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February 23, 2018

Ancient Philosophy

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” Explained, Allegorically, Via John Carpenter’s “They Live”

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is an especially famous part of The Republic in which

Socrates explains the impact of knowledge on man’s perception of the world, and “They Live”

is a leftist, Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers-esque thriller starring WWE Wrestler Roddy Piper.

Despite ostentatiously apparent differences in style, form, and content, both works share a

similar message; knowledge is pain, but we should seek it all costs anyway.

In Book VII of The Republic, Socrates guides Glaucon, his partner in the dialogue,

through his account of knowledge via “The Allegory of the Cave.” The prisoners of this cave

have been shackled in place their entire lives, facing a wall and living in complete darkness

except for light cast by a fire behind them. Their only exposure to the world is through

watching the shadows on the walls of the cave made from people walking along a wall behind

them carrying objects, and occasionally speaking. This may be just a shadowy glimpse of

reality to the free people, but for the prisoners this has been their only experience of the world.

Socrates claims that if a prisoner were freed from his chains, upon standing and taking in his

newly expanded world, he would be terribly disoriented. The light of the fire would pain his

eyes, and he would not understand the objects he once only saw as shadows. Only after

adjusting would he be able to leave the cave, see the sun, and thus “conclude about it that it

provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way

the cause of all things that he and his fellows used to see (Republic 516b-516c).”
Flash forward approximately 2.5 millennia to the dystopic world of “They Live.” John

Nada is a drifter passing through Los Angeles and looking for construction work. He stumbles

upon an abandoned Church one day and finds a box hidden in the wall, filled with… sunglasses.

He takes them and goes on his way; Nada throws on a pair while walking a busy LA street, and

cues one of the most iconic scenes in Carpenter’s repertoire of dystopian horror. The

sunglasses reveal an achromatic world, the colorful billboards advertising popular products

replaced by simple, bold maxims like “CONSUME” and “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” Nada

repeatedly puts the sunglasses on and rips them off, bewildered by the world they’re revealing

to him. Once he adjusts to this new reality, he sees the truth: an unknown number of the

population are actually aliens, humanoid but grotesque. This discovery leads him to

understand how his pre-sunglasses existence was possible. These aliens operate clandestinely

in human society, seizing power to drain the planet of resources for their own consumption.

They use a broadcast signal to mask the ubiquitous subliminal messaging used to control and

blind the human population, except of course for the select few humans that work with the

aliens as willing collaborators.

The prisoner and Nada are both captives; the prisoner in a literal sense, his perception

being forcibly manipulated by restraints, and Nada is held mentally captive by the veil placed

over his perception. They each had the illusion of freedom because they were never introduced

to it, and ergo were overwhelmed at their radical first exposure. For Plato, this overwhelmed

suffering is an inextricable consequence of expanding your mind with knowledge. Like looking

into the fire and then the sun after a lifetime of shadows, the pursuit of knowledge reveals the

truth; once it does, your reality, by contrast, becomes spurious.


How does man (substituted for the prisoner and Nada) deal with this irreversible

discovery? He tries to spread the truth to others. The prisoner descends back into the cave to

tell the others of this new world but is now blinded by the sudden darkness. Although he tells

the prisoners of a world of light, they see his sudden blindness, apparent confusion, and pained

movements. His journey upwards had hurt him; there was no reason to do something that

would surely hurt them too. Socrates speculates that if he tried to force the prisoners upward,

they’d attempt to kill him out of defense. In fact, he asks (rhetorically) “as for anyone who tried

to free the prisoners and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him,

wouldn’t they kill him (Republic, 517a)?”

Nada, now a fugitive on the radar of the ruling-class, meets up with Frank Armitage, a

fellow construction worker he befriended on the job. Upon hearing Nada’s revelations,

Armitage thinks he’s gone insane; when Nada tries to force the sunglasses on him, an over 6-

minute fight scene ensues as Armitage violently resists looking through them. When he finally

concedes victory to Nada and puts on the sunglasses, he adjusts to the reality and comes to

the same conclusion as his friend. One can imagine that the fellow prisoners would, when the

light was forced upon them, adjust as well.

These allegories beg an important question: why, upon seeing the truth, is man

compelled to spread it among whoever he may encounter? At several points John Nada had

the opportunity to simply put down the sunglasses and leave his dangerous, dismal new world

behind. Instead, he fights to destroy the broadcast signal blinding the people until he is fatally

shot, just after accomplishing his mission. Carpenter leaves us to interpret the answer, but

Plato is more direct. Socrates and Glaucon elucidate Plato’s response in the following dialogue:
Socrates: “… [] Don’t you think he would count himself happy for the change
and pity the others?”

Glaucon: “Certainly.”

Socrates: “And if there had been honors, praises, or prizes among them […] do
you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the
prisoners who were honored and held power? Or do you think he would … much
prefer to … go through any sufferings, rather than share their beliefs and live as
they do?

Glaucon: “Yes, I think he would rather suffer anything than live like that
(Republic, 516c-516e).”
Our allegorical protagonists are compelled to spread the truth they discover out of pity,

a sense of duty towards their fellow man, and the horror of bearing, upon reflection, the

inauthenticity of the world everyone else is captive in. “In the knowable realm, the last thing to

be seen is the form of the good, and it is seen only with toil and trouble. Once one has seen it,

however, one must infer that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything…

(Republic, 517b).” Here, Plato affirms the characteristics of being good, the cause of all that is

good, and requiring suffering, as intrinsic to knowledge/light. By deduction, these

characteristics of knowledge imply that the characteristics of darkness/ignorance are being

bad and the cause of all that is bad or ugly. The world of man, filled with shadows and illusion,

and which once contained their former existence, is revealed to be an ugly place of suffering

for no greater good; how could they, how could we, given the chance, allow others to remain in

such a state?

In short, “It is our task as founders, then, to compel the best natures to learn what was

said before to be the most important thing: namely, to see the good; to ascend that ascent

(Republic, 519c).” Regarding our attitude towards the things that act as obstacles to truth, John
Nada says it best: “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass- and I’m all out of bubblegum

(They Live, 39:47).”

Works Cited

1. P., & Reeve, C. D. (2012). A Plato reader: eight essential dialogues. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett

Pub. Co.

2. Carpenter, J. (Director). (n.d.). They live[Video file].

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