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Plato`s `The Allegory of the Cave and Knowledge

The “Allegory of the Cave” by Plato represents an extended metaphor that is to contrast the way in which we perceive and believe in what is reality. The thesis behind his allegory is the basic tenets that all we perceive are imperfect “reflections” of the ultimate Forms, which subsequently represent truth and reality. In his story, Plato establishes a cave in which prisoners are chained down and forced to look upon the front wall of the cave. The two elements to the story; the fictional metaphor of the prisoners, and the philosophical tenets in which said story is supposed to represent, are crucial to the understanding of the allegory.

The multi-faceted meanings that can be perceived from the “Cave” can be seen in the beginning with the presence of prisoners who are chained within the darkness of the aforementioned cave. The prisoners are bound to the floor and unable to turn their heads to see what goes on behind them. To the back of the prisoners, under the protection of the parapet, lie the puppeteers who are casting the shadows on the wall in which the prisoners are perceiving reality.

The passage is actually told not from the perspective of the prisoners, but rather a conversation occurring between Socrates and Glaucon (Plato’s brother). While the allegory itself isn’t the story, but rather the conversational dialogues between Glaucon and Socrates (Plato often spoke his ideas through Socrates in his works), the two are not mutually exclusive and thus will not be treated so. As Socrates is describing the cave and the situation of the prisoners, he conveys the point that the prisoners would be inherently mistaken as to what is reality.

Because we as readers know that the puppeteers behind them are using wooden and iron objects to liken the shadows to reality based items and people, the prisoners (unable to turn their heads) would know nothing else but the shadows, and perceive this as their own reality. This is an important development in the story because it shows us that what we perceive as real from birth is completely false based on our imperfect interpretations of reality and Goodness. The general point thus far of the allegory is that the general terms of our language are not “names” of the physical objects that we can see.

They are actually names of things that are not visible to us, things that we can only grasp with the mind. This line of thinking is said to be described as “imagination,” by Plato. Once the prisoner is released, he is forced to look upon the fire and objects that once dictated his perception of reality, and he thus realizes these new images in front of him are now the accepted forms of reality. Plato describes the vision of the real truth to be “aching” to the eyes of the prisoners, and how they would naturally be inclined to going back and viewing what they have always seen as a pleasant and painless acceptance of truth.

This stage of thinking is noted as “belief. ” The comfort of the aforementioned perceived, and the fear of the unrecognized outside world would result in the prisoner being forced to climb the steep ascent of the cave and step outside into the bright sun. Once the prisoner climbs out of the cave and is fully immersed in the sun’s rays, Socrates continues to explain the prisoner’s bewilderment, fear, and blindness to the objects he was now being told were real. The natural reaction of the prisoner would be to recognize shadows and reflections.

After his eyes adjust to the sunlight, he begins to see items and people in their own existence, outside of any medium. This recognizes the cognitive stage of though. When the prisoner looks up to the sky and looks into the Sun, and recognizes it as the cause of all that is around him—he has perceived the “Form of the Good! ” This point in the passage marks the climax, as the prisoner, whom not long ago was blind to the “Form of the Good” (as well as the basic Forms in general), now is aware of reality and truth.

When this has occurred, the ultimate stage of thought has been achieved, and that “understands. ” Plato (through the conversation of Socrates) then discusses the prisoner’s newfound awareness of his own knowledge and understanding. He inquires, would the prisoner want to return to the formerly accepted reality of truth, or would his content only lie in following his newly understood perception of reality? Both Glaucon and Socrates agree the prisoner would rather suffer any fate than returning to his previous life and understanding or rather, the lack of understanding.

Upon returning to the Cave, the prisoner would metaphorically (and literally) be entering a world of darkness yet again, and would be faced with the other unreleased prisoners. The other prisoners laugh at the released prisoner, and ridicule him for taking the useless ascent out of the cave in the first place. The others cannot understand something they have yet to experience, so it’s up to this prisoner to represent leadership, for it is him alone who is conscious of goodness.

It’s at this point that Plato describes the philosopher kings who have recognized the Forms of Goodness as having a duty to be responsible leaders and to not feel contempt for those whom don’t share his enlightenment. The Allegory of the Cave does actually go on beyond Plato’s view on reality and out knowledge of it. After the released prisoner has come to understand the nature of truth and reality, he wishes to re-enter the cave and share his knowledge with the other captives.

His eyes having grown accustomed to the natural light of the outside world, at first the former prisoner stumbles around in the darkness of the cave and the remaining prisoners believe that he has lost his mind and refuse to listen to him. With this final section of the Allegory of the Cave, Plato alludes to the difficulties that face the philosopher, difficulties such as ridicule and rejection, when they attempt to enlighten the ordinary people. This final aspect is a tribute to Socrates, Plato’s teacher, who refused to temper his philosophical teachings and was eventually executed by the state.

The Allegory doesn’t solely represent our own misconceptions of reality, but also (in tune with the general thesis of his piece The Republic) Plato’s vision of what a solid leader should be. The prisoner is expected to return to the cave and live amongst his former prisoners as someone who can see better than all the rest, someone whom is now able to govern from truth and goodness. He is expected to care for his fellow citizens, “…you have been better and more thoroughly educated than those others and hence you are more capable of playing your part both as men of thought and as men of action.

” Upon realizing the Forms of Goodness, one assumes the responsibility of a qualified leader, and this presents the basis for Plato’s arguments for what constitutes just leadership and a just society. The “Allegory of the Cave” represents a complex model as to which we are to travel through our lives and understanding. The four stages of thought combined with the progress of human development represent our own path to complete awareness in which the most virtuous and distinguished will reach, and upon doing so shall lead the public.

The story as told by Socrates and Glaucon presents a unique look at the way in which reality plays such an important part in our own existence, and how one understands it can be used as a qualification for leadership and government. Plato realizes that the general run of humankind can think, and speak, etc. , without (so far as they acknowledge) any awareness of his realm of Forms. In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire.

Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. Such prisoners would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.

So when the prisoners talk, what are they talking about? If an object (a book let us say) is carried past behind them, and it casts a shadow on the wall, and a prisoner says “I see a book,” what is he talking about? He thinks he is talking about a book, but he is really talking about a shadow. But he uses the word “book. ” What does that refer to? Plato gives his answer at line (515b2). The text here has puzzled many editors, and it has been frequently emended. The translation in Grube/Reeve gets the point correctly:

“And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them? ” Plato’s point is that the prisoners would be mistaken. For they would be taking the terms in their language to refer to the shadows that pass before their eyes, rather than (as is correct, in Plato’s view) to the real things that cast the shadows. If a prisoner says “That’s a book” he thinks that the word “book” refers to the very thing he is looking at. But he would be wrong. He’s only looking at a shadow.

The real referent of the word “book” he cannot see. To see it, he would have to turn his head around. Plato’s point: the general terms of our language are not “names” of the physical objects that we can see. They are actually names of things that we cannot see, things that we can only grasp with the mind. When the prisoners are released, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. What can we do that is analogous to turning our heads and seeing the causes of the shadows? We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds.

Plato’s aim in the Republic is to describe what is necessary for us to achieve this reflective understanding. But even without it, it remains true that our very ability to think and to speak depends on the Forms. For the terms of the language we use get their meaning by “naming” the Forms that the objects we perceive participate in. The prisoners may learn what a book is by their experience with shadows of books. But they would be mistaken if they thought that the word “book” refers to something that any of them has ever seen. Likewise, we may acquire concepts by our perceptual experience of physical objects.

But we would be mistaken if we thought that the concepts that we grasp were on the same level as the things we perceive. The allegory of the cave can be summed up in one single sentence. It symbolizes the place of perceptions in the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, in a preamble to the actual relating of the allegory, Plato is involved in a discussion as to who can be considered a true philosopher. The discussion meanders around attempting to answer the following enigmas: Just because someone subscribes to a specific philosophy, does that make him or her philosopher?

Does a person who indulges in a certain muse that is premised on a philosophy? Directly or indirectly related to it? Become a philosopher? Plato goes through pains explaining that a philosopher was (or should be) cut in a different mould. A philosopher, Plato avers, should be able to see beyond what is merely obvious or superficial. A philosopher should see the inner beauty of things and understand, abstractedly, the natural causes of this beauty. In other words, the philosopher should be perceptive. “

The cave analogy demonstrates the philosophers as holding a definite preference for one of the two realms. For the philosophers’ nature is so structured that they not only desire to remain in the world of speculation, but literally must be forced to return to the darkness of the cave. Despite its initial plausibility and widespread acceptance, the claim that the philosophers sacrifice their happiness when they return to rule is refuted both by an examination of the text and by an attempt to read the cave story in a wider, mythological context.

Far from diminishing their well-being, returning to the cave is necessary if the philosophers are to achieve the fulfillment that will constitute their happiness. Allegories are subject to numerous interpretations and the Allegory of the Cave is no exception. Some interpret Plato’s work as related to Socrates’ life. Socrates as interpreted by Plato spent his life trying to unchain others by helping them arrive at “truth. ” That he was dismissed and ultimately sentenced to death suggests that “telling” someone the truth is inadequate.

Truth must be experienced rather than told because language fails to convey belief. This theme is a constant in Plato’s work. Language is the barest shadow of reality. People who are firmly committed to a religious view often echo this statement. Faith can’t be given to other people, but must be experienced. The Allegory of the Cave also represents an extended metaphor for the state of human existence, and for the transformation that occurs during philosophical enlightenment. When the light of the sun shines on the freed man, this is allegory for enlightenment and perception of the truth.

The minor concerns of the world as he has viewed it previously are now seen as falsely held perception and he is eager to share enlightenment with others. Thematic elements from the Allegory of the Cave continue to influence Western thought. In fact, one can view the first Matrix film as an interpretation of Plato’s work. The reality of the matrix is that it is “a construct” meant to keep people enslaved. When Morpheus asks Neo: “What is real? How do you define real? ” He is echoing Platonic thought. Further he tells Neo: “No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

” This definitely is in direct relationship to Plato’s views on the inability of language to convey truth or to free people from mental bondage. Thus it is easy to see that Plato’s rather simple Allegory of the Cave continues to be reinterpreted and relevant to present day. Whether or not a person agrees with Plato’s definition of truth or enlightenment, knowledge of his argument can inform interpretation of art, film, and literature since references to it are still in common and quite popular use. Reference: Cohen, History of Ancient Philosophy, The Allegory of the Cave,http://faculty. washington.

edu/smcohen/320/cave. htm Brian Rice, 2006, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Analysis and Summary, http://www. associatedcontent. com/article/22696/platos_allegory_of_the_cave_analysis. html? cat=38 Peter Vernezze, The Philosophers’ Journey: Re-Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave,http://weberstudies. weber. edu/archive/archive%20B%20Vol. %2011-16. 1/Vol. %2012. 1/12. 1Vernezze. htm Academon Term Papers and Essays, http://www. academon. com/lib/essay/plato-allegory-cave. html Tricia Ellis-Christensen, What is Allegory of The Cave, http://www. wisegeek. com/what-is-the-allegory-of-the-cave. htm

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