Allegory of the Cave

by Socrates

Introduction

Plato was a philosopher in Greece in 400 BC and was regarded one of the greatest philosopher of all time and whose philosophy work has shaped the western thoughts for a long time. The theme that we will discuss in this paper is the Allegory of the Cave which appears in Plato's book, the Republic. This is one of the famous theme of Plato about the theory of knowledge, specifically how people move from just opinion which he calls the lowest form to the actual knowledge or the truth. First, I will give a summary about the Allegory, then I will separate them into three different phases which are the cave, the liberation, and the return to the cave, and I will analyze them separately.

The Summary

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato through Socrates tells a story about a group of people that was imprisoned in a cave with their hands and legs chained and their neck fixed towards the cave’s wall; they have been in the cave since they were in their childhood. There was a fire behind them, and the gleam from the fire will cast a shadow of the objects that was put in front of it. The prisoners would name the objects that they saw through the shadows and thought that the shadows are real beings; they presumed that as their reality. One day, one of the prisoners was released and as he went outside the cave for the first time, he saw things in their true forms. He gained insight from them and he realized that the shadows that he saw in the cave were just shadows and what he saw out there are the real ones thus he saw the truth. Then, he remembered his home in the cave and his friends who were still imprisoned in the cave, and not knowing the truth of things. He went back to tell them the truth, however, he was ridiculed because now his eyes were not as good it was before as they said his eyes have been ruined by the sun. His friends even threatened to kill anyone who tries to bring them out of the cave if they have any powers to do so.

The Cave

Now, we will dissect this passage according to their phases which consist of the beginning when all of them in the cave prison, the liberation when one of them were released and got to see the truth and the last one is the return to the cave and the effort to tell fellow prisoners the truth. Firstly, in the cave, there are a group of people shackled with chains that they cannot move and just sit still facing the cave’s wall where shadows of objects were casted by the passerby “carrying…figurines of men and other animal fashioned out of stone and wood” (Republic, 515A). The prisoners give names to this shadows as if they were true beings and since that was all they ever know; the shadows had become their reality. Plato used the cave to symbolize the reality where most people lived in. Most people were brought up in a society where people around them will plant the seeds of ideas in their mind by force and they hold on to these ideas until they become adults. They never really try to question the ideas that was planted by the society because those are the only thing they know since they were a kid. Then, one prisoner from the cave was released from the chains and he was forced to turn around and face the fire. However, he was feeling a lot of pain because he was not used to the bright light and Plato said he “escape by turning back toward those things he was able to make out, and consider them clearer” (Republic, 515E). This represent the difficulty of gaining new knowledge. Many people who tried to gain new knowledge cannot withstand the hardship of acquiring the knowledge because they do not have the courage to question their self-knowledge and just give up upon it and back to the previous state where things are easier for him to recognize even though it is a false reality. Indeed, a person would feel really uncomfortable if someone suddenly shown with proof that his beliefs is completely wrong and he will experience what Plato through Socrates called the state of aporia which is the state of numbness.

The Liberation

The second phase is the liberation where one of the prisoner was released and went to see the outside world. Someone took him by force to go outside “along the rough, steep road up, and didn’t let go until he’d dragged him out into the light of the sun” (Republic, 516A). This means that to get to the true knowledge, sometimes, someone has to be shown the way to get there or be forced by a teacher to get there because the road to the truth is rough and steep and it is difficult to get truth without any guidance from someone who is wiser than you. In some sense, I think Plato is trying to say that we have to go through some form of sufferings first before we can get closer to the truth. When the freed prisoner got outside the cave, his eyes were quickly blinded by the bright light of the sun so he has to adjust his sight slowly by looking at the shadows of objects which he can recognize easily because he saw things as shadows before, then he can look at images of things through their reflection in water, then he can look at the things directly, then he can look at the sky and see more wonderful things and lastly, Plato through Socrates said that “he’d gain sight of the sun. . . itself, by itself, in its own realm, and contemplate it the way it is.” (Republic, 516B). This is very similar to Diotima’s ladder of love which Plato says through Socrates that human have to see things through several phases to get to the Beautiful itself. In this case, Shadows is the Body, Reflection is the Soul, Beings is the Law or Institution, Heavens is the Knowledge and the Sun itself is the Beautiful. It seems to me that when the prisoner was brought out of the cave, he then ascends the Diotima’s ladder and ascends to the Beautiful itself. I think this is also why the freed prisoner went back to the cave to help his friend to see the truth as well because it is part of the descent in which the man who manage to see the Beautiful by itself will want to go down and spread the knowledge to others like Socrates himself.

The Return

The last phase is the return to the cave. After the freed prisoner fully acquire the truth about the outside world, he remembers his friends in the cave who still in the dark and do not know the truth. When the prisoner is back, Plato said through Socrates that if there would be a competition to guess the passing things in the cave the freed prisoner would not be jealous if he does not win the competition because he would “submit to anything rather than hold those opinions and live that way” (Republic 516D). This relates back to the Diotima’s “ladder of love”, Diotima said that ones who manage to see the Beautiful, would not be be seduced by other worldly things again. This means that a person who actually sees the truth is changed forever in his heart and would not go back to his position before he was enlightened. Plato wrote that when the freed prisoner went back into the cave, his eyes would surely be worse than before he went out because they are already used to the sun outside the cave thus his friends said that “having gone up above he returned with his eyes ruined” (Republic, 517A) and it is not worth the effort to go out just to have their eyes impaired by the sun. They also said that if they have the power, they would kill anyone who tries to persuade them to go out of the cave. This means that it is hard to convince the whole society to change what they believed in at once and the philosopher would face death threats from them because of their stubbornness. Comparing it to when the freed prisoner was released alone, I think what Plato wants to say here is that if you want to show the truth, it is easier to show and convince just one person at a time as compared to convincing the entire society at once because there will be more retaliation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Allegory of the Cave is a really eye-opening piece of art from Plato. No wonder it became one of the most famous works by Plato and most people who took a class in philosophy will definitely stumble upon this work at one point in their study. It is something that we all can relate and learn from, thus using it to reflect upon our life so that we can make our life better. This Allegory surely echoes with what Socrates said in the Apology “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Which means that we should strive to seek for self-knowledge in order to live a meaningful life and also to live what Socrates call the Good life.

 

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