Category: Plato in 80 entries

The Myth of the Cave

At the beginning of Republic VII (514a-517a) Socrates narrates a myth whose aim is to clarify the Platonic theory of Forms, illustrate the absolute ontological priority of the Good, and justify the necessary (for an ideal state) confluence of political power and philosophical knowledge.

This myth – it should be rather called an allegory, instead – gives us the image of a cave in which human beings, fettered from birth and forced to have their eyes directed to the dark bottom of the cave, see shadows and hear echoes. Behind them, on an artificial wall like those used by magicians, some people carry likenesses of humans and animals made of wood and stone while they simultaneously emit the corresponding sounds. The light of a remote bonfire behind the artificial wall causes the projection of the objects’ shadows onto the natural wall of the cave while the sounds, as they reflect back from this same wall, give the impression that they come from the shadows. Being accustomed to such visual and auditory perceptions from early on, the prisoners believe that what they perceive are real things.

If anyone managed to get liberated, explore the whole cave, and even come out of it, it is evident, Socrates continues, that he would clearly distinguish the real from the illusory. Obviously, his immediate confrontation first with the light of the bonfire, then with the brightness of the daylight, and finally with the sun’s dazzling luminosity would be a rather painful experience. But in the end it would give place to the blissful satisfaction of perfect knowledge. As a matter of course, the liberated ex-prisoner would not want to return to the cave. But if he were forced to do so, he would probably make the other prisoners believe that exit from the cave is very perilous for eyesight since he would no longer easily discern the projected shadows. Moreover, the prisoners would go as far as to kill him if he attempted to liberate and lead them to the light.

The allegory of the cave consists of four distinct stages: (i) the state of the prisoners, which represents the human condition as we know it from experience, (ii) the liberation within the cave, which marks the beginning of the philosopher’s dissociation from the illusory sense perception, (iii) the exit from the cave, which perfects the depreciation of the senses, provides true knowledge of the principles of reality, i.e. Platonic Forms, and culminates in the knowledge of the Good (= the sun of the myth), (iv) the obligatory return to the cave, which shows the necessity of an immediate connection of philosophical knowledge with political power.

As Socrates explains his own allegory (517b-521c), true philosophical education is the development of an already extant potency and the “turning” (periagôgê) of the soul from the ordinary everyday concerns to higher considerations. The political message of the allegory is clear: only if philosophers are forced, against their will, to rule the state, may society as a whole be improved.

Due to its transparent and accessible nature, the allegory of the cave has served as the starting-point of many popular introductions to Platonic thought and philosophy quite generally. Moreover, the allegory has inspired numerous writers and artists over the centuries. A characteristic example from the domain of contemporary entertainment industry is The Matrix (1999), a science-fiction movie awarded several cinematic prizes.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
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