Allegory Of The Cave

The allegory of the cave is certainly one of the most famous metaphors in western philosophy and literature. It is by now part and parcel of western culture. If you do not remember the allegory all that well, please turn to Book7 of the Republic to refresh your memory.

The allegory of the cave concerns the issues of reason, freedom, desire, and knowledge/understanding, and happiness. It's also Plato's most famous illustration of his theory of forms.

As is characteristic of so many of Plato's ideas and explanations, we find the movement upwards towards knowledge and light characteristic central to the allegory. The individuals chained at the bottom of the cave represent the condition of most men and women.

Why the chains? What do these represent?

The chains indicate the lack of freedom of those locked into an understanding of the world that is entirely reliant on unreflective sense-perception. Remember that for Plato, the more one knows, the more one is able to act in accordance with the forms, with what is actually true and best. Knowledge is thus both liberating, as well as the necessary and sufficient path to happiness. Thus the individuals in chains are ignorant, and this ignorance of the true nature of reality is what is keeping them in the cave.

Somehow, one individual manages to break free from his chains- the rare individual able to do this then starts on a difficult journey of discovery, understanding, and liberation. This parallels previous discussions about the philosopher king, and the difficulty in finding someone suitable. After all, those in chains actually love their chains, refuse to believe anything but these chains exist, and actually kill the enlightened individual when he returns. It seems rather extraordinary that any individual who did break free actually decides to leave the cave rather than calmly put his chains back on. In much the same way, it is the rare mind with both the ability to break free from the chains AND the desire to strive for greater understanding rather than profit from his unusual abilities.

An interesting possibility here is that Plato is suggesting, much as Sartre would 2000 years ago, that most individuals reject the 'burden' of freedom, choosing instead to remain, willfully, in slavery. Another is the fact that people don't like change, and that telling people that they have been living a lie is not a good way to make friends…

The freed individual thus starts his journey out fo the cave, stumbling along the way, his eyes unable to cope with the light that the realm of the forms projects. Accepting that we have been wrong about our past beliefs and making the efforts necessary in discovering truth is something that always entails effort and a fair bit of a pain. I do not refer here to physical pain- but the pain of realizing that for so long one has lived a life of paucity and slavery. In discovering truth one must accept that one has been living a lie.

The movement of reason thus begins at the larval stages of mere sense perception, slowly gaining an awareness of those beliefs that have so far conditioned it, until at some point, one starts to think critically about the world and the place one occupies within it. You start to ask questions about all those things which you once took for granted, and understand that none of the past answers have been correct. On, upwards, reaching ever higher levels of reasoning and understanding, you start to see the interconnectedness of things, and begin to realize that the world of sense perception if but a pale comparison to the world of forms in which it participates.

Eventually, the liberated mind leaps out of the cave and is able to glance at the sun, realizing that the sun is both HOW we see the world, and WHY there is life. In the same way the form of the good is what makes it possible for the human mind to know anything, and it is also the well from which all things stem. Just a quick reminder that knowledge of the forms does not mean that one becomes a form, that one somehow fits a form inside one's head or anything of the sort. In the same way that your knowledge and understanding of you parents is NOT your parents. Knowledge always remains a representation of what is known.

The Allegory of the Cave is a metaphorical description of the epistemology presented in the divided line.

use of shadows

order to answer your question it is important to clarify what exactly Plato intended to demonstrate in his allegory of the cave. With an understanding of his intentions, it should be possible to understand the role of the shadow metaphor.

Plato comments that in presenting his description of the cave he intends to, "..picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human condition…" One purpose of his description is thus to demonstrate the differing ways in which humans understand the nature of reality. Specifically, Plato wants to demonstrate that there is a fundamental difference between the everyday opinions of people and true philosophical knowledge. Crucial to Plato's ideas is the distinction between non-philosophical and philosophical understanding.

Layers of existence

Plato claimed that there are four "layers" of existence and that for each layer there is a corresponding mode of knowing. By mode of knowing, I mean that in order to comprehend existence at each level, certain tools and techniques of thought have to be utilized. These tools and techniques vary according to the layer of existence they attempt to comprehend. I will refer to the layers of existence as A, B, C and D. It would help if you were to visualise these placed in a vertical line with A at the top and D at the bottom.

The layers are not equal in status. The layer of existence that contains images is considered to be the most inferior. We can give this layer the label D. Images are completely dependent on material objects for their existence and as such have a low status. The mode of knowledge that corresponds to this layer (i.e. that mode of knowledge which contemplates images) is considered by Plato to have a correspondingly low status.

The layer of existence that has a status above that of images is that layer which contains the world of things. We can give this layer the label C. Plato is describing here the material world. It is the messy, complicated and constantly changing world that we experience with our senses. The mode of knowledge with which we comprehend this world has a higher status than that which comprehends images but is still not the highest (and most true) way in which things can be known.

Plato makes a radical move and claims the existence of two other layers of existence (A and B), neither of which is contained in the world of material things. Both these layers contain objects of thought, and the modes of knowledge that apprehend them are purely mental (i.e. they have no dependence on things in the material world). For layer B, the mode of thought that corresponds to it is primarily mathematical reasoning, i.e. the use of inference and logic to create theorems from fundamental axioms or starting points.

The highest and most perfect layer (A) contains what Plato describes as Ideals or Forms. These are abstract concepts or ideas that, unlike the objects in the material world, do not change with time. These ideas are, for Plato, the ultimate truths, untainted by exposure to the constantly changing material world of layers C and D. Amongst many other things, this layer contains the perfect (and true) idea of justice, along with the perfect (and true) idea/ design of a human being. Plato believes that when we use a concept like justice in the material world (layers C and D), we are using an imperfect copy of the perfect idea of justice that resides in layer A. When we identify an object as a human being in the material world, we do so because it bears some resemblance to the perfect idea of a human being that resides in layer A.

Layer A, more commonly known as the realm of the forms is contemplated by the highest mode of knowledge. This highest form of knowledge is philosophy. The job of philosophers is to use their minds to contemplate this realm and describe its contents accurately.

Plato believes that most people (non-philosophers) only ever use the modes of knowledge that correspond to the two lower layers (C and D). In other words, most people have an understanding of reality that is severely limited. What upset Plato was the fact that most people do not even realise that there is another "higher" level of reality and that there is a correspondingly "higher" (more true) mode of thought to accompany it. They spend their lives convinced that the type of knowledge they have is the best, and are even prepared to defend this limited understanding in the face of challenges from philosophy.

The Cave

In the cave, Plato describes the prisoners who, fastened so that they can only look at the back of the cave, see shadows moving on the wall. Because these prisoners have spent their entire lives looking at these shadows, they mistakenly assume that reality consists of these shadows. It is also perfectly reasonable to assume that these people will have some form of knowledge that can explain and possibly predict the movement of the shadows on the wall.

What the prisoners don't realise is that there is a world outside of the cave, a world of real objects, and that the shadows represent these real objects in a very crude way. What they don't realise is that if they were to free themselves from the cave and go into the world outside, their mode of knowledge which comprehended the world of shadows would be utterly unsuitable as a guide. Any ideas they held about the nature of the shadows would seem completely inadequate and trivial when it came to dealing with the source of the shadows. Some of the prisoners may even deny the existence of a world outside the cave and challenge anyone who claimed otherwise.

Hopefully it should be clearer now what the shadows in the cave represent. They represent the reality experienced at levels C and D of reality. The knowledge that the prisoners create in order to understand the movements of the shadows represents the limited mode of knowledge utilized (and cherished) by those who do not accept the existence of a higher layer of reality. And just as the prisoners mistake the world of the shadows as the truest form of reality, so do the non-philosophers when they deny the existence of any layers of reality above C and D.

The world outside of the cave, where the real objects that create the shadows exist, represents layer A. And just as the prisoners, upon leaving the cave, will be forced to abandon their old ways of understanding their world, so will the person who realizes the existence of layers A and B. They will be forced to think philosophically

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