Allegory of the Cave

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Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna

The Allegory of the Cave (also titled Analogy of the Cave, Plato's Cave or Parable of the Cave) is presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic (514a–520a) to compare "...the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature". It is written as a dialogue between Plato's brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the Analogy of the Sun (508b–509c) and the Analogy of the Divided Line (509d–513e). All three are characterized in relation to dialectic at the end of Books VII and VIII (531d–534e).

Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

Socrates remarks that this allegory can be taken with what was said before, namely the Analogy of the Sun and the Analogy of the Divided Line. In particular, he likens our perception of the world around us "to the habitation in prison, the firelight there to the sunlight here, the ascent and the view of the upper world is the rising of the soul into the world of the mind" (517b).[1]

Synopsis[edit]

Imprisonment in the Cave[edit]

Socrates begins by asking Glaucon to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from childhood. These prisoners are chained so that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them and not look around at the cave, each other, or themselves (514a–b).[1] Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway with a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects or puppets "of men and other living things" (514b).[1] The people walk behind the wall so their bodies do not cast shadows for the prisoners to see, but the objects they carry do ("as puppet showmen have screens in front of their people over which they work their puppets" (514a)[1]). The prisoners cannot see any of this behind them and are only able to see the shadows cast upon the cave wall in front of them. The sounds of the people walking echo off the shadowed wall, and the prisoners falsely believe these sounds come from the shadows (514c).[1]

Socrates suggests that the shadows constitute reality for the prisoners because they have never seen anything else; they would not realize that what they see are shadows of objects in front of a fire, much less that these objects are inspired by real living things outside of the cave (514b-515a).[1]

Departure from the Cave[edit]

Allegory of the Cave. Left (From top to bottom): Sun; Natural things; Shadows of natural things; Fire; Artificial objects; Shadows of artificial objects; Allegory level.
Right (From top to bottom): "Good" idea, Ideas, Mathematical objects, Light, Creatures and Objects, Image, Analogy of the Sun, and the Analogy of the Divided Line

Socrates then supposes that one prisoner is freed, being forced to turn and see the fire. The light would hurt his eyes and make it hard for him to see the objects that are casting the shadows. If he is told that what he saw before was not real but that the objects he is now struggling to see are, he would not believe it. In his pain, Socrates continues, the freed prisoner would turn away and run back to what he can see and is accustomed to, that is the shadows of the carried objects. He writes "...it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him." [1]

Socrates continues: "suppose...that someone should drag him...by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun." [1] The prisoner would be angry and in pain, and this would only worsen when the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes and blinds him.[1] The sunlight is representative of the new reality and knowledge the freed prisoner is experiencing.

Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. First he can only see shadows. Gradually he can see the reflections of people and things in water and then later see the people and things themselves. Eventually he is able to look at the stars and moon at night until finally he can look upon the sun itself (516a).[1] Only after he can look right at the sun "might he reason about it" and what it is (516b).[1] (See also Plato's Analogy of the Sun, which occurs near the end of The Republic, Book VI.)[2]

Return to the Cave[edit]

Socrates continues, saying that the freed prisoner would think that the real world was superior to the world he experienced in the cave; "he would bless himself for the change, and pity [the other prisoners]" and would want to bring his fellow cave dwellers out of the cave and into the sunlight (516c).[1]

The returning prisoner, whose eyes have become acclimated to the light of the sun, would be blind when he re-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun (516e).[1] The prisoners, according to Socrates, would infer from the returning one's blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey. Socrates concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would therefore reach out and kill any who attempted to drag them out of the cave (517a).[1]

Themes in the Allegory Appearing Elsewhere in Plato's Work[edit]

The allegory may be related to Plato's Theory of Forms, according to which the "Forms" (or "Ideas"), and not the material world known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge or what Socrates considers "the good."[3] Socrates informs Glaucon that the most excellent must learn the greatest of all studies, which is to behold the Good. Those who have ascended to this highest level, however, must not remain there but must return to the cave and dwell with the prisoners, sharing in their labors and honors.

Plato's Phaedo contains similar imagery to that of the allegory of the Cave; a philosopher recognizes that before philosophy, his soul was "a veritable prisoner fast bound within his body... and that instead of investigating reality by itself and in itself it is compelled to peer through the bars of its prison."[4]

Scholarly Discussion[edit]

Scholars debate the possible interpretations of The Allegory of the Cave, from looking at it from an epistemological standpoint, or one based on the study of how Plato believes we come to know things, to seeing it through a political lens.[5] While there are scholars whose interpretations fall in between these and scholars with perspectives completely independent of either, it is the positions of an epistemological view and a political view, fathered by Richard Lewis Nettleship and A.S. Ferguson, respectively, that tend to be discussed most frequently.[5]Nettleship interprets the allegory of the cave as one about human ignorance and a people who are unable or unwilling to seek truth and wisdom.[6] Ferguson, on the other hand, bases his analysis on the interpretation of the allegory as one describing the way rulers without a strong philosophical mindset manipulate the human population.[7]

Influence[edit]

The themes and imagery of Plato's cave have appeared throughout Western thought and culture. Some examples include:

  • Evolutionary biologist Jeremy Griffith's book A Species In Denial includes the chapter Deciphering Plato’s Cave Allegory.[8]
  • Journalist Chris Hedges' book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle refers to Plato's analogy in the chapter "The Illusion of Literacy".

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Plato. Rouse, W.H.D., ed. The Republic Book VII. Penguin Group Inc. pp. 365–401. 
  2. ^ Jowett, B. (ed.) (1941). Plato's The Republic. New York: The Modern Library. OCLC 964319.
  3. ^ Watt, Stephen (1997), "Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5–7)", Plato: Republic, London: Wordsworth Editions, pp. pages xiv–xvi, ISBN 1-85326-483-0 
  4. ^ Elliott, R. K. (1967). "Socrates and Plato's Cave". Kant-Studien 58 (2): 138. 
  5. ^ a b Hall, Dale (1980). "Interpreting Plato's Cave as an Allegory of the Human Condition". Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 14 (2): 74–75. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  6. ^ Nettleship, Richard Lewis (1922). "XII". In Charnwood, G. Lectures on The Republic of Plato. London: MacMillan. pp. 259–293. 
  7. ^ Ferguson, A.S. (January 1922). "Plato's Simile of Light. Part II. the Allegory of the Cave (Continued)". The Classical Quarterly 16 (1). Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  8. ^ Griffith, Jeremy (2003). A Species In Denial. Sydney: WTM Publishing & Communications. p. 83. ISBN 1-74129-000-7. 
  9. ^ The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real By William Irwin. Open Court Publishing, 2002/ ISBN 0-8126-9501-1 "written for those fans of the film who are already philosophers."

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