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The Cave

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.

I could move a bit. The padded iron hoop around my forehead was fastened to a wooden post resting loose in its posthole, so I could stand up—to the length of my arm and leg chains—and sit back down again, the post rattling up and down with me. Most of the time I sat on a cushioned board, my legs drawn in. The board lay across a bucket, and I could remove the board when I wanted to use the bucket. When I was done I would tell the higher beings and an angel would come to empty the bucket. Angels fed me too, by hand.

Understand that I am using words as I now comprehend them. We prisoners chattered all the time but our conceptual reach was limited. At the time I did not know what a chain was, or that there were directions one might look other than “forward.” To me, standing, removing the board, these were biologically necessary. I did not conceive of the bucket or the board as separate from my self. I did what I’d been told I had to do. In fact, I did not conceive of my “self” as located around and mostly below the apparatus that saw the world, as I do now; I located myself in my shadow, cast on the wall ahead. Above and behind them a fire
is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

There are men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall. Some of them are talking, others silent. The prisoners see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave. And of the objects which are be-

I suppose that if I’d had many physical impressions to contend with I might have had trouble maintaining a sane, stable idea of myself at all, split between where I saw myself and where I received sensations, but in fact there was very little to sense. I was fed the same thick, nourishing but tasteless mush at the same times every day, and shat it back out again on more or less a regular schedule. As instructed, I stood for fifteen minutes every other hour, along with all my mates, I assume to militate against pressure sores on our buttocks and thighs. ************************************* At the time, I divided the world into three classes of beings: low, high, and angelic. Low beings, like me, were toward the bottom of the projection wall. A low being always kept the same shape

ing carried in like manner they only see the shadows. If they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

and the same voice. He could move himself slightly, but he could not move anything else, and he always sat in the same place. There were about thirty of us.

High beings, those that floated at the top of the wall, were not so restricted. My mother and father were high beings. She usually appeared as a ball atop a triangle, like this: He was usually a ball atop an arrow: But my mother could assume many shapes, and spoke with many voices. When I was young and didn’t see To them, the truth would be her I would call out and she might answer from the shape of a literally nothing but the shadows lion, or a square, and I would only know it was her because she of images. said so. Many of the other low beings also had mothers who looked like most of the time, and I didn’t know whether we all had the same mother or different ones. I asked my parents where I came from and they told me the same kind of story all children hear: they had made me out of their love, and when I grew up I would become like them. Angels were those who could move from high on the wall to low and back. When one came to feed me, for example, it would appear to my left, very large, and then shrink to my level and size. When it was done dealing with my needs it would grow larger and larger until it winked out. ************************************* We had “days” separated by “nights”—times when the fire was allowed to burn low. “Dusk” was when all the high beings moved off the edge of the world and fell silent. In the hours afterwards the light would slowly dim until we couldn’t even see ourselves anymore. We had no way to count our days, though, no system of numbers and no way to record anything permanently. We could only rely on our memories, and most of the time nothing happened worth remembering. The great exceptions were deaths. An angel would appear, shrink, and slide up next to one of us. The rest of us would hear clanking and rattling and the angel would merge with the low being, and then the two of them, joined, would begin to move. Sometimes this new conjoined beast would scream in the voice of the dying man, sometimes it would be silent, expanding like an angel until it blurred into nothing. The ghosts of dead friends sometimes returned to us at night and spoke from the place of the higher beings, but the things they said were incomprehensible to the point of madness. Now, we low beings all agreed that there were patterns to the higher beings’ habits. On a morning when my mother appeared, for example, half the other lower beings’ mothers would too, and those mothers (or the one mother of all of us) could be expected to send a good angel to merge with each of us in turn, a warm and comforting sensation. (In fact this was a stout, middle-aged

woman employed to hug us.) Some, though, went further. They said that the higher beings and angels did nothing without reason, and if we worked at it, we could understand their patterns to the point of predicting our own deaths. They spent their days inventing and testing new predictive rules. (The owl statue meant someone would die—unless it was the snake statue that often followed the owl, or the owl twice in a row. The next to die would be the low being whose mother appeared first after the owl. No, the next would be the third from the left if the owl was followed by any triangle shape moving left to right.) They admitted that these rules weren’t fully accurate yet, but their central dogma was that overall they were getting better. The rest of us, usually including me, didn’t buy it. They argued all the time, and rarely could one Predictor convince most of the others that his prognostication was the one dictated by the current version of their rules. The problem was, they were constantly forgetting those rules, or at least remembering them differently. They couldn’t write them down, after all. Worse, even when they did remember their rules consistently they couldn’t keep track of which ones worked and which ones didn’t, which ones they were supposed to throw out and which ones they’d decided to keep. Unfortunately, we non-Predictors couldn’t articulate that objection, since we’d never thought of permanently recording or tracking anything either, so we had to trust our gut suspicions that they weren’t improving, really no better than their groundless faith that they were. It was generally agreed that only Predictions supported by at least half of the believers counted on the imaginary rules scorecard. When that many of them did manage to reach agreement and they turned out to be wrong, we non-Predictors jeered. Even when they got one or two right, which happened pretty often, we laughed it off as dumb luck. There were days, though, when they got everything right, forecasting perfectly that the next shadow to pass would be my mother, the sailboat, the flower. Looking back on it, I can only assume that on such days the shadow puppeteers on the wall were following what the Predictors said, although I still can’t imagine why. Maybe they were ordered to do it every now and then. Maybe it amused them to see us non-Predictors silenced, or even sometimes converted. One day when they’d been playing that game for hours and we non-Predictors had long since been cowed mute, Thrasymachus, one of the Predictors, called a stop. “Someone’s going to die soon,” he said. “Snake, snake, star, bull.” Some Predictor or other announced a death was coming nearly every day, and usually it didn’t mean any more than the rest of their blather. But most of a day’s worth of correct guesses, unbroken by errors, had made a difference. Some of the other Predictors started to murmur agreement and even their voices were graver than normal. They weren’t used to being right either, and when it came to a death Prediction, the prospect of being right was scary.

“No, it’s okay,” said Adeimantus, another Predictor, trying to dispel that fear. “It’s missing one. It should be ‘snake, snake, star, bull, star.’” Just as he finished, though, a star shadow floated across the wall and everyone shut up. ************************************* It’s not that nothing like this had ever happened before, but it was more extreme than usual, and it rattled me. Half the people I knew were utterly convinced that one of us was about to die, and the other half were at least worried. What if they were right? I could be the one to go as well as anyone else, and I didn’t want to die. Day-to-day life suddenly felt unbearably precious, the parades and discussions of the higher beings too important and beautiful to ignore even for a moment. It was in this heightened state of attention that I first saw a new higher being, a woman statue with roughly the same dumpy triangular shape as my mother, and fell in love. I don’t know precisely how old I was then—I don’t know how old I am now—but my guess is that I’d reached my early twenties. Old enough that I’d been having wet dreams for many years, anyway. (I probably rubbed myself in my sleep, but I never guessed because I didn’t recognize that I had a penis. My face-on silhouette never revealed it.) Usually these dreams had little specific imagery, only the feeling of floating somewhere warm and amniotic, maybe rocked in the embrace of the angel who used to come and merge with me, and pleasure. When I saw the new higher being, for the first time ever I experienced a similar stirring while awake. I had no idea of sexual desire or even an image of distinct sexes, so when I say a “woman” or call the shadow “she,” I am only being conventional. All I knew was that I became excited when I saw her and she even began to appear in my wet dreams. The sudden infatuation affected me deeply. It became one of my strongest fears when I thought about my death, that I would stop seeing her before I could have her. I didn’t think of “having her” in a clear, physical sense, of course, but I did have the sense of wanting something to happen whenever I saw her. She floated at the top of the world, her depth and intensity pulsing with the flickering light, and I desired her. *************************************
At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows.

Nothing happened, of course. Nothing could have happened. And I did turn out to be the next to die. An angel came to me and unfastened the clamps on my head and the chains on my legs. He put his hands under my armpits and lifted me to my feet. For the first time ever, my head lost the support of the post behind it, and it tried to loll back and to one side. My neck had stiffened from its years of immobility, though, and gave very little. My head’s fifteen pounds of dead weight dragged

at its shortened tendons and petrified muscles, and they shrieked at the unexpected, fiery pain. The angel carried me me away from the projection wall and toward the firelight. My eyes burned. I called out for my mother to help me, but of course she couldn’t. I was being carried to my death, helpless, and there was no one in my world to save me. Soon the force that held me would kill me. “You don’t have a mother here to help you,” said the angel. “This is what you called your mother, and the Venus they brought out to tempt you, she’s right next to her.” I couldn’t see them. There were wild, inexplicable beings on surfaces in all directions, but not them. Then the angel turned me away from the light and I finally did catch sight of them far away, but for the first time I could not see myself below them. I had been erased from the world.
And then conceive someone saying to him that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision— what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them—will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun itself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities. He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves.

************************************* After that comes a gap in my memory. My mind couldn’t make enough sense of what I saw and experienced to order it. The closest comparison I can offer that an ordinary person might understand would be to one’s first moments of awareness after being knocked down a flight of stairs, or upon waking from an alcoholic blackout in a strange house. I can remember the desperate, grasping confusion I felt as I tried to orient myself, but little else. Just a lot of sharp pains and chaos.

The first day that I do remember, I was sitting on the ground with my back against something solid. Everything I could see grew away from me at a sharp angle, and I no longer seemed to have a body. I was sitting with my back against a tree, I later learned, but at the time all I could see of myself were my arms, when I held them out, on either side of a hair-topped column, and even then they appeared at the wrong

angle. They gradually drew nearer and nearer and then at last disappeared along with the remainder of the column, and a little later new things took their place on the world, some traveling here and there, others staying put. Later some of these stationary beings seemed to be growing, and then they drew very close and an overwhelming light seared my eyes. Even when I shut them they glowed red, the one color I recognized from the cave walls but now achingly intense. My angel had propped me with my face given directly to the setting sun. Finally the growing shadows touched me with their cold limbs, and all that was around me darkened into nothingness. It turned cold. Hours passed before I stopped being terrified. I was not dead, I thought, but I could yet die. ************************************* By morning I was very hungry and thirsty. My whole life I had waited patiently and been handfed when my turn came, but that was not working. I waved my arms, which had reappeared with the light, and called out, but no feeding angel came. Maybe there were none in this place, I thought. Maybe there was no food. At last someone did come. He did not have to shrink like an angel to interact with me, but he was able to move about like one. He came and stood near the hairy-topped column and told me to look at my hands. I waved them as before. “No, leave your hand here.” He pointed with his shadow-hand to an area just to the left of the column. I did. “Now look here.” He put the tip of his finger beside a glistening circle in the world’s surface. I looked. Inside the circle was a thing with the same articulation and shape as my hand, wavering and shooting off sparks of light. “Wag your finger,” he said, “but keep watching this here.” I wagged my finger, and the glistening thing wagged too. By directing me to move the shadow of my hand—my actual hand, so far as I knew—Glaucon had gotten me to position my bodily hand directly over a bowl of water, and for the first time I was seeing my reflection. The column had shortened since dawn. The arms or hairs at the top swung gently back and forth. Inside the circle, the reflection of leaves oscillated in time with them. After that he fed me. ************************************* Before I could feed myself—or do anything at all—I had to learn to see and inhabit my actual

body rather than my shadow. For that, in turn, I had to learn to see with both eyes. From my first glimpse of the real world I’d been instinctively closing one to flatten what I saw into the two dimensions I knew. Glaucon couldn’t make me understand that I needed to open both, since I didn’t yet know I had eyes; he had to place his fingertips on my eyelids and stroke them apart until the muscles around the socket took the hint and relaxed. The perception of depth made me nauseated at first, and it took several days before I could tolerate the sight of a thing moving at a distance from its background rather than through it. Only then could I see my bodily hand passing over the bowl of water beneath, separated by several feet from both its reflection and its shadow. Several more days passed before I understood that I lived in that hand, and arm, and chest, and all of the body I was discovering as my neck developed strength and flexibility. During those interim days I felt as if I had two arms on each side, moving in unison. Of course I came to rest in my physical body and not my shadow body, but even today I remember this as a transition from one state to another, not an awakening to a true state. Rationally I know I’ve always been as I am now, but I have years of memories as a shadow, and those memories can’t be erased. My memory tells me that for much of my life I was a shadow, and then I died and became a three-dimensional, solid person. Finally now I could learn to walk, feed myself, use a proper toilet, bathe. It was exhausting, repetitive, and frustrating. Glaucon helped me through all of it and I never thanked him or even wondered why he would devote himself to me. I hadn’t yet started to ask why anyone did anything. To the extent I thought about it I still imagined him as an angel, governed by rules I couldn’t know— but mostly I didn’t think about it. Instead I thought about the shadows I loved—my mother and father—and the one I had desired. In my dreams I often found myself back in the cave, and sometimes one or the other would arrive to share the wall with me. More often I dreamt about searching for them fruitlessly, drowning in loneliness. When I was awake I looked for shadows like theirs in the hope of finding them attached to a new body like mine, appropriate to this afterlife. I didn’t find them. ************************************* At the same time, though, this was a period of wonderful physical discoveries. For once, for example, my food tasted good to me. Glaucon brought me mainly basic things—yogurt mixed with honey at first, the inside of fresh bread as I learned to chew—but to me they were feasts beyond imagination. The first time I bit into an apple, I did not know how to bite and merely sank my teeth into the skin and left them there, sugar water oozing. Glaucon showed me how to bring my teeth together with force and then work them to grind the hard tart flesh, juice messy on my lips and fingers.

Once I got past the fear and stiffness I loved walking too, and not just because for once I could see the same scene from different vantages. I also loved the feeling of my calf muscles contracting to push me forward, while the thigh muscle of the other leg contracted to pull me. I loved when I got better at it and could direct the many muscles of both legs to swing me forward without focused attention—when my brand-new (if somewhat neglected) body seemed to move all on its own, by a magic that I controlled. I loved when my limbs grew tired and the joy of resting them when they hurt. And then there was shitting. It had been a mild pleasure in the cave, yes, but in the first month I lived in my body it became a daily existential revelation. I’d always known the feeling of the need to shit, but it had been merely information; now I understood that the pressure I felt came from inside me. A thing within my body yet not my self. When I sat to release it I concentrated, listening with all my nerves for the secret workings of my body that I could feel and control but still not see. I could feel the shit dragged along the walls of my colon and the relief of it being gone. But it itself, when I could see it and smell it, that was insensate. It was glorious and mysterious. ************************************* Eventually I did take note of the sky, the stars, and the sun. I asked Glaucon why shadows in this life kept changing shape and direction, and he explained that they depended on the angle of the sun. He went on to explain how the sun stayed in place while the earth flew in a circle and revolved. I didn’t understand what he meant by “seasons.” I’d only spent most of the one summer outside the cave so far. ************************************* That summer ended. It grew colder at night and Glaucon said we had to move to town. I accepted this as I had everything else, though it surprised me to learn that this new world stretched beyond our one meadow. Every few days for weeks I’d watched Glaucon walk up the dirt road until he passed the crest and sunk from view, and then later seen him return with supplies, but I hadn’t known I was capable of the same myself.

Then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day. Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of it in the water, but he will see it in its own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate it as it is. He will then proceed to argue that this is what gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold.

After an interminable hike, during which I had to stop seven or eight times to rest, we came to the town. I could dwell on all the new things there—the houses, the animals, the noise, the bustle, the smells—but in truth I was so swamped I didn’t take them in individually. The first big new thing I learned really didn’t come until the following morning, after my first night ever in a bed (the deepest physical release I’d ever felt): I woke up, legs stiff from all the walking the day before, and Glaucon told me that I could do anything I liked. I didn’t

understand what he was talking about. He had to spend considerable time explaining that he would no longer tell me what to do from hour to hour, and neither would anyone else. There was plenty I wasn’t allowed to do by law, but nothing I must do. Panic. I had no idea what I might want to do. I was only still learning what I was capable of. “Maybe you’d like to go exploring,” Glaucon suggested. “Go for a stroll.” So that’s what I did, all that day and every day for at least a week. I walked around by myself, exploring. I had a hundred small revelations a day—about the existence of money, for example, or that all these people milling around on the same plane were separated by subtle differences just as powerful in their way as my old distinction between high and low beings—but I’ll skip over most of these, since they’d soon grow repetitious. Two of them are worth mentioning, though. I began to perceive them during that first week, but it took months before I understood their implications. First, I came to appreciate the great freedom that people had, compared to my former life. They could do an enormous variety of things, simple and complex. Second, and conversely, very little happened without someone’s intention. Of course life included pure accidents along with the half-accidents that occurred when many people’s efforts collided. But one couldn’t even have the idea of “accident” without the idea of intention to oppose it. And since people could do just about anything, most of the time their actions must be the result of a decision to do one thing instead of another. In the cave we’d had neither intentions nor accidents. We believed in causes and patterns, but those were theories about how the world worked as a whole, not about the choices of individual beings. When I saw my mother stop and reverse direction, for example, I didn’t ask why she’d decided to do that, because I couldn’t imagine that she had a choice. When the Predictors foresaw someone’s death it wasn’t because they thought they’d guessed the angels’ motivations, any more than a doctor believes he understands the psychology of a tumor. Every event was fated; everything that happened had to happen. Now, though, I saw that an operation as complex and enduring as the cave must have a purpose behind it, and I demanded to know it. Why had we been locked in darkness? Why make me love and lust for shadows? After a month in the real world Glaucon took me to a brothel and I found that I could only get aroused in complete darkness. It repulsed me to see a fleshly woman touching what I’d been forced to accept as my body, but in the dark I could accept that touch while fantasizing.
When he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

I never wished to be back in the cave, locked up again and deluded. It was better to know the truth. I did often wish, though, that my old delusions were the truth, that I could have really been

a shadow, weightless, gliding, and changeable. So who had made me like this? Who paid performers to carry statues and cutout shapes? Who paid the woman who hugged me as a child, or the man who carried away my bucket of shit? I asked Glaucon and he said he didn’t know. He’d once been like me, he said, chained in the dark and then painfully dragged forth. The man who’d pulled him free had later shown him how to find the cave, and he’d gone in and rescued me. He’d been afraid of being caught and returned to his post and chains so he’d gone in after nightfall, when the performers and other workers were off duty, freed me, and carried me away. He didn’t know any more than me about the workings of the cave itself.

I asked if I’d known him back in the cave and he said yes, he’d changed his name to hide. He used to be called Polemarchus. And in fact his voice was very much like my old friend Polemarchus’s, without the distorting echo. *************************************

And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Soon afterward he took me to a gathering of other cave escapees and it was the same thing: I recognized their voices more or less, though they introduced themselves with unfamiliar names. There were five in all, scattered around the main room of a small house much like Glaucon’s, drinking tea. Glaucon huddled with Crito and Meno, whose house it was. Ion and Parmenides sat by themselves and said nothing, and the one named Socrates cornered and talked at me. “Would you not say that our passage out of the cave, from ignorance to knowledge of our true selves, might yet be mirrored by a more profound ignorance today, to be followed by yet a higher knowledge?” He’d plopped down next to me on the couch I’d chosen and was already leaning in closer than I liked. “I suppose,” I said, recoiling a little. “But would you not agree that when we lived in the cave, we had no understanding of how limited we were? If we had tried to reason our way to comprehension of the higher world based on what we knew then, could we have even come close?” His breath reeked of garlic and wine. “I guess not.” “What do you think, then, of those philosophers who would like us now, bound as we are to this world, to guess after higher truths? If such truths exist, would they not necessarily be hidden from us? Would not the shadows those truths cast into our current world be as misleading and unhelpful as the shadows we saw in our cave?” “Um,” I said.

He gripped my forearm. “Must we not, therefore, reject those philosophers and denounce their utopian dreams? Is not the only wise man the one who admits profoundly that he knows nothing, not the one who admits to mankind’s general ignorance yet still insists that he can deduce the True and the Good?” “I’m going to get some more tea,” I said, and escaped to hide behind Glaucon. “I’m going to ask him,” said Crito as I approached. “Have you thought about getting a job?” That was directed at me. I shook my head and Crito gave Glaucon an accusing glare. “Leave him alone,” Glaucon said. “I’ve gone back to work. I’m not using the fund anymore.” “But you’re not paying into it either,” said Crito. He turned to me again. “It cost money to get you out and feed the two of you the whole summer. It costs every time. So when I ask if you’ve got a job it’s not about you, it’s about when we can go for the next guy.” I looked to Glaucon. I had some familiarity with money, since I had after all been in surface society for over a month now, and at least an idea of work. But I didn’t really understand what Crito was asking of me, and I had no idea, certainly, how to go about satisfying him. “We’ll talk about it later,” Glaucon said, more to Crito than me. Crito might have wanted to push the argument further but Ion had started beckoning to us. Parmenides stood from the couch the two of them had been sharing, fetched an oil lamp from a nearby shelf, set it on the low table in front of Ion, and lit it. “Close the drapes,” Ion said when we came near. Crito and Glaucon lifted one of the other couches and set it beside Ion’s. When it was in place Meno arranged heavy cloth over the room’s two windows. We fell into a half darkness, the light rising from the lamp staining the faces of the others with shadow. Ion stood too now, and he and Parmenides went to collect some objects from a sack lying at the foot of the wall. The rest arranged themselves on the two couches facing the lamp and I followed their lead. “We’re going to tell the story of Timaeus, the one performer in the cave who ever felt enough pity to set one of us free,” said Ion. “He freed Crito, Crito freed Laches and Meno, and so on for all of us.” “But,” said Parmenides, “we’re going to tell it as a story of the cave.” He lifted something and a shadow appeared on the wall: “Timaeus was puppeteer for the cutout we knew as ‘mother.’” With that, I was no longer in Meno’s small house, watching the beginning of a shadow play, but back in chains, in the cave, with my mother and father. Far away I saw us lower beings, though I couldn’t hear our voices. My mother was making a choice, it seemed. My mother was coming as an angel to kill me. I was dying all over again. I screamed for help again and no one came, and

the angel took hold of me. It was bright now. My mother and father were gone. But I was still dying, the angel still held me. I was back in Meno’s house and Glaucon had hold of me, about to kill me again. The light poured in the windows. I kept screaming and screaming for help, but none of them helped me. I remembered I had arms and legs now to protect myself, and struck at them, forced my way free, ran out of the house. ************************************* Eventually I calmed down and made my way home to Glaucon’s. By then it was dusk, and we ate dinner together quietly. The only conversation we had came when I asked who Laches was and why he hadn’t been there. Glaucon sighed. “Sometimes, Crito says, the men we rescue turn out well, like Meno or me, ready to go save more. Sometimes they stay a little twisted, like Socrates or Ion. A couple of them have simply run away. From what I’ve heard, Laches had the hardest time. He was always angry, and in the end he got himself killed fighting with guards at the cave. He was trying to free all of us at once, or slit our throats maybe. Crito doesn’t know.” I thought about that a fair bit that night as I failed to sleep. Although my panic had subsided, I too had begun to feel angry. On the street after I ran out of Meno’s house, I’d seen a family—mother, father, and three-year-old son—and thought of my own parents, and for a few seconds I’d hated that boy more than I’d ever hated anyone. Lying in bed I still resented him, in fact, for having normal parents with him, loving him, and resented the parents and everyone else for never doing anything to stop the horror of the cave or rescue me from it. All night I itched with that anger, and when I did manage to doze, I had nightmares of being dragged off to death. ************************************* Maybe I’d needed to reach a certain stability before I could fall out of balance again. In my earliest days out of the cave I’d been overwhelmed by quotidian life. It had taken all my active concentration to learn to eat, walk, and shit. Now, though, I couldn’t seem to manage any concentration at all. Over the next weeks I wandered around, mostly uninterested in where my legs might carry me, except that I was constantly jittery, on guard. My mind roiled but none of what it threw up to its surface connected to anything else, it was all old Prediction methods, and pieces of songs, and “that scrap of shadow looks familiar,” and “I must have had a real mother.” What I was on guard against were images that could drop me back into abject terror: the wrong scrap of shadow. My own shadow. A large shadow shrinking anywhere near me. Sometimes I would catch sight of such things and be right back in the cave, always in that moment when Glaucon killed me, calling helplessly for my fake mother to save me. I started to stay inside in the early morning and late afternoons, when shadows were longest.

And then I stayed inside even more because there, sometimes, I could still have moments when my mind quieted—when inside myself I saw no images of the cave, when I didn’t hate anyone and wasn’t afraid, and the muscles in my jaw and between my eyes relaxed. Almost always these respites came when I was inside Glaucon’s house, sitting and staring at his tan-painted wall. So I stayed in during the days and went out, when I went out at all, in the middle of the night, when the streets were empty. And this clearly made Glaucon concerned. When he came home from his job as some kind of gardener or laborer or something he’d ask what I’d done all day. If I said, “Nothing,” he’d look very sad. Finally he suggested, first gently and then more insistently, that maybe it was time for me to look for work of my own. “It can’t be helping for you to stay in here all day, brooding,” he said. “At least if you had a job you’d keep your mind busy.” Then one day I exploded and smashed every lamp in the house. The shadows they cast were too eerily still. When Glaucon came home he told me I’d have to leave. He would still help me if he could, but I couldn’t live with him anymore. I didn’t blame him. In fact, I suspected he’d only waited to kick me out because it had been cold. Now it was spring, I could sleep outside without freezing. ************************************* I set out wandering aimlessly, and as I kept changing course to avoid other people, I soon found myself heading out of town. I decided to go back to the one other place I knew in this world: the meadow where Glaucon had educated me. It was a short walk. It comforted me to be there. I was able to relax for the first time in months—really relax, for more than just a few minutes. I lay in the deep grass and stared up at the meaningless shapes of clouds drifting across the sky, the way my parents had once floated atop my world. Back then I’d believed with my brothers that they and the angels controlled all that happened. But it turned out it was only luck that my Glaucon’s rescue came so soon after that ominous death Prediction. Glaucon had been no more

aware of that than we’d been aware of him. Perhaps, as Socrates had suggested, there was a truer world than this one, the way this one was truer than the cave. If so there must be unseen gods moving those clouds the way the performers had moved my parents around. And those gods must be monstrous sadists, or at least indifferent to suffering, just as the men who’d put me in the cave could be only sadistic or callous. Or else there were no gods, just as there hadn’t really been angels or higher beings, only more low, limited people like me. Eventually I fell asleep. I woke a few hours before dawn, under a half moon. I used its light to find my old tree trunk, and sat against it the same way I had when I’d first emerged, until the sun rose and I saw that familiar landscape of shadows. And just like that first morning I’d seen the real sun, I discovered I was growlingly hungry. I hadn’t eaten since Glaucon kicked me out. I hiked back to town. I intended to beg for breakfast, but as I walked my ire started to burn again. I wasn’t yet hungry enough to beg from people I hated. I went straight to Glaucon’s house instead; he’d left already for work, so I let myself in and ate from his pantry. Then I stayed inside until he came back home. He wasn’t pleased to see me. “I didn’t mean only the one night,” he said. “You really can’t stay here.” Rock dust streaked his face. “Laches was right,” I said. “How can we only rescue one at a time and leave the rest behind?” Glaucon shook his head. “We’ve whittled it down from 40 men to under 30, and there are no new ones. We will get them all, in time.” “Years!” I couldn’t wait for anything that long. I couldn’t possibly hold onto my sanity. I didn’t have a strong grip on it now. “But it’ll get done in the end. Your way nothing will get done. Will you be the one to care for all those extra men? You can’t even take of yourself yet.” “You have to show me where it is.” I wanted to go even though Glaucon was obviously right: I wasn’t ready to help anyone, let alone all of them. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but that didn’t seem important. I had to go right away. My path to a deep, lasting peace ran through there. “No,” Glaucon said. “Now go away.” ************************************* I spent the next few nights in the street. Instead of begging I stole. I’d taken a knife from Glaucon’s kitchen and late at night followed a very fat, middle-aged man reeling home drunk from a friend’s house. He stopped after a few blocks to piss on the outer wall of a fine, large compound and I sidled up behind him and held the knife beside his face where he could see it. He dropped

his tunic front in shock and I heard the splash of urine on stone cut off abruptly. Then I had a moment of shock myself as I felt it puddling warm around my bare left foot. I said, “Oh!” and stepped back involuntarily, and he took off running. He was spurred by fear but badly out of shape, and all the wine he’d had kept tripping him. I should have caught him easily, except I still couldn’t run well either, at least not for long. He’d run a few steps and look back and see me walking as fast as I could to keep up, and then, winded, try to drop to a walk also and instead lose his balance and pitch forward. The first time he fell I tried to run to close the gap while he struggled back to his feet, but I ran out of breath even faster than him. I don’t know why he didn’t cry for help. Maybe he couldn’t manage it. For five full minutes there were only the whispers of our feet in the dust as I closed on him inch by inch. Finally he stumbled and didn’t try to get up again, just lay in the road on his vast stomach, wheezing. I reached him and he rolled onto his back and pushed himself up to sit, so that he slumped forward with his fat legs crabwise before him. He untied a little bag from his tunic belt and held it up to me. I took it. He looked almost heartbroken and smelled of pee. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to keep me fed.

In the morning I sat outside Glaucon’s door until he emerged and pleaded with him again to show me the cave. I was there that night to plead once more. In between I walked to the meadow and looked at the sky. This continued for four days, until finally he surrendered. “After dark,” he said, “and I’m coming to keep an eye on you.”

************************************* It wasn’t very far from town, barely a twenty-minute hike. We arrived in early evening and hid in a stand of trees overlooking the cave entrance, a shack built directly into the hillside with two guards stationed by its door. A path led to a few shanties a little way down the same hillside and thence to town; we’d come up that same path initially but abandoned it a mile back and bushwhacked through the woods to avoid detection. Shortly after sunset the workers began to emerge in twos and threes. Half went into the shanties, half continued down the path, passing fairly close by our hiding place. They were of all ages and both sexes, and none gave any outward hint of his or her job. I wasn’t worried about being seen ourselves, not in the deep shadow of the trees at dusk. And if they had seen us, I’d brought the knife, tied to my belt with a slipknot. About a dozen emerged in all. We waited awhile after the last of them to make sure no more were

coming, and then retreated into the forest, circling the mountain. “There,” Glaucon said after a few hundred yards, pointing upslope to a darker spot in the grass and shrubs from which smoke rose in a steady column.

The twilight was fading, but when we got to the cave there was still enough to see that soot had stained the rock ceiling black. We could also see that for some distance within the ceiling was quite low, barely over our heads. We ducked inside and the smoke, clinging to the roof, hit us full in the face; it stung my eyes and doubled me over. I stumbled down a steep and dangerously uneven pitch, until the floor pulled away from the roof and gave us some air. When I turned around I could see the jagged purple oval of sky that was the cave mouth, but I couldn’t make out any of our surroundings. I whispered for Glaucon and he whispered back until we found each other in the dark, and we started sliding downwards on our rumps, cautiously. He said that when he’d been here before, under a rising moon, he’d found the passage to the main chamber on the left, so we scooted over to hug the left wall and rubbed along it until it wasn’t there anymore. This new passage was so low that we had to crawl. Again we had smoke all around us, like crawling down a pitch-black chimney. I couldn’t breathe, I was half sick, but I kept pressing forward until one of the orange spots in my vision stopped floating and I heard dull echoes that were not my own heartbeats but other men’s voices. I crawled faster and the floor dropped again, and the orange spot widened into a bonfire. Its heat pressed into me, drying my eyes sharp and stinging where a moment before they’d been watering and stinging with smoke.

We were in a vast chamber. The fire burned close to our end of it, the upper end. The chamber deepened and broadened away from us until darkness consumed its sides and roof, but the floor stayed visible to the bottom. A third of the way down was a low brick wall with puppets, cutout figures on sticks, and statues piled at its base. Our two shadows rose well beyond it, out where the roof of the cavern fell toward the floor. They towered fifty feet along that curve of wall and ceiling, our edges blurred and our heads and feet cut off. We descended away from the fire and our shadows began to contract. The clotted murmurs I’d heard from the entry passage separated into the individual voices of my old friends. As always, they were arguing over the day’s events and the Predictions those events supported. At first I hurried, excited to see them. But I pulled up short at the brick wall. From that distance, I couldn’t tell them apart. I couldn’t see their faces, only their backs chained to their posts, and their voices, echoing off the far wall, floated as free as ever they had in my days as a shadow. This felt like home. If I went closer the echoes would recede and I’d quickly work out which voice matched which body. That’d be no good anymore, it would be like Meno’s house rather than my memories from here. “I’m back,” I called. “I missed you all. ” They hushed. The only sound was the crackle of the great fire. When I’d lived here those pops had passed unnoticed, soft background static, but now they seemed very loud indeed. “Are you a Higher One now?” asked Adeimantus at last.
Imagine once more, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness? And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady, would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

“No, there are no higher beings and no angels,” I said. “I can go where I want and I’ve seen more than you can imagine, but I’m still the same as you.” “That’s a lie,” shouted Thrasymachus. “Ghosts are blind. They can’t see anything.” “I can see much more than you,” I said. “Then how many fingers am I holding up?” I tried, but couldn’t find any fingers held up by any shadows. The shadow bodies wavered, barely human, tar melted to quivering mounds by the hot orange light. “I could free you all,” I said. “You could come with me.” “He’s going to kill us!” Thrasymachus cried. “Help!” And the others joined in, my old friends, begging good angels to come and save them from me.

Glaucon tapped me on the elbow and pointed to the upper part of the chamber. A light pierced in from the side up there, closer to us than the fire pit and opposite the passage we’d entered. We shrank away from the wall and away from that new light, hunting for shadows to hide us. As we retreated I saw the cutouts I’d loved as my parents lying on the ground, and then the statue I’d lusted for. And I still felt a pang of desire for that statue and the warmth of familial love for my mother and father, even though I could see plainly that they were lies, all three. They had marked me too deeply and primally to forget. I would never find those feelings again in the world above; even if I could find quiet, I would never have romance and family. I wanted those illusions so much more than I wanted peace, but peace was the most I could have. Glaucon was drawing me down toward our old fellows. They cast the only deep shadows in the bottom half of the chamber, the only place for us to hide. But I didn’t want to hide, certainly not by cringing down there among my abused friends. I broke away from Glaucon and instead marched upslope, not in the throes of rage but grimly. A figure appeared in the shaft of light. Maybe a guard, maybe the first of many guards, or maybe one of the masters themselves, the ones who’d trapped us all so long in a world of pointless suffering. I loosed the knife from my belt and prepared to fight.