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By Michael John M. Tamayao, Ph.L., M.A.
One of the most powerful and influential passages ever written in Western philosophy is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It ingeniously pictures the metaphysical and epistemological situation of man in a charmingly metaphorical way. As a metaphysical account, the allegory of the cave is a symbolic depiction of how man is trapped in his everyday illusionary material existence, and how he can free himself from this trap through the philosophical dispositions of deep personal and social awareness and constant self-examination. As an epistemological account, it tries to establish the importance of Ideas, which we apprehend only through reason, over mere opinions, which are derived from our fleeting experience of the physical world.
Because this passage brilliantly summarizes the key tenets of Plato’s philosophy, the allegory of the cave is a good place to begin a discussion of Platonic philosophy. The Simile of the Divided Line and the Doctrine of Ideas, which are the grounding theories of Plato’s philosophy, are excellently made comprehensible in this seemingly uncomplicated story for grade schoolers. Rather than being too abstract, Plato clarified his seemingly absurd philosophical statements – like for example “ideas are the basis of reality and not the material world” – through this simple metaphor. Unlike the current perception that philosophy is a highly abstract (or may be absurd) discipline devoid of all practicality, Plato’s philosophical work, as presented by his allegory, depicts a concrete and useful paradigm that serves as a guide in living our life’s daily grind.
In fact, the story underscores almost any domain of human experience: Philosophy, Religion, Education, Morality, Politics, Art, and Sciences. This only points to the cohesiveness of Plato’s philosophy and the other philosophical systems of classical antiquity. Contrary to the modern educational system that compartmentalizes knowledge into exclusive departmental sciences, classical philosophies, like that of Plato’s, fuse all fields of study into one cohesive whole. This cohesive quality of thought is now used as a criterion for judging the worth of the various philosophical accounts.
Background of the Story…
The story is a dialogue between Socrates, the storyteller in the narrative, and Glaucon, a Sophist (wise man). The characters are talking about the human situation in general, that is, whether the Athenian citizens are indeed as enlightened as they think they are.
There is an overwhelming tendency to speculate that the origin of the story is Plato’s deep reverence for Socrates’ ideals. Socrates might have not said the story himself because it was an omniscient depiction of his own life. But if Socrates indeed told the story, then he really had a foresight of his fateful death on the hands of the mob. Whether or not it is Plato’s or Socrates’ own creation, the cave narrative generally illustrates how hard it is to live philosophically, that is, in the light of Socratic thought, to do what is known to be good.
The passage is hard to read without any vivid illustration of the cave most especially for the unimaginative mind. So as you read the actual dialogue, try to refer to the illustration below.
The Darkness of Ignorance…
The story begins with Socrates, the protagonist in the dialogue, attempting to picture the everyday epistemological and ontological condition of man.
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; 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.
In a way, this is Socrates implicitly confronting Glaucon, and all Sophists for that matter, about their arrogant sophistical claim that man already knows all things. As Socrates says, “wisest is he who knows that he does not know” because knowledge of one’s own ignorance is an intellectual edge over those who think they know but in reality do not.
The setting looks like a very familiar scene to us – this is the picture of our everyday situation. The Cave represents our everyday worldly experience; that in this world, we are prisoners of “normalization,” using Foucault’s term. We constantly and unmindfully adhere to the dictates of the society without even questioning the reason behind these things and events. We become like zombies breathing without really living. All we believe are the things projected in front of us, and referring to the story, the flickering images caused by the passing puppeteers and craftsmen by the rampart. Like these exhibitors, who manipulate various images (human images, shapes of animals) and make various sounds, the learned people of the modern day world manipulate concepts and projects all these stuffs in the manner of flickering shadows and rumbling sounds. Although many of what they say are good, because they themselves are free from the chains of ignorance, the moment they project their educated concoctions, the uneducated crowd might be mislead and talk about these projections in a more corrupted way.
The prisoners do not know that they are imprisoned. Because they were borne into this situation, they already accustomed themselves to the dehumanizing chains of the cave-prison. And it is comfortable to them; they have no responsibilities and all they need to do is to sit down, relax, and conform to what is believed. Thus, on the process, they lose their identities and self-awareness.
Socrates says, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” To passively assimilate everything is also to remove the basic human capacity of transcendence. Man, by virtue of his rational soul (mind), is capable to go beyond himself (transcendence) and be aware of where he is, where he is going, and what is his place in the network of beings. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger would say, “to be human is to exist… to exist is to transcend…” Man is man only if he transcends, thus, aware of his very self. And this is a difficult task. Going beyond the comfortable anonymousness of everyday existence requires tremendous effort , which, like in the story, only a limited few can do.
Seeing the Light…
As the unique prisoner turned his head and saw the fire, he was temporally blinded by the fire’s dazzling brightness. And it hurts. Obviously, Socrates (or Plato) was stating the veritable adage “truth hurts.”
This could once again mean many things. But taking the epistemological track, seeing the light means apprehending the “ideas,” and merely looking at the shadows is opining about the visible or tangible “objects.” Take note that in this particular interpretation we equate shadows with the tangible world and ideas to reality. The “One, permanent cause” behind the “Many, changing things” is the foundation of reality. For Plato, the One (On) is the Idea.
When, for example, you are talking about a “table” as when you say, “That table is good.” The word “t-a-b-l-e” does not refer to the physical table, because it (meaning the tangible thing) is just an “appearance” of the real referent, which is the “idea” of a table, or tableness. Just as the prisoners of the cave are talking about the shadows of the things behind them and think that the reality of what they are talking about lies in what they see, same is through with us who talk about “tables” or “computers” or anything whatsoever and think that the reality of “tables” or “computers” lies in the things that we see and touch. For Plato, the reality of these things does not lie in their changing physical attributes, but rather in the permanent ideas, which could be known only though reason, behind their materiality. Realizing this means that you have turned your head to the direction of the fire.
The biting possibility of the truth of this philosophy puts the interlocutor of Socrates, Glaucon, into his toes. This radical theory challenged the sophistical trend during that time. And indeed, it disturbed and hurt, not only Glaucon, but also the people who believed in this conventional notion of reality.
Reality outside the Cave…
The freed prisoner then puts his vision beyond the portals of the cave. And as he moves closer to the shimmering light, his vision once again groans for the bitter beauty of the sun. Coupled with the very steep and dangerous slope, the ascent is very grueling. It requires persistence, courage, and strength.
This metaphorically represents our arduous ascent to higher learning. It calls for our undying drive for the truth. Learning is precisely this – it is a pursuit for the evasive Truth. And once our eyes see the beauty of reality, we become happy in knowing what we once did not know. But in like manner, we will be sad for those who are still trapped inside the cave of ignorance. Thus, driven by pity, we will re-enter the cave and announce the good news to everyone so that they themselves will also be liberated.
As the freed prisoner re-enters the cave, he will grope in the darkness until his eyes will once again see in the murky cave interior. Of course, he will fumble and fall and look stupid in the eyes of the cave-dwellers. Yes, the freed man bears the truth, but will he be heard inside the cave or will they just see him as a fool?
A true-blooded philosopher or any enlightened individual often lives an esoteric life-style. He goes beyond the usual trend because he contemplates on the more significant things in life. And unfortunately for the mob he appears to be a fool. So how should he convince them? Well, he must persistently speak of the truth and courageously face the ridicules and rejections of the people. The truth does not only hurt the ones who hear it, but also the ones who speak of it.
The great thinkers in the history of human thought have also faced the same misfortune. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Socrates, and Jesus, to name a few, have suffered the mockeries of the people at the onset of their radical ideas. The challenge for them is to convince the unenlightened that they are not yet enlightened, i.e. to let them know that they do not still know.
The Two-World Theory…
The Cave Allegory also speaks of Plato’s “two-world” theory, which states that human beings live in a visible and changing material world, on the one hand, and an intelligible and permanent world, on the other hand.
The visible world is the world of sensible things: what we see, hear, and experience. Because this world constantly changes, we cannot have true knowledge about it, and, therefore, it is not real – it is merely an illusion.
The intelligible world is the world of Ideas. It is made up of unchanging and eternal “forms” of things. We can know this world, which grounds the world of things, through reason alone. While this intelligible world is the ideal and eternal basis of reality, the world of things is just the imperfect and changing manifestation of the world of Ideas. What make the world of things knowable are the intelligible ideas behind them. In other words, the basis of reality is not the world of things, but the world of ideas that transcends the world of things. For example, what makes this computer real is not its physical attributes (its color, size, weight, or prize) but the idea behind its physical existence. Unlike the material computer that can vary and change, the form or idea of a computer is intelligible, abstract and applicable to all computers. This physical computer will eventually be corrupted in the future and cease to exist. The Idea of computer, or “computerness,” never changes; it will continue to exist even if viruses will have corrupted all the computers in the world.
Using the allegory, Plato pictures the everyday situation of man. He can speak, hear, and encounter the world without actually being aware of the world of Ideas.
Moreover, each of these worlds relates to a certain type of knowledge. Whereas “true knowledge” (epistemh) is achieved from the world of ideas, only “opinions” (doca) are given about the world of things. Plato depicts these worlds as existing on a line that can be divided in the middle: the upper part of the line is the world of ideas and the lower part is the world of things. Each region can further be divided in two. In the world of things, there are “illusions”, which composes the lower region, and “beliefs”, which composes the higher region. The illusions are the shadows represented by the artistic works of the craftsmen and poets. The beliefs are man’s knowledge of individual things, which may sometimes be true but is often times false because individual things are constantly changing. The world of ideas, on the other, can be divided into “reason” (the lower part of the region) and “intelligence” (the higher part of the region). Under reason is the knowledge of things like mathematics. And under intelligence is the knowledge of the highest and most abstract categories of things, for example, understanding the ultimate good.
All in all, the theory is an excellent depiction of man’s universal condition. According to Plato, although man is unconsciously trapped in the dehumanizing process of everyday normalization, he must constantly strive to free himself from this situation and seek for the truth. Not all of us can do this, but nonetheless we have the responsibility to persistently strive for this elusive goal.
 The allegory (or story) is a passage from Plato’s most well known political treatise, The Republic, in particular from the Seventh Book of the said work.
 If you can still remember, by “metaphysical” we mean a philosophical explanation of reality.
 By “epistemological” we mean a philosophical account about the nature of human knowledge.