Plato’s Cave

Everyone’s heard of Plato, to some extent anyway; ‘Greek bloke, lived quite a while ago, had a beard’ is probably the limit of what could be considered universal knowledge. This he most certainly was, but what made him famous was his work, for Plato was taught by Socrates and was one of the finest philosophers and thinkers to grace human history. His greatest work was ‘The Republic’, a ten book piece exploring the nature of justice and government through a series of imagined conversations, hypothetical situations, metaphors and allegories.  One of these allegories has become especially linked to Plato’s name, which is somewhat surprising given how little the actual allegory is known to the world in general, so I thought I might explore it today; the allegory of the cave.

Plato believed in a separate level of reality, more fundamental than the physical world we encounter and interact with using our body and senses, that he called The Forms. To summarise briefly, a Form is the philosophical essence of an object; in the real world, a shelf is three bits of wood and some nails all joined together, but the Form of this is the ability to store some books within easy reach, for example.  Without the essence of shelf-ness, the shelf literally is nothing more than some wood, and ceases to be a shelf on a fundamental level any more. Similarly, when we turn a piece of plastic into a toy, we have fundamentally changed the Form of that plastic, even though the material is exactly the same.

Plato based most of his philosophical work around his Theory of Forms, and took the concept to great extremes; to him, the sole objective scale against which to measure intelligence was one’s ability to grasp the concept of the Form of something, and he also held that understanding the Form of a situation was the key to its correct management. However, he found his opinions on Forms hard to communicate to many people (and it can’t have helped that he was born to a rich family, where he was given plenty of opportunity to be intelligent, whilst many of the poor were uneducated), and some considered him to be talking rubbish, and so he came up with the allegory of the cave to explain what he was on about.

Imagine a large group of prisoners, chained to the wall of a cave for some unspecified reason. They are fixed in position, unable to move at all, and their necks are also fixed in position so they cannot look around. Worst of all, however, they have absolutely no memory of the world or how anything in it works; in many ways, their minds are like that of a newborn toddler trying to grasp the concept of the world around him. Everything they are to know must be learnt from experience and experimentation. But in front of them, they can see nothing but bare rock.

However, there are a few features of this cave that make it interesting. It is very deep and comprises multiple levels, with the prisoners at the bottom. On the level above the prisoners, and directly behind them, is an enormous fire, stoked and fed day and night (although being at the bottom of a cave, the prisoners don’t have any concept of day and night), brightly illuminating the wall that the prisoner’s see. Also on the level above, but in front of the fire, is a walkway, across which people walk along with their children, animals and whatever items they happen to be carrying. As they cross in front of the fire, their shadows are cast onto the wall the prisoners can see, and the sounds they make echo down to the prisoners too. Over time (and we’re presuming years here) the prisoners get used to the shadows they see on the wall in front of them; they learn to recognise the minute details of the shadows, to differentiate and identify them. They learn to call one figure a man, another a woman, and call others cat, dog, box, pot or whatever. They learn that sometimes it gets cold, and then hot again some time later, before reverting back to cold (thanks to the seasons). And then, they begin to make connections between the echoes they hear and the shadows. They learn that man shadows and woman shadows talk differently from one another and from dog shadows, and that basket shadows make hardly any noise.

Now remember, we’re presuming here that the prisoners have no memory/knowledge of the ‘real world’, so the shadows become, to them, a reality. They think it is the shadows of a dog that make the barking sound, and that when the shadow of a clay pot is dropped and breaks, then it is the shadow that has broken. Winter and summer are not caused by anything, they merely happen. What is to us merely an image of reality becomes their reality.

Now, Plato has us imagine we take one of our prisoners away; free him, show him the real world. As he says, if we suppose “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real?” Wouldn’t he be simultaneously amazed and terrified by the world he found around him, to see a fully-fledged person causing the shadow he had once thought of as a fundamental reality? Perhaps he would be totally unable to even see, much less comprehend, this strange, horrifying new world, unable to recognise it as real.

However, humans are nothing if not adaptable creatures, and after some time ‘up top’ our freed prisoner would surely grow accustomed to his surroundings. He would see a person, rather than their shadow, think of putting something in a box, rather than seeing a black square on a wall, and would eventually feel confident enough to venture out of the cave, look at and comprehend the sun, and eventually even recognise it as “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing”. (Plato often used the sun as a metaphor for enlightenment or illumination from knowledge, so here it represents the prisoner’s final understanding of the nature of reality).

Now, our prisoner could be said to be educated in the ways of the world, and after a time he would surely think back to those long days he spent chained to that wall. He would think of his fellow prisoners, how piteous their lives and their recognition of reality was when compared to him, and how much he could teach them to aid their understanding and make them happier. “And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honours, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which?”. So, Plato has our man return to his cave, to his old spot, and try to teach his fellow prisoners what reality really is.

And it is here where Plato’s analogy gets really interesting; for, rather than accepting this knowledge, the fellow prisoners would be far more likely to reject them. What are these colour things? What do you mean, stuff goes ‘inside’ other things- there are only two dimensions. What is this big fiery ball in this ‘sky’ thing? And, after all, why should they listen to him; after so long away, he’s going to be pretty bad at the whole ‘guessing what each shadow is’ business, so they would probably think him stupid; insane, even, going on about all these concepts that are, to the prisoners, quite obviously not real. He would be unable to educate them without showing them what he means, because he can’t express his thought in terms of the shadows they see in front of them. If anything, his presence would only scare them, convince them that this strange ‘other world’ he talks about is but a feat of madness causing one’s eyes to become corrupted, scaring them away from attempting to access anything beyond their limited view of ‘shadow-reality’. As Plato says, “if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?”

To Plato, the world of his Forms was akin to the real world; true, enlightened, the root cause of the physical reality we see and encounter. And the real, material world; that was the shadows, mere imprints of The Forms that we experienced as physical phenomena. We as people have the ability to, unlike the prisoners, elevate ourselves beyond the physical world and try to understand the philosophical world, the level of reality where we can comprehend what causes things, what things mean, what their consequences are; where we can explore with an analytical mind and understand our world better on a fundamental level. Or, we can choose not to, and stay looking at shadows and dismissing those willing to think higher.

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