lato is one of the most famous philosophers in history. He was born in Athens in 427 BCE, and as well as being a student of Socrates, he was also Aristotle’s teacher.
The Republic is his masterpiece. It’s a lengthy dialogue split into ten separate books (or chapters), during which the character of Socrates engages in a philosophical discussion with several other characters. Together, they talk about justice, politics, beauty, the soul, and the importance of enlightenment.
The “Allegory of the Cave” is the most famous part of The Republic, and though it can be tricky to visualize, there are plenty of valuable insights within this fascinating allegory.
The “Allegory of the Cave” occurs in the seventh book of The Republic.
Here, Plato asks us to visualize an underground cave, which has an opening leading towards the light. Inside, there are people who have been chained since childhood. They are positioned so they are facing away from the light. There is a low wall directly behind them, and behind that, there is a fire.
Along and above the low wall, men carry statues, animal figures, and other objects. Those in chains cannot see the objects behind them. They only see the shadows of themselves and the objects upon the wall they are facing.
The prisoners represent the majority of mankind. They only see shadows of reality and hear only echoes of the truth. Their worldview is warped by passions and prejudices.
But if one of the prisoners was to escape and get used to the light, he would be able to see the objects which he previously knew as shadows. However, he has not yet ascended to the world of pure reality.
With more perseverance, the prisoner will exit the cave and come into the sunlight. He will then see the world as it is, including clear objects, including the sun itself, which represents the Idea of the Good.
For Plato, the good is the highest and most valuable form:
“Or do you think there’s any point in possessing anything if it’s no good? Is there any point in having all other forms of knowledge without that of the good, and so lacking knowledge about what is good and valuable?”
When the ex-prisoner returns to the cave to try and free the others, his eyes are no longer used to the darkness. He struggles to see the shadows on the wall.The other prisoners think he is ignorant and blind. They become hostile and do not want to leave the cave.
The deeper meaning
Plato believes the purpose of education is to help people see absolute truths and values, and by extent, to save them from living their lives in a world of falsehood and prejudice.
This form of education is particularly important for leaders. If they are blind and dwell in the darkness, they will wreck the entire Polis (city), which is far worse than the average individual remaining ignorant. In essence, the cave dwellers are philosophers before enlightenment.
Crucially, the allegory also addresses the plight that many philosophers face. Rather than being valued and appreciated, the rest of society (those still in chains) do not listen to the philosophers. In fact, they actively reject their teachings.
This links to the wider context of The Republic. Indeed, the real-life Socrates (as oppose to the Socrates in the story) had been executed for his philosophical teachings, specifically for “corrupting the youth of Athens” and challenging the status quo.
In this sense, there’s a personal dynamic to The Republic. Plato wasn’t just discussing the importance of philosophy and enlightenment, he was also addressing the death of his great friend and mentor.
The “Allegory of the Cave” is certainly strange, but there’s a good reason it’s still being discussed today.
The allegory highlights the difficulty of finding the truth and revealing the truth to others.
In contrast to the current postmodern era, which overemphasises perception and socio-cultural constructs, Plato believed the truth was worth seeking out, even if the path to enlightenment wasn’t an easy one to take.
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