which a nation is built.     

The allegory of the cave is important when we think of our current national affairs. The people, in general, should learn to examine their various values because, as Socrates states in Apology: An unexamined life is not worth living. It is only when we base our values on rational ideas that we escape from our mental caves. As for the leaders and intellectuals, it is essential to accept that the country is not your playground or laboratory, where you experiment with the people. Socrates stated it nicely when he said, “Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.” The leaders should have a better aim in life than simply being a ruler. And all of us should desire to attain virtue and wisdom as our ultimate goals of life.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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