June 24, 2021

#08-100: The Allegory of the Cave

graphic of a cave wall with silhouettes on left; a brick wall people seated with their backs to it, facing the wall of the cave and pointing at the silhouettes; people carrying cutouts of men and horses above the wall; a fire causing the silhouettes; a cave opening with a man emerging and shielding his eyes; and a sunlit seascape outside, with another man gazing at it
An illustration of Plato's Allegory

Note: Plato taught that the world we see is an imperfect reflection of the "world of Forms"; this allegory will make it all clear.

Get Ready: Do you believe that this world--the totality of the things that we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste--is the only thing that is "real"? Or is there a world beyond this one?

Plato was the greatest of the Greek philosophers. In fact, the early 20th-century British philosopher A.N. Whitehead (if somewhat excessively) claimed that "the European philosophical tradition ... consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."

Plato's primary theory is that there is a world outside of this one which contains "Forms" or "Ideals," perfect models of the imperfect things found in this world. No triangle, for example, is drawn perfectly, but all triangles reflect that perfect model of a triangle found only in the world of Forms.

One of the most fascinating illustrations of the idea and its implications is called "The Allegory of the Cave." It's found in Plato's best-known dialogue, "Republic," primarily a work on the just society.

Imagine, he writes (through his primary character, Socrates) that there is a cave in which people have been imprisoned since childhood. The mouth of the cave is partially obstructed by a wall; the prisoners are chained with their backs against that wall, so they are facing the back wall of the cave. (See the illustration above.) Their legs and their necks are fixed in such a way that they cannot see anything but that back wall--neither each other, nor the rest of the cave.

Behind and above them, outside, is a fire. There is a walkway along the top of the wall behind them, where people carry puppets and objects in such a way that the prisoners see the shadows of those things on the back wall, but only their shadows--they cannot see the objects, nor the shadows of the people carrying them. The sounds made atop the wall echo from the back wall of the cave, so the prisoners think the sounds are coming from those shadows.

Because they have never seen anything else, the prisoners believe that the shadows are the only reality. They are unaware of the fire, or of the "real" things casting the shadows.

Occasionally, a prisoner escapes! He leaves the cave and sees the "real" objects outside. After so many years of staring at shadows, he is somewhat blinded by the fire, and finds it hard to believe that the real things are really real. He turns back to the shadows, with which he is more comfortable, and settles back down against the wall.

But every now and then, one of these escapees learns to see the outside world as it really is. He sees the moon, the stars, and eventually the sun. He is a true philosopher.

With his new knowledge, he might return to the cave, and tell the others what he has seen. But he has been blinded by the sun, and when he re-enters the cave, the others take his blindness as a sign that they should not attempt what he has done: they should remain in the cave. In fact, if they were not restrained, they might even kill the "prophet," considering him a danger to their society.

The cave, of course, is our world. the shadows are what we see in it, and the "real" objects are the forms found in Plato's theory. The experience of the philosopher/prophet, I think, is self-explanatory.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_cave

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. allegory
  2. escapees
  3. excessively
  4. implications
  5. just
  6. obstructed
  7. primary
  8. prophet
  9. restrained
  10. self-explanatory

  1. tied down; held in place
  2. one who speaks the truth
  3. blocked
  4. fair; equitable
  5. too much
  6. obvious; needing no explanation
  7. a symbolic story
  8. ones who get away
  9. main
  10. consequences; results

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for June 24, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. h; 3. e; 4. j; 5. d; 6. c; 7. i; 8. b; 9. a; 10. f