Saturday, April 20, 2013

Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Summary and Explanation

What exactly is Plato saying about human beings in his Allegory of the Cave? He is saying just this: people live their lives bound by the shackles of appetite, and these shackles force them to look only at shadows of a copied truth, through light manufactured not by the divine, but by those whose original intent was to imprison. Plato's answer for the human quandary is education.

Each piece of the allegory is meant to represent some part of real human experience, including the scene setting at the beginning of Republic VII. The cave is identified as an “underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself.” By this, Plato means to convey that real people are in a position such that from their particular vantage point, it does not appear there is a world which contains more than they are seeing, even though it is open to them.

Next the prisoners themselves are described: “They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around.” Human beings are alive in a place that is corporeal, without sensory access to the outside, or the Forms. They are in this realm since childhood – as far as I know, nobody takes a physical vacation to the land of the immaterial. So when applied to real people, the allegory tell us that at birth the appetites of the body are all that is known, and so they fall into the role of guide.

The cave-dwellers are meant to illustrate all people. There are at least two reasons to believe Plato means to describe all human beings, not just a particular group, as bound cave-dwellers at birth. First of all, in 515a he states that the prisoners are “like us,” and goes on to give an explanation. Second, when describing the ideal luxurious city, Plato makes it clear that the philosopher-kings can come from any set of parents, since no one even knows their which class their actual parents belong to. So, when the Cave Allegory is looked at in light of the philosophy surrounding it, it would appear that either all people are born in the cave or none are, if the cave-dwellers are to represent actual people.

A line from 82e in Phaedo may well be the sneak preview to Republic VII, as it was written earlier in Plato’s philosophical career, and it nicely sums up the ‘fetters’ or shackles of the Cave Allegory. “Philosophy sees that the worst feature of this imprisonment is that it is due to desires, so that the prisoner himself is contributing to his own incarceration most of all.” What is meant by desire here are bodily desires, such as those for food, alcohol and sex; these are the shackles spoken of in Republic VII's Cave Allegory. Plato goes on in the Phaedo to say that feeding these bodily desires only contributes to their growth, as they are a greedy appetite. He says the only solution is philosophy, or seeking knowledge about the way things really are. It helps the soul keep from being consumed by the body. This is also helpful, he says, because when the body of a philosopher dies, the soul will not miss it so profoundly that it must come back and essentially reincarnate again. The soul of a philosopher will be free to move on to more divine things, as it is not hopelessly mixed up with the corporeal world.

The Allegory goes on to give an account of the scene these prisoners see. Images are projected onto the wall all the prisoners face, shadows cast over their heads by a fire. This light by which they see is not natural, it is from some fire built by a guard. The light is produced within a system that is purposely deceiving, and it illuminates unnatural and incomplete representations of actual objects outside, namely, statues and other artifacts. In real life, the images on the cave wall are supposed to represent people’s perceptions of sensible objects, viewed not through reason but because they are lusted after by the appetites and imagination.

The rest of the story describes a particular cave-dweller who is unshackled and forced to look at the deception of the system he has been living in. When first looking at the fire, and later the sunlight outside, he is completely unable to see because his eyes are not used to the comparatively brilliant light. This initial blinding describes the denial human being go through when forced, either by circumstance or another person, at something which challenges their current thoughts about the nature of reality. It is painful, just as bright light is to the unadjusted eye. Eventually the cave-dweller's eyes adjust, and he sees how the shadows on the wall were cast by statues and other artifacts, carried by puppeteers. These objects represent sensible objects, the things we see everywhere in the world. In the story, they are copies of the real objects outside; in real life, sensible objects participate in the Forms.

The cave-dweller is led outside, where again he experiences blinding light. As his eyes  adjust, he sees the real objects which statues were modeled after. This outside world represents the realm of the Forms. The cave-dweller is now completely changed, and has an entirely new understanding of the world.

At this point, the Cave Allegory can be continued in the previous book, when Plato gave us an account of the good. We could imagine this prisoner looking up at the sun, and coming to understand how the sun makes it possible for him to see. The sun represents the Form of the Good, what makes it possible for all other forms to be. The Form of the Good is equated to being complete, pure, and eternal. The entire process represents the process and result of education on the soul within a body. With the understanding he has at the end of the Allegory, the cave-dweller could never go back and choose to be shackled to the wall. There is much more to explore outside of the cave. In the same way, an educated person ought to understand the importance of seeking knowledge about the way things really are. This frees the soul from attachment to the body, as described in the Phaedo, and when the body dies, the soul goes on to be with the gods. The soul does not choose to come back to another body.

Taken back to the cave, the freed prisoner tells the others of the deception in which they live, but they cannot understand him. All they see is that he has lost his eyesight. They may even become violent with him for this. This is the probably the reason Plato separates the three classes of citizens in his ideal city. Problems seem to erupt when the life of a person from the higher class (ruler) is mixed into the lives of a group of the lower class (producers).

The concept of the Divided Line from Republic VI is intertwined with the Cave Allegory. The Divided Line section essentially describes the metaphysics behind the process of education the cave-dweller goes through in the Cave Allegory. In the Divided Line explanation, reality is separated into two realms, the Visible and the Intelligible. The realms are on a continuum, with the Intelligible realm on top. In the Visible realm, the lowest cognitive state of imagination is paired with images or reflections of sensible objects. This corresponds nicely to the shadows viewed by bound prisoners in the cave. The next higher cognitive state is belief. Still a sensory experience, belief is paired with the actual sense experience of objects. It's counterpart in the Cave Allegory are the statues and other artifacts. They are real only insofar as they incompletely copy actual objects outside of the cave. On the other side of the divided line from the Visible realm is the Intelligible realm, where the forms and images of the forms are contained. The images of forms are likened to geometric symbols, which are not the forms themselves, but nearly complete ideas about them. The images are grasped by thought, while the forms themselves are grasped by understanding, and are complemented by the real objects outside of the cave.

The cave-dwellers very accurately represent the lives of uneducated human beings. Most human beings need a rude awakening, such as being forced to see each level of truth of the cave, to become of the philosophical nature. However, Plato does forget to illustrate for the reader another possible situation which can mark a person’s deliverance into the realm of sunlight. It might look like this: the cave-dweller refuses to be a prisoner any longer, and begins upon a quest to escape. After seeing too much of the shadowed images, they finally snap. They scream, make noise, otherwise disrupting the cave in any way they can, desperately trying to get help or find a way out. Eventually the cave-dweller breaks a bond on one of their arms, then fumbles around in the dark and finds a small piece of metal, and over the course of a period of perhaps weeks, months or years, uses the metal to pick the locks in the shackles binding them to wall. The cave-dweller is at this point emotionally consumed with an apprehensive enthrallment, as a result of being rewarded freedom after intense searching. At this point the free cave-dweller carefully examines each level of deceit. This person is afraid of what they might find, but cannot conceive of again living the life from which they escaped. So they press onward, understanding the workings each level entirely before moving on.

The person I have described was not physically forced to move beyond their shackles. Plato’s Cave Allegory shows that he believes the only way for a human being to acquire a philosophical nature is by through brute forced. I firmly disagree. People can become fed-up with a life of insatiable appetite for bodily pleasure, and as a result they can choose to change.

The cave-dwellers most accurately represent human beings in Plato’s day. There was very little science, which means people relied more heavily than today on myth or belief than on systematic or even loose methods of inquiry. That is not to assert that all people of the present are entirely devoted to science. Obviously a great many dwell in scientific ignorance, whether by conscious or subconscious choice or through some other means which keeps them in this state. These are the people who see no life outside of welfare, are content with feeding off of charity, or are so mentally and bodily deficient in such a way which hides them from self-improvement. They will not look away from the shadows on the wall of the cave. But on the whole, individuals in society seek the truth at a much greater scale than in the past. This fact is utterly plain when one takes a look at the exponential growth of scientific publishing in the last 150 years.

For the normal, run of the mill, completely average human being, Plato is partially correct. He thoughts on the purpose of education, illustrated through the Allegory of the Cave, are superb, and have had much influence into the present day. Perhaps this is a small reason why science now flourishes – because childhood education is extensive in comparison to Plato's time.

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