Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

The World is trapped in the Plato’s cave.

The images in the minds of the public do not corresponds to the real world outside. The reason for this is simple, as the images in the heads of the public are constructed by the Elite controlled electronic and print media. The centralized and hierarchical structured news channels, newspapers and magazines disseminates information and creates all the prevailing myths, stereotypes, misconceptions and false beliefs which the public perceives to be real. The official version is all what is heard and known by the public. Some individuals who have the access to alternative sources of information and who are able to see the truth are labeled as conspiracy theorist. In reality the truth is never given to the general public whether concerning the war on terror or global warming or the economy. The public mind is filled with all kinds of lies and deception which they believe to be real. This situation very much resembles the Plato’s allegory of the cave found in his famous dialogue the Republic. Lets see what it is.

plato cave

Plato’s cave

Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. I see. And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent. You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners. Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave ? True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads? And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows? Yes, he said. And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? Very true. And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow? No question, he replied. To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. That is certain. And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision,–what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them,–will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? Far truer. And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him? True, he said. And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities. Not all in a moment, he said. He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day? Certainly. Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is. Certainly. He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold? Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitates himself on the change, and pity them? Certainly, he would…… – REPUBLIC

What Plato is trying to say is that lets assume some people live in an under ground cave and they are chained so that they can only see the wall of the cave. Behind them is a parapet in back of which men walk back and forth while holding up objects that resemble people and animals and other things we commonly see in everyday world. Finally behind the parapet is a fire that casts the shadows of these objects onto the back wall of the cave. People who have spent their whole life facing the back of the cave and who were prevented from turning around would naturally assume that those shadows represented reality. They would be unable to comprehend that the shadows are nothing more than ethereal projections – Plato calls them images – of a more basic reality. These images are the lowest objects of contemplation, according to Plato, because they are the furthest removed from reality. The states of cognition that corresponds to these objects he calls imagining.
Now  Suppose, however that one of the caveman was freed from the chains and forced to turn around. At first the light of the fire would blind him says Plato but eventually, as his eyes becomes accustomed to the light, he would see the objects that were the source of the shadows. This state of cognition Plato calls belief and while it is a higher state than imagining, it is still not the knowledge of reality. The objects of belief after all are themselves mere images of the real things.
Suppose now that the caveman was dragged out of the cave into the world above. He would once again be blinded by the light, this time emanating from the sun. Eventually however his eyes would be accustomed to the light and he would see the real living things rather than the crude representations. This state of cognition Plato calls Knowledge. Finally as his eyes adjusted completely, he would be able to look at the sun directly. At this point the cavemen would grasp the true nature of reality. He would see that the sun is the cause or source of all things and that the life around him at the upper world owes its origin and sustenance to the sun. He would now understand that the objects and shadows in the cave were only imperfect representations of this ultimate reality.

The meaning of the cave allegory is clear. The cave represents the world of appearances, the world in which most people live. Outside the cave is the intelligible world of forms. The sun represents the ultimate form of good. It is the source of all other forms in the upper world and the cause of their mutual order and harmony. The search for  truth is represented allegorically as leaving the cave of false or imperfect images of reality and entering the upper world of pure unchanging forms that alone are the true objects of knowledge.
Clearly, we cannot have knowledge of shadows because they are not real; they are ceaselessly shifting images of something much more basic and precisely because these images change and alter their shapes and positions, there is no way that people can agree among themselves on their meaning. The shadows and images in the cave belong to the world of becoming and therefore cannot be the proper objects of knowledge. The upper world outside the cave, the intelligible world of pure being, is alone the proper object of knowledge because it represents the unchanging reality that transcends mere appearances.

Broadly speaking the cave is the realm of opinion. Most people have opinions about many things, only the seeker of truth who examines everything has knowledge of the  underlying reality. The problem is that people come to believe that their opinions constitute knowledge; having spent their whole lives in a cave contemplating shadows, they naturally come to believe in the reality of those shadows. The problem is compounded by the fact that people become so attached to their opinions and so fervent in their belief in the reality of those opinions that they are unwilling to give them up. This is why Plato describes the unchaining of the caveman and his emergence into the upper world as a painful experience. When he first turns around and confronts the truth of the cave, his eyes ache from the light. Plato emphasizes here that truth or knowledge does not come easily to the people since the prefer to hold on to their illusions.

3 thoughts on “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

  1. Technically the world has always been trapped in Plato’s cave, that was what he was implying when he wrote about the myth. The way to extricate yourself from the cave —and this held particularly for Plato’s time but the lesson is still the same, although society (which is the cave) is significantly more complicated today— is to put everything you know, hear, and experience to thet test of reason. If something is not logically sound it should not be accepted except without reservations. It is not a simple process at all, as there is nearly unlimited things to be thought.

    It is partly to our benefit that we have works of philosophy to act as aids in the process, but not everything in philosophy is to be taken for granted either, partly because philosophers themselves aren’t infallible, but also because as Leo Strauss more recently brought to light, certain philosophers engaged in a practice of esoteric writing, where they hid their true lessons within their texts. The reasons for this could differ, some philosophers were writing under the duress of religious or other persecution, and some philosophers (and this was supposed to go for Plato) held that the truth was too much for many people, and would even lead to hate for those who revealed it (think, the fate of Socrates in Athens…) so he instead wrote about the truth as something uplifting and defined by the “good”… (whereas, for example, in reality qualities like power rules, and power is not necessarily defined by goodness).

  2. Reblogged this on Jahilliya and commented:
    The world is trapped in Plato’s 9/11 cave of illusion – Filled with VicSims and fake planes melting like butter into steel buildings!

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