What Plato’s Cave Tells Us About Managing Change

A couple of thousand years ago, in a world much different to ours, yet dramatically similar, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote The Allegory of The Cave. (Sometime known as The Cave of Shadows, or The Parable of The Cave). The allegory features as part of Plato's wider work The Republic. The main theme of which is how to create the ideal leaders of state and the ideal society. The allegory draws on many concepts of Plato's other writings, such as the concept of the form, which is a discussion on the nature of reality and the nature of knowing. Form at its most basic is the concept of moving into a realm of being (of what is) from the world of becoming, of change in an ever changing world.

The Allegory (An Outline)

In a dark cave a group of men have been imprisoned since birth. They are bound in chains in such a way that they cannot move and they cannot see anything except the wall in front of them. Behind the men is a fire which casts light onto the wall in front of them. Passing in front of the fire is a walkway along which, every so often, those from the outside world pass, with objects and animals that cast a shadow onto the wall in front of the men and give a distorted echo of sound. The shadows and echoes are the mens only reality, for they have known no other world. They perceive the shadows and echo to be the truth.

One day one of the men is freed and taken outside into the light. At first he is blinded by the reality of the light, but as time goes on he becomes able to discern the objects around him. In the beginning he believes that the shadows cast by the light of the sun are the real objects in the world, but he soon learns to recognise that they are just shadows and that another reality exists.

The man rushes to tell his still trapped companions in the cave about the world in the light. They are outraged and not only think he is deluded but also reject his attempts to free them into the light, preferring the comfort of the shadows. They refuse to believe his version of reality and reject him.


It's interesting that writing all those years ago Plato's allegory still has much to tell us today. The suggestion that in an ever changing world with an ever changing reality we need to adapt our perception, learn, know in new ways. We need to challenge our perception of what we think we know, so that we may see what the shadows represent, and furthermore then challenge what is then behind the new reality we see.

But more than that, as we learn and grow and see what the light of knowledge brings- how can we then show those who remain shackled in the dark? How can we introduce new realities behind the shadows? New perception threatens their versions of reality and they will resist this change to their understanding and even kill the threat if they can.

However for Plato, and we should consider this in our actions today, a new version of reality isn't necessarily better. It's just different. And who's to say that there's not another version we haven't yet found? Seeing a different version of reality in the light does not make any one view and reality superior. It does though give a responsibility to change the conditions of the world for those living in different realities. And to do that change agents need to first understand the worlds in the darkness and the reality of the shadows of the people who reside there.

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