about, because to them, the real world is obviously in front of them
on the opposite wall. They have talked about it and described it for
a long time, and given awards to those who made the clearest, most
detailed descriptions of it. They might start saying he is insane.
If he persists, things might turn nasty because he will be
threatening what the chained people believe. They might decide to
do away with him to get him to stop upsetting their picture of the
world and the awards and honors they give for describing it.
* * *
The metaphor Plato offers in the story of the cave is that here in the
everyday world, we think we are seeing and experiencing reality,
but in fact this is a world of shadows and illusions. Those who have
mystical experiences realize this; that is, they catch glimpses of real
sunlight, and the light is so intense that they feel compelled to make
their way out into the real sun no matter what the cost. They follow
the difficult, painful way up to the entrance of the cave. If they
return to our world, they are thought to be slightly cracked, or
completely insane, and when they try to help others into this light,
they are often seen as dangerous.
It's easy enough to apply this metaphor to actual mystics. Jesus,
after all, who from one point of view is the supreme mystic of all
time since he is believed by Christians to have been God Himself,
was put to death for insisting that people could come up into the
light; his phrase in English is "the kingdom of heaven." Socrates
himself, by insisting that the shadows that were called knowledge in
his time be questioned, upset the Athenians to the point where they
tried him and had him drink the bitter hemlock, putting him to
death. The ninth century Islamic prophet Hallaj, similarly, in his
enlightenment said, "I am God," and this so upset the political and
religious world around him that he was beheaded.
Buddha was not put to death, but one of his principal teachings is
that the physical world is an illusion. And this is directly related to
the Hindu sense that the world of objects, or prakriti, is an illusion
described by the term maya. In Zen Buddhism, which developed in
China during the eighth and ninth centuries and became further
refined afterward in Japan, not only the physical world is illusory,
but everything that is experienced, in and outside the brain, is
illusory too - it is all a shadow of the real light that exists up beyond
the entrance of our cave. And in Zen, since "light" is simply a
metaphor that resides in the mind, it too is an illusion, and any
thought about the light or world beyond ours is also an illusion.
These examples are taken from prominent, ancient religions, which
indicates that religious experience is a form of mystical experience;
religious institutions, no matter how far they stray from their
sources, grow out of original mystical experiences, and so
scriptures, or sacred writings, almost always have mystical
Literature - poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction writings that can
include works of autobiography and philosophy - often has mystical
elements as well, though its purposes and functions are different
from scripture. Scripture seeks to create a working link between the
divine world and the physical everyday world. It seeks to open
people's inner being to the divine, and often to give instruction for
how to live a life closer to the divine. The primary purpsoe of
literature, on the other hand, is to entertain: Since the first speaking
people told stories of their hunts and discoveries around campfires
tens of thousands of years ago, language has been used to pass the
time, enliven life - especially the life of the mind - and to convey
information and instruction in entertaining ways.
Stories and poems entertain at different levels of complexity, and at
a certain level, they begin to entertain not merely to pass time
pleasantly, but to preserve information and ideas about life and
feelings about the past, and to open worlds. In his dialogues -small
dramas based on philosophical discussions - Plato shaped the basic
questions and really the course of our philosophies; he not only
recorded methods and lines of reasoning, but also stories and myths
which conveyed feelings that rational inquiry cannot convey or
treat. At the center of his greatest work, The Republic, is the story
of the cave. This should make us stop and think.
Plato, who together with his teacher Socrates and his student
Aristotle was the founder of Western philosophy, is conveying to us
the idea that there is a great deal more to the world than what we
see. What that "more" is, the mystics of all ages try to convey in
their talk and writings - that is to say, in literature of various kinds.
The story of the cave can be used as a touchstone for all the others.
Dante and Mystical Metaphor
Dante's Cosmic Metaphors
About 1,650 years after Plato, Dante Alighieri of the Italian city of
Firenze wrote what is known in English as the Divine Comedy, one
of the great classics of Western literature. The Commedia is a
narrative poem that tells the story of Dante's journey through Hell,
Purgatory and finally Paradise or Heaven, culminating in one of the
most spectacular depictions of the introvertive mystical experience
The Divine Comedy is allegorical, like Plato's story (which is
sometimes referred to as the "Allegory of the Cave"). Allegory, in
its simplest definition, means "extended metaphor"; but like so
much in life, its true nature is not so simple.
Life is not simple. Dante depicts himself realizing, in the year 1300
at the age of 35, that his life has become so complicated he is lost.
The Divine Comedy begins with these famous words:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita.
In H.R. Huse's translation:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to my senses in a dark forest
For I had lost the straight path.
The metaphors in this sentence are easy for us here on the confusing
Earth to grasp. Life is like a journey, path or way that we travel, and
it can become so uncertain that at times we may actually feel lost -
the "dark forest" clearly represents that feeling of lostness, the sense
that you don't know where you are, and you're not sure how to get
back to familiar or appropriate places. In Dante's image, the path
itself is uncertain. Who am I, where am I, and what am I doing?
Bear with me while I make sure we are all understanding some
basic literary terms in the same way.
In his opening sentence, Dante has called attention to the very clear
similarities between "life" and a "journey," and between a "dark
forest" and lostness. Now there are different ways of representing
how things are like each other. In the first place, you can just say
very directly that two things resemble each other by using the
words "like" or "as" - "Life is like a journey." This figure of speech
is known as a simile, and it indicates only that two different things
are alike in some way.
But it's possible to up the ante of a comparison by speaking of two
things, not as if they are simply alike, but as if they are identical:
The sentence "Life is a journey" is a lot different from the sentence
"Life is like a journey." When at some intuitive level two things are
seen to be identical, then a metaphor is at work: My feeling of
lostness is a dark forest. Again, it is not like a dark forest, but it is a
dark forest. A metaphor is an image, or figure, in which two
different things are identified with each other; that is, they are
shown to be so like each other that they are for all intents and
purposes the same thing.*
Dante's images call attention to specific identities - life/journey,
dark forest/lostness - and the metaphors are specifically extended
throughout the poem, making them extended metaphors among a
web of other, more complicated extended metaphors: allegory.
Allegory occupies a strange, detached position in between a
metaphor and a symbol.
A symbol is a metaphor which recurs and is developed across an
entire story or poem, or in a community or culture. A symbol is so
to speak an image which is understood to express broad, deep
metaphorical meanings in a number of literary or cultural contexts.
The cave in Plato's story is understood in many contexts to be a
symbol of confusion and ignorance - a cliché grows out of this
symbol about people who are "in the dark." The dark forest in
Dante's poem has its own wider symbolic value, as when for
example Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the almost identical image in
his story "Young Goodman Brown" to depict people, or souls, losing
their way. Some symbols transcend literature and come into culture;
the cross, for example, is recognized worldwide as a symbol of
Allegorical images are in a sense more than just metaphors because
Reading Mystical Literature:
Reading Mystical Literature:
*I am conveying here a traditional, conventional view of metaphor. In the later decades of the twentieth century, the idea of metaphor was radically altered by some
literary critics (notably Roman Jakobson) who made a distinction between forms of metaphor which are named "metonymy" and "metaphor." In this view, metonymy
refers to figures of speech based on similarities between actual, physical relationships, such as the use of "Washington" (an actual, physical city) to refer to the "United States"
(an actual, physical country which actually, physically contains Washington). By contrast, the term "metaphor" is used to refer to figures of speech which seem to be based
only an abstract or qualitative similarities between two items, as when, for example, we use "Mars" as a metaphor for "war" - there is no continuous, physical relationship
between the planet Mars and Earthly wars, only an abstract or imagined relationship. This reworking of the idea of metaphor is useful in certain forms of sociology-,
psychology- or ideology-based literary criticism, but I can't see how it informs or helps our reading of mystical literature, and in fact seems more likely to hinder our
efforts. So we'll stick with more traditional ideas of metaphor.