The Heart Doctrine - How to escape from Plato’s Cave – part one

Erwin Bomas – The Netherlands

Preceding his presentation on Friday August 12, 2011 in Julian-California, lecturer Erwin Bomas, a project manager for the Kennisnet Foundation and member of the Theosophical Society,  Point Loma – The Hague, stated the following:

In this lecture we will apply the conference theme “The Heart of Wisdom, A Concurrence of Science and Spirituality...from the Theosophical Perspective” to education. What is a Theosophical education? How to present Theosophy this day and age? How to reach the Western minds, still very much attuned to pure scientific and mostly materialistic thinking?

Theosophy, as the synthesis of Science, Philosophy and Religion, throws new light on Modern Science. In Theosophy we find the Doctrine of the Heart, revealing the “spirit”, stimulating the highest of our aspects. It presents the entrance to the world of noumena.

Modern Science is still mostly a science of phenomena. It follows the Doctrine of the Eye, paying attention to the “letter”, stimulating the intellect. The separation of Science and Ethics is leading to much conflict. Many are ignorant of the consequences. The focus on phenomena is due to our own nature of thinking. This is exemplified perfectly by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. 

Education based on the Heart Doctrine can lead man to much greater heights than we can now imagine. How? Following the lessons of the Socratic method and the Râja-Yoga System, which we will apply together in this lecture. We will show the perfect escape plan from Plato’s Cave.


The Allegory of the Cave has a central role in Plato’s dialogue Politeia or The Republic [1]. In The Republic the central question is: “What is Justice?”. In the dialogue Plato explains the nature and composition of the human soul by comparing it to a republic. After having concluded that the ideal republic should be governed by those who have knowledge of the highest wisdom, who know The Good and have seen Truth, the question is how these Philosopher-Rulers can be found. The answer Plato provides: by education. And to introduce his explanation of what type of education this should be, Plato makes Socrates tell his companion Glaucon about the Cave.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave encloses a wealth of symbolism and deeper meaning, especially about education. A closer look into this classic piece of dialogue can help to answer the question the Education Committee of International Theosophy Conferences has challenged itself to answer: How to present Theosophy in this day and age?

Below you can read a short synopsis. While you do, try to picture the elements in the Cave and try to think about what they would stand for. The sketch accompanies the allegory.

Inside the Cave

- Socrates speaks to Glaucon:
“<514a> (...) Consider men as in a subterraneous cave, with <514b> its entrance expanding to the light, and answering to the whole extent of the cave. They have been in this cave from their childhood, with chains both on their legs and necks. They are only able to look before them, by the chain incapable to turn their heads round. Suppose there is the light of a fire, burning far above and behind them; and that between the fire and the fettered men there is a road above. Imagine, along this road, men bearing all sorts of utensils, raised above the wall, <515a> and human statues, and other animals, in wood and stone, and furniture of every kind. And some of those who are carrying are speaking, and others silent. The prisoners cannot see anything of themselves, or of one another, but the shadows formed <515b> by the fire. Of all the things being carried along they see the same, only shadows, which they probably would give names. And if the opposite part of the cave had an echo they would also imagine that they heard the shadows speak <515c>.” So the prisoners will entirely judge that there is nothing true but the shadows of utensils.

Release from the Cave

Socrates then supposes that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees.
“Suppose further," Socrates says, "that the man was compelled to look at the fire. He would be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, the things he can see clearly and holds to be real. And if someone forcibly dragged him upward, out of the cave and all the way out into the sunlight, he would be distressed and unable to see "even one of the things now said to be true" <516a>.
After some time on the surface, however, the freed prisoner would acclimatize. He would first see the shadows of the things around him and the images of plants and animals in the water, before he could recognize the things themselves in the sunlight. And eventually he is able to look upon the source of light, the Sun itself. And he would understand that the Sun is the “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing" <516bc>.

Return to the Cave

Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man. “He would probably remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable. And he would disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which. Moreover, were he to return there, he would be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness. It would then be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up. And the prisoners in the cave would hold the opinion that whoever should attempt to liberate them, and lead them up, should be put to death” <517a>.

Plato’s explanation of the Allegory

Socrates then explains the meaning of this allegory to Glaucon. He compares the outer world as perceived by our sight as the prison. And the ascent from the cave to the world above, stands for the soul’s ascent into the world of Ideas (Eidè). <517b>

Here reference is also made to the simile of the sun, which is described in Chapter 6 of the Republic, before the Allegory of the Cave. Here Plato describes the visual world where the sun as the cause of light makes the outer world visible to our faculty of sight. This exactly corresponds to the world of Ideas or noumena where the Idea of the Good as the cause of reality makes the world intelligible to our faculty of knowledge.

Inside as well as outside the Cave Plato describes four levels:
1.    the shadows or images,
2.    the things themselves or beings themselves,
3.    the light (or truth) which makes the object visible or intelligible
4.    and the source of the light.

As mentioned before, the dialogue of The Republic as a whole but specifically the Allegory of the Cave represents ourselves. Nothing can be seen as apart from ourselves, we are an inseparable part of the grand whole. So the cave is also a metaphor of man’s inner composition. With our knowledge of Theosophy about the inner composition of man we can clearly identify the different aspects Plato describes as different states of consciousness.

Are we inside Plato’s Cave?

If we look inside and outside the cave we can see the correspondence with
- the Souls, Egos and Monads of the human composition,
- its seven principles and
- the seven corresponding aspects of thinking. (also <532cd>)

We will focus on the Human Ego, because as human beings, it is this Ego we are identifying with in this phase of our evolution.

Human Ego

The main characteristic of the Human Soul is Manas or the faculty of thinking, which can be divided in two: the Higher Manas, which is thought directed at the higher principles of thinking and the Lower Manas, which is thought directed at the lower principles. The lower manas is symbolized by the light of the fire. The fire symbolizes the personality, which holds the illusionary perception that it exists separately from the whole. Within the cave our thinking only provides a vague and flickering light, colored by our personality. Focusing on the lower aspects of our thinking will at most lead to having an opinion (doxa) about things, but not to true knowledge (epistème). 
The Higher Manas is symbolized by the small portion of sunlight coming from outside, to which we can ascend and which will lead us out of the cave. (also see <532c>)

Lower aspects of thinking

The Allegory described the lowest level as that of prisoners in chains who can only see each others’ shadows. We can recognize the shadows as what we perceive in the visible world of one another: our bodies. The corresponding aspect of thinking is physical thinking: thoughts of hunger, thirst, tiredness etc. In the objects or forms carried by the men walking along the raised road behind the prisoners, we can recognize the Astral world with its model bodies that generate the form of the shadows. 
In the road with the men carrying the objects we can recognize the principle of prâna - vitality, and of kâma - will-power or desire as a driving force.

Higher aspects of thinking

Now, the Higher Manas brings us outside the cave. The first aspect of the Higher Manas is the impersonal or rather above-personal thinking as used by the intellectual. It is described by the prisoner who just escaped the cave, who can only perceive the shadows of beings in the sunlight or the reflections of beings in water. Plato compares it to the mathematician, drawing a circle based on the idea of the perfect circle. If we only think in an intellectual way, using images of things, figures, models, and reason from them, but not from the things themselves, although we are using a higher and above-personal aspect, we still cannot reach the highest knowledge. It is the level of intellectual thinking Plato also describes as based on hypotheses which are themselves postulates but not yet used for reasoning to a universal principle. In this we can recognize the theoretical scientist who loses himself in the details.

Instead, according to Plato, we should make hypotheses not as principles, but really hypotheses: as steps and handles, and proceed to reasoning from them to a universal principle. We can reason from this universal principle as he writes “using nowhere anything which is sensible, but forms or ideas themselves” <532a>. In this description we can recognize the Buddhic aspect of thinking. We can see the interconnectedness of things, see everything as flowing from the same source. It is the level of the noumena, seeing things as they really are and recognizing the One Life pulsating throughout all. We then arrive at the divine aspect of thinking. Here we are at one with the whole, Unity itself, there is no more distinction between subject and object, we are raised above all the pairs of opposites and are completely aligned with Nature. It corresponds with the light of the Sun, the One Life shining upon all things, the truth or reality that makes the noumena intelligible.

But the Light itself is emanated from its source the Sun. As Socrates explains:

“In the intelligible place, the idea of The Good is the last object of vision, and is scarcely to be seen; but if it be seen, we must collect by reasoning <517c> that it is the cause to all of everything right and beautiful, generating in the visible place, light, and its lord the sun; and in the intelligible place, it is itself the lord, producing truth and intellect; and this must be beheld by him who is to act wisely, either privately or in public.”

Plato writes, we can only reach the World of Noumena by using our faculty of reason, or thinking or, in its Sankrit term, of Manas <581e>, the main principle that we are developing as human souls. So our thinking has a key role in helping us escape the cave.

So: are we inside Plato’s Cave? It depends on how we look at things: from our own perspective based on sensual perception or from a more universal standpoint, based on eternal laws of Nature, wisdom proven by the ages?

I think most of us still spend a lot of time in the cave, sometimes we are even further fastening our fetters to the cave. But using our thinking we now know we can escape.

[1] Several translations of Plato’s Politeia (references to the original text are made directly in this article between brackets (e.g. <517b>). These are the 'universal' references to the original Greek text of Politeia. All translations have these included.):
Plato, The Republic, translated by Thomas Taylor from
Plato, The Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowett, C. Scribner’s sons, New York, 1871; from
Groot, Dr. H., Plato en zijn beteekenis voor onze tijd, J.M. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam, 1947; (Dutch)
Plato, Het Bestel (Politeia), translated by Hans Warren and Mario Molegraaf, Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2006; (Dutch)
Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969; – from
Plato, The Republic, translated by Desmond Lee, Penguin Books, 2nd Edition, Aylesbury, Bucks, 1983;

End of part one – to be continued

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