Plato's allegory of the cave
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Plato from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509
|Allegories and metaphors|
The Allegory of the Cave (also known as the Analogy of the Cave, Plato's Cave or the Parable of the Cave) is presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic (514a-520a) to compare "...the effect of education 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 of the Cave is presented after the metaphor 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 Book 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 ascribe names to these shadows. According to Plato's Socrates, 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.
The Allegory may be related to Plato's Theory of Forms, according to which the "Forms" (or "Ideas"), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge. In addition, the Allegory of the Cave is an attempt to explain the philosopher's place in society: to attempt to enlighten the "prisoners."
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."
Imprisonment inside the Cave
Socrates begins by asking Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been imprisoned since childhood in such a way that their legs and necks are fixed, such that they cannot move their heads and are thereby forced to gaze at a wall in front of them. (514a-b) Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway. Along this walkway is a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects "...including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials." (514c-515a) In this way, the walking people are compared to puppeteers and the low wall to the screen over which puppeteers display their puppets. Since these walking people are behind the wall on the walkway, their bodies do not cast shadows on the wall faced by the prisoners, but the objects they carry do. The prisoners cannot see any of this behind them, being only able to view the shadows cast upon the wall in front of them. There are also echoes off the shadowed wall of sounds the people walking on the road sometimes make, which the prisoners falsely believe are caused by the shadows.
Socrates suggests that, for the prisoners, the shadows of artifacts would constitute reality. (515c) They would not realize that what they see are shadows of the artifacts, which are themselves inspired by real humans and animals outside of the cave. Furthermore, the prisoners would 'assign credit and prestige' to whomever among them could quickly remember which shadows came before, predict which shadows would follow and name which shadows were normally found together. (516c-d)
Leaving the Cave
Socrates then supposes that one prisoner is freed. Suddenly and in pain he is then compelled to stand, turn, walk and look towards the fire. (515c) He is told that what he has formerly seen has no substance and that what he now sees (the carried objects) constitutes a greater reality. He is also asked to identify some of the carried objects. He is unable due to his confusion and he still believes the shadows to be more real. (515d)
The freed one is then compelled to look directly at the fire, which hurts his eyes. In his pain, Socrates continues, the freed one would turn away and run back to what he can make out, which now are the carried objects to which he was just previously introduced. (515e)
The freed one is then dragged in pain and irritation up and out of the cave. When he reaches the sunlight, he is unable to see anything, his eyes being overwhelmed. (516a)
Slowly, his eyes acclimate to the light of the sun. He is first able to see only shadows of things. Next he can see the reflections of things in water and later is able to see things themselves. He is then be able to look at the stars and moon by night and finally he is able to look upon the Sun. (516b)
Eventually, he deduces that the Sun is the "source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing" (516b–c). (See also Plato's metaphor of the Sun, which occurs near the end of The Republic, Book VI.)
Return to the Cave
Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man. "Wouldn't he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn't he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn't he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn't it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it's not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn't they kill him?" (517a) The prisoners, ignorant of the world behind them would see the freed man with his corrupted eyes and be afraid of anything but what they already know. Philosophers analyzing the allegory argue that the prisoners would ironically find the freed man stupid due to the current state of his eyes and temporarily not being able to see the shadows which are the world to the prisoners.
Remarks on the Allegory
"the region revealed through sight"—the ordinary objects we see around us—"to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the Sun. And in applying the going up and the seeing of what's above to the soul's journey to the intelligible place, you not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. At all events, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the region of the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is indeed the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful—in the visible realm it gives birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible realm, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence—and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see you it" (517b–c).After "returning from divine contemplations to human evils", a man
"is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when—with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness—he is compelled in courtrooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?" (517d–e)
Evolutionary biologist Jeremy Griffith's best-selling book A Species In Denial includes the chapter Deciphering Plato’s Cave Allegory.
- Metaphor of the sun
- Analogy of the divided line
- Intelligibility (philosophy)
- The Form of the Good
- Plato's Republic in popular culture
- The Pilgrims of the Sun (1815) (poetry) James Hogg
| has original text related to this article:
The Republic/Book VII
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