[Gorgias, speaking to his disciples.]
Imagine human beings living in an underground den whose mouth is obscured by a winding, ascending tunnel. These people have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den.
At a distance there is an ever-living Fire, and between the Fire and the prisoners a raised way. A low wall has been built along the way, like the screen over which marionette players show their puppets.
Behind the wall there are moving figures, who hold in their hands various works of art; among them are images of men and animals, wood and stone. Some of the passers-by are talking and others remain silent. Due to an echo which returns from the wall, the voices of the passers-by seem to proceed from the shadows.
These prisoners are people like us, seeing only the shadows of the images which the Fire throws on the wall of the den; to these they give names.
Suppose now that one were to suddenly turn them round and make them look with pain and grief to themselves at the artifacts in front of the flame; will they believe them to be real? Will not their eyes be dazzled, and will they not try to get away from the light of the Fire to something which they are able to behold without blinking?
And suppose further, that you are one of these prisoners but unlike the others– and your bonds had been loosened, would you not traverse the steep and rugged ascent towards the mouth of the cave? Would you not pursue the Light of lights which illuminates the world beyond the cave in its radiance?
What would become of you if you moved to the threshold of the cave and found naught but darkness — void of anything? When you have discovered that the shadows on the walls are but illusions of the Fire and that these illusions are all that is – what becomes of you and your lofty ideals?
Upon knowing the truth, you cannot bind yourself as the prisoners have been bound – for now you are free and your options stand thus: jump into the void and become as nothing or return to the prisoners and, in the shadow of truth, exercise dominion over them. How worthless to you will seem the honors and glories of the just! For now you are free.
In returning to that underground dwelling, will you not see more clearly after having been exposed to the darkest dark? The light of the Fire will become ever-more brilliant and you can join, upon that wall, the casters of shadow by whom the realities of the prisoners are shaped!