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“The Allegory of The Cave” by Plato

Introduction

The importance of Plato’s allegory of the cave for consequential development of Western philosophical thought can hardly be underestimated, as it had laid a foundation for European metaphysics, as we know them. Therefore, it will not be an exaggeration on our part, to suggest that the very conceptual essence of idealistic perception of surrounding reality derives out of this particular Plato’s allegory.

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Before we proceed with a detailed description of the allegory of the cave and its meaning, we will need to gain an insight into how ancient Greeks used to grade different forms of knowledge. In his book “Plato’s The Republic: Notes”, Charles Patterson provides us with such an insight: “The highest and best kind of knowledge is knowledge of Goodness itself; the second level of knowledge is of the other Forms. The first degree of belief is present when we see physical objects, trees, stones, etc. The second and lower kind of belief is our mental state when we see only shadows and images of physical objects” (Patterson 52).

In other words, ancient Greek philosophical thought was being largely concerned with discovering the true nature of objective reality as a “thing in itself”, which in its turn, points out at Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle as individuals who, for the first time in history, we’re able to conceptualize European psyche’s subconscious longing towards the “higher truth”, as such defines the existential essence of Western civilization. In the next part of this paper, we will describe Plato’s allegory of the cave and will also introduce readers to our interpretation of this allegory.

Main body

In Book VII of “The Republic”, Socrates engages in dialogue with Plato’s brother Glaucon, while trying to enlighten the latter onto the true essence of ontological knowledge, as an objective category. He presents Glaucon with the vision of the cave, which contains prisoners chained to the walls.

These prisoners had spent their whole lives inside of this cave ever since the time they were born, with only the link that was connecting them to the outside world being the shadows of people moving in front of the cave’s entrance, projected onto the wall in front of prisoners’ eyes: “Imagine human beings living in an underground den which is open towards the light; they have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den.

At a distance, there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners a raised way, and a low wall is built along the way, like the screen over which marionette players show their puppets” (Plato Book VII). Given the fact that prisoners have never been outside of this cave, the shadows of moving objects they are being exposed to and also the sounds, associated with these objects, is only the mean for prisoners to make judgments about realities of an outside world.

It is needless to say, of course, that prisoners’ idea as to what this world might be all about, has very little to do with the actual state of affairs. In the author’s mind, this scene serves as an allegory to how people perceive an objective reality – they often tend to think of this reality’s emanations as such that provide them with the full insight on reality’s actual essence, thus indulging in the fallacy of assumption.

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Socrates proceeds further: “Suppose now that you suddenly turn them around and make them look with pain and grief to themselves at the real images; will they believe them to be real? Will, not their eyes are dazzled, and will they not try to get away from the light to something which they can behold without blinking?” (Plato Book VII). By saying it, he implies that our sensory perception of surrounding reality does not provide us with the full insight into this reality’s true essence, just as shadows inside of the cave do not provide prisoners with a comprehensible idea as to what the outside reality is.

After having established his argument’s conceptual premise, Socrates moves on to describe possible implications of a few prisoners being allowed to leave the cave: “Suppose now that you suddenly turn them around and make them look with pain and grief to themselves at the real images; will they believe them to be real? Will, not their eyes are dazzled, and will they not try to get away from the light to something which they can behold without blinking?” (Plato Book VII).

According to Socrates, upon being exposed to realities outside of the cave, prisoners’ worldview would be thoroughly shattered, because they would come to realize that their earlier judgments, as to the true nature of these realities, were utterly fallacious. In its turn, this would result in two consequences: freed prisoners experiencing utmost happiness over the fact that they had discovered a higher truth and the rest of the prisoners, who were never given a chance to look at the world outside of the cave, adopting a hostile attitude towards their more fortunate friends’ enlightenment: “But now imagine further, that they descend into their old habitations;—in that underground dwelling they will not see as well as their fellows, and will not be able to compete with them in the measurement of the shadows on the wall; there will be many jokes about the man who went on a visit to the sun and lost his eyes, and if they find anybody trying to set free and enlighten one of their numbers, they will put him to death” (Plato Book VII).

Therefore, the semantic meaning of this Plato’s allegory appears to be clear – people’s interaction with what they perceive as an objective reality cannot possibly provide them with insight into this reality’s true quintessence. In its turn, this implies that, for an individual to become enlightened, he or she must be continuously striving to broaden its intellectual horizons, as such as represents a pathway towards gaining a higher knowledge, because it is only the possession of such knowledge which qualifies an individual to experience intense happiness, unknown to those who prefer not to question reality’s emanations.

Moreover, it is namely enlightened people, who qualify to exercise political authority in society, simply because their mind is not being blurred with “shadowy” misconceptions: “He who attains to the beatific vision is always going upwards; he is unwilling to descend into political assemblies and courts of law; for his eyes are apt to blink at the images or shadows of images which they behold in them—he cannot enter into the ideas of those who have never in their lives understood the relation of the shadow to the substance” (Plato Book VII).

Thus, it will not be an exaggeration, on our part, to refer to Plato’s allegory of the cave as one of the most important philosophical insights, contained in “The Republic”, because of its clearly defined political implications.

According to Plato, it is only the caste of enlightened philosophers, which should be entitled to the right to exercise a political authority within a particular society, because of these philosophers’ deep understanding of the essence of socio-political dynamics and also because of their existential idealism, which should prompt philosopher-kings to spread the light of enlightenment among those who were never able to ascend to the “light” on their own: “We must choose out, therefore, the natures who are most likely to ascend to the light and knowledge of the good; but we must not allow them to remain in the region of light; they must be forced down again among the captives in the den to partake of their labors and honors” (Plato Book VII).

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Therefore, we can only agree with Christopher M. Duncan and Peter J. Steinberger, who in their article “Plato’s Paradox? Guardians and Philosopher-Kings” point out at the allegory of the cave as a semiotic tool, utilized by Plato, to popularise his idea that ideal society can only exist under the rule of philosopher-kings: “Philosopher-kings are kings. They do not gravitate spontaneously to the cave but are compelled to return there; once there, they presumably propagate laws and policies explicitly and intentionally designed to ensure that empirical cities function as harmoniously as possible” (Duncan & Steinberger 1320).

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that Plato’s allegory of the cave is being solely concerned with the process of gaining objective knowledge and with the popularization of the idea of philosopher-kings; because this allegory also helps us to gain a better understanding as to what prompts people to seek “higher truth”, in the first place. It is not simply an accident that Socrates describes prisoners that have never been exposed to the light as being existentially stagnant, which in its turn, explains why they would become angry, upon being told that their ideas as to the essence of objective reality are nothing but an illusion.

People’s ability to ascend to the “light” is inheritably predetermined, and as such it has nothing to do with the environmental particularities of these people’s upbringing. As it appears from the allegory’s context, prisoners who remained inside of the cave, while others have been venturing outside, would never be willing to leave the cave, even if they were given such an opportunity. And the reason for this is simple – some people are simply incapable of taking an advantage of existential opportunities, for as long as they think of them as such that pose danger to the emotional comfort of living in the shadowy realm of a dark cave.

In other words, Plato’s allegory points out at metaphysical wrongness of an idea that an individual’s life represents an objective value in a priori: “And to our higher purpose no science can be better adapted; but it must be pursued in the spirit of a philosopher, not of a shopkeeper” (Plato Book VII). It is only intellectuals who should be allowed to rule, in the political context of this word, simply because it is namely these people who are being the least concerned about deriving emotional pleasure out of subjecting others to their authority: “It may be that the saint or philosopher who is best fitted, may also be the least inclined to rule, but necessity is laid upon him, and he must no longer live in the heaven of ideas. And this will be the salvation of the State” (Plato Book VII).

Thus, we can also say that Plato’s allegory of the cave provides us with insight into the conceptual fallaciousness of the idea that society can benefit from the rule of the majority, as it is being suggested by those who strongly believe in the ideals of Democracy.

In his article “Plato’s Doctrine of Freedom”, Robert Stanley suggests that Plato’s allegory of the cave directly relates to this philosopher’s strongly defined negative attitude towards the idea of political egalitarianism: “The democratic man is controlled by all his desires indiscriminately. True opinions and everything which makes for order and control is expelled from his soul” (Stanley 147). In the final part of this paper, we will discuss this particular Plato’s allegory as such that contains a clue as to the true essence of socio-political processes, as such that correspond to the notion of biological evolution.

Conclusion

As we have mentioned earlier, Plato’s allegory implies that the material objects of the physical realm only manifest a single aspect of their true identity. For the individual to gain a better knowledge of the physical realm’s particular manifestation, he needs to ascend to a higher existential level, which Plato associates with an individual’s decision to look straight at the sun (an allegory for becoming extremely open-minded).

By getting out of the cave and by looking straight at the sun, freed prisoners transform their very essence as individuals, which in its turn, allows them to attain a higher degree of existential complexity and; therefore, to increase their biological value.

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Thus, we can suggest that Plato viewed prisoners who remained in captivity of cave’s shadows as representing the “dead link of evolution”. Just like trilobites, which did not evolve throughout millions and millions of years, while living in dark underwater caves, prisoners who stayed behind in the cave, are also very unlikely to progress, in the evolutionary sense of this word. Plato’s vision of the cave is nothing but a highly allegorized account for the notion of energetic entropy, and as such, it allows us to conclude that the notions of ancient Greek philosophy continue to remain scientifically valid even today.

Plato’s allegory of the cave can be interpreted as such that provides people with an answer to the classical philosophical question – what is the sense of life? Life is the process of organic substance resisting entropy by the mean of becoming eve-more complex. When applied to Homo Sapiens, this process accounts for people’s tendency to seek a higher state of consciousness, as they proceed with their lives. Therefore, it is only the form of political governing that corresponds to the laws of nature, which can be truly effective – this is the foremost message that is being promoted by Plato’s allegory of the cave.

According to Plato, the purpose of a state’s existence is not to provide citizens with “bread and entertainment” or with “security”, but to encourage them to attain higher levels of ontological awareness, by the mean of philosopher-kings being put in the position of sovereign rulers. It is needless to say, of course, that such Plato’s idea can hardly be tolerated today, when citizens in Western countries are being encouraged to “celebrate diversity”, at the expense of undergoing the process of physical and intellectual degradation.

Bibliography

Duncan, Christopher & Steinberger, Peter “Plato’s Paradox? Guardians and Philosopher-Kings”. The American Political Science Review, (84) 4, (1990): 1317-1322.

Gould, Thomas “Four Levels of Reality, in Plato, Spinoza, and Blake” Arion, (8)1, (1969): 20-50.

Patterson, Charles Plato’s The Republic: Notes. Lincoln: Neb John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1963.

Plato “The Republic”. 2001. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Web.

Stalley, Robert “Plato’s Doctrine of Freedom”. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series. 98, (1998): 145-158.

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