SOCRATES: Imagine this: People live in an underground dwelling. They are chained to the floor and can see only that which is before them. A fire behind them casts a glow within this grotto, and before them is a low wall visible in the dim light. Set upon this wall are all the objects of creation: a handbag, a baseball, a head of Romaine lettuce, an apple, a bulldog.
GLAUCON: Even a high-end running shoe?
SOCRATES: Even that and all things likewise.
GLAUCON: It is an usual wall! And surely one too large for any such an underground grotto!
SOCRATES: And yet for the sake of the allegory and not to be a wet toga about it, would you not agree that such a cave, though implausible, is imaginable for the purposes of this exercise?
GLAUCON: Most readily I can picture it. Will there be a tin of soup upon this wall?
SOCRATES: Tins of many varieties.
GLAUCON: Both the regular and the reduced salt?
SOCRATES: Of those also, though let us not get bogged down in the soup. And those who sat shackled to the ground, would they look upon these objects and see them as the real and true?
GLAUCON: Believing their eyes and knowing not another reality, truly they would.
SOCRATES: And if they were to talk to one another, would they not agree upon names for the objects before them.
GLAUCON: Such as “Dustbuster.” Yes, they would name them all.
SOCRATES: Now watch whereby one of the prisoners is released from his chains. Would he not step then towards the wall and its many worldly objects, and would he not examine them more closely?
GLAUCON: Most certainly the prisoner would do so, and he would see upon the soup tin that one serving contains 36% of daily recommended sodium.
GLAUCON: And, by Zeus, if he gets a gander at the ramen noodle pack!
SOCRATES: This not being the Allegory of the Cardiovascular Disease, do you agree that even upon this closer viewing, the prisoner would continue to assert the opinion that these objects were the one true reality?
GLAUCON: He could do no other. “It’s a Doric column all right, boys!” he would call to the prisoners shackled to the floor. “And you guys said it was Ionic.” “Hey, how about freeing us, too,” the prisoners would say. “Look, fellas: Zesty Minestrone!”
SOCRATES: Yes, well. Now if I were to tell you that at the base of the wall whereupon the objects were arranged there was a knife, would you say that the prisoner would pick up the knife?
GLAUCON: Should not the knife be upon the wall with the objects?
GLAUCON: Come to think of it, should not the fire also be? And the shackles? Are not “all” the objects of the world on this wall?
SOCRATES: He picks up the knife, okay!
GLAUCON: Of course… and puts it on the wall?
SOCRATES: FORGET THE WALL, FOR THE LOVE OF HERA! And having grasped the knife, would he not use it to cut open the many objects on the wall?
GLAUCON: He would?
SOCRATES: Would he not?
GLAUCON: Like… the basketball?
SOCRATES: Perhaps starting first with the banana.
GLAUCON: Oh! Okay then, yes, surely, slice into that old banana, for this is exactly what a prisoner at long last freed from a cave is likely to do. Cut himself a nice half banana.
SOCRATES: However, what if upon examining the bisected banana, the prisoner discovered that it is not fruit at all, but cake? Would he not be perplexed?
GLAUCON: Most truly, that would be weird.
SOCRATES: And would the prisoner then slice open the other objects on the wall?
GLAUCON: The ball of yarn?
GLAUCON: It would not be my first instinct. But okay: “Slicey, slicey.”
SOCRATES: Would it not surprise the prisoner to find that all these objects also were cake?
GLAUCON: Oh! Sorry; I thought it was a rhetorical question.
SOCRATES: Do not get me started on rhetoric.
GLAUCON: Truly, yes, big surprise. All the objects are cake. Cake everywhere. Even the knife, I suppose, is cake. Got it.
SOCRATES: And now if once again the prisoner had to return to those who are shackled there, and he had to engage with them regarding the true nature of the objects, telling them that all are cake…
GLAUCON: Mere trifles, if you will.
SOCRATES: … do you think he would be exposed to ridicule, and if they could get hold of him to kill him, would they not kill him?
GLAUCON: That seems a bit much. They could see him directly before them slicing that minestrone tin with the big knife cake. Could the prisoner not just point and exclaim, “See? Cake!” But now I understand your point that this allegory informs us how those things we believe to be true are mere shadows and that only through experience can we find the genuine truth.
SOCRATES: No, you have not understood me at all: Everything is cake.
GLAUCON: Cake being a metaphor for goodness.
SOCRATES: No. Everything is actually cake. All objects are cake. You are cake, I am cake, the gods of Olympus…
SOCRATES: Of many layers. It is the only explanation for what I have witnessed. If I were to tell you I have seen a man slice into a bottle of hand lotion, an oyster on the half shell, the head of an infant and that they also were cake, would you not believe?
GLAUCON: So not an allegory at all. More of a…
SOCRATES: Would you not call it a revelation?
GLAUCON: I would rather say “crackpot theory.”
SOCRATES: And that is the lesson for today. Now would you like to join me in this cup of hemlock tea? Do not worry; it is cake.