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Plato’s allegory of the cave is one of the best-known, most insightful attempts to explain the nature of reality. The cave represents the state of most human beings, and the tale of a dramatic exit from the cave is the source of true understanding.

Plato’s Philosophy of Reality

Everyone who has ever lived has asked some version of the same question, at some point in life: Why are we here? What is the point of all this? What is ‘reality,’ and what am I supposed to do with (or about) it?Plato, a famous Greek philosopher who wrote the Allegory of the Cave, attempted to answer some of these philosophical questions, most notably about the nature of reality. He tells the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ as a conversation between his mentor, Socrates, who inspired many of Plato’s philosophical theories, and one of Socrates’ students, Glaucon.

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The Theory of Forms

One of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) chief ideas was that of forms, which explains that the world is made up of reflections of more perfect and ideal forms.

The material world, the one we can see, touch, hear and smell, is really just half-seen images of the reality of the forms. Relying on your physical senses alone – trusting what you see, for instance, is, to Socrates, making yourself effectively blind. The world we see is only a reflection of the forms the world represents (and not even that accurately). A form, whether it’s a circle, or a table, or a tree or a dog, is, for Socrates, the answer to the question, What is that? Only understanding forms can lead to true knowledge.Plato uses a parable, a short informative story, to illustrate ‘forms’ and the ‘cave,’ in his main work, The Republic (which first appeared around 380 BC).

The Allegory of the Cave

The dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon is probably fictitious and composed by Plato; whether or not the allegory originated with Socrates, or if Plato is using his mentor as a stand-in for his own idea, is unclear.

In the dialogue, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave, in which prisoners are kept. These prisoners have been in the cave since their childhood, and each of them is held there in a peculiar manner. They are all chained so that their legs and necks are immobile, forced to look at a wall in front of them.

Behind the prisoners is a fire and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, on which people can walk.These people are puppeteers, and they are carrying objects, in the shape of human and animal figures, as well as everyday items. The prisoners could only see these flickering images on the wall, since they could not move their heads; and so, naturally enough, they presumed the images to be real, rather than just shadowy representations of what is actually real.

In fact, Socrates claimed, the images on the wall would be so real that the prisoners would assign prestige among each other to the one who could recall the most detail about the shapes, the order in which they appeared and which might typically be found together or in tandem. Of course, Socrates would point out, this was hollow praise, since, in fact, the images were not real.Then Socrates offered a twist in the plot – what if one of the prisoners were to be freed and made to turn and look at the fire? The bright light would hurt his eyes, as accustomed as he was to the shadows, and even in turning back to the wall and its flickering images (which would only be natural), the prisoner couldn’t help but notice that they weren’t real at all, but only shadows of the real items on the walkway behind him.

If the prisoner was then taken from the cave and brought into the open, the disorientation would be even more severe; the light of the sun would be much more brilliant than the fire. But, as his eyes adjusted, the newly freed prisoner would be able to see beyond only shadows; he would see dimensions and reflections in the water (even of himself).After learning of the reality of the world, the prisoner now sees how ‘pitiable’ his former colleagues in the cave really are.

If he returned to the cave and rejoined them, he would take no pleasure in their accolades or praise for knowledge of the shadow-figures. For their own part, the prisoners would see him as deranged, not really knowing what reality is and would say of him that he left the cave and returned with corrupted eyes.Socrates’ (and Plato’s) point is that, once we understand what reality is (the forms), it is the job of the informed to lead the ignorant ‘out of the cave’ and into true knowledge. This means, of course, that those who still are uninformed will resist, since, after all, the cave is all they’ve ever known.

But, this doesn’t change the obligation of the enlightened philosopher to try (and keep trying) to help his fellow citizens.

Discussion and Explanation

The allegory not only draws on the theory of forms, but it is connected both to the concept of forms and Plato’s theory of the stages of life.

  1. At the lowest stage, the cognitive stage of imagination (in Greek, eikasia), the prisoners exist bound and hindered in their perspective.

    They naively accept what they perceive, no matter how confused or shadowy that might be.

  2. The second stage, belief (what we might call ‘common sense’ – in Greek, pistis), the prisoner who is freed from his chains has come to understand what is causing the perception (or, in this case, misperception), the fire and the puppeteers.
  3. The third stage, logical reasoning or cognitive thought (in Greek, dianoia), the prisoner begins to grasp, through deductive reasoning (seeing his reflection in the water, for instance) that there are truths about the universe that are eternal and immutable (the forms).
  4. And the final stage, knowledge or understanding (in Greek, episteme), is the highest stage of cognition and the state from which truly enlightened philosophers operate.

The Allegory of the Cave is particularly important not only for how elegantly it explains the philosophy of the forms and of reality, but for how it illustrates the concept of reality as a philosophical construct. Socrates, Plato and their followers believed there was an external world of truth that was knowable to human beings, not a mystery or something beyond their understanding.

The ‘cave’ doesn’t have to be a permanent condition; instead, enlightenment can be gained, but only if one is willing to endure the blinding light.

Lesson Summary

The Allegory of the Cave was described by Plato in his work The Republic. The story of prisoners trapped in a cave, only able to see shadowy images cast against the wall in front of them by unseen people holding up objects behind them, was meant to represent the manner in which most people, relying only on their immediate senses, could understand only a little of the nature of reality.This reality, the forms that represent the truth of all human experience, can be understood by the ‘prisoner,’ who is able to free himself from the constraints of sensory understanding.

It is the role of the enlightened philosopher, according to Socrates and Plato, to ‘return to the cave’ and help others understand both the forms and the nature of the world.

Learning Outcomes

Completing this video lesson and reading through the transcript could result in your ability to:

  • Interpret Plato’s theory of forms
  • Summarize the ‘Allegory of the Cave’
  • Enumerate Plato’s theory of the stages of life
  • Discuss the way in which the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ connects Plato’s idea of forms and his stages of life

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