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Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Its Connection with the Present

Plato's Cave
Plato’s Cave. Credit: Public Domain

Plato’s allegory of the cave is one of the great stories of philosophy. It allows us to understand how the Greek philosopher perceived the world in ancient times.

The tale deals with a metaphorical explanation, made by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in which the human being is faced with knowledge.

In his theory, Plato explains how the existence of the two worlds can be captured: the sensible world (which is the one known through the senses) and the intelligible world (which is perceived through knowledge, without the intervention of the senses).

The Allegory of the Cave

In the allegory of the cave, Plato describes a group of men who remain chained to the depths of a cave from birth; their condition is such that they can only look towards the wall in front of them since they are chained, unable to move.

Illustration of The Allegory of the Cave
Illustration of The Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic. Credit: 4edges/CC BY-SA 4.0

Just behind the prisoners, at a certain distance and above their heads, there is a bonfire that illuminates the wall and in the middle a corridor, in which men circulate with various objects that, thanks to the illumination of the bonfire, project their shadows so the prisoners can see.

The prisoners consider the shadows of the objects that are projected to be real, since they can know nothing of what is happening behind their backs. However, if one of the men were to break free from the chains and look back, he would only be confused and annoyed by reality.

The firelight would cause him to look away, and the blurred figures he could see would seem less real to him than the shadows he had seen all his life.

Similarly, if someone were to force this person to walk in the direction of the fire and past it until they were out of the cave, the sunlight would bother him even more, and he would want to return to the dark area.

The allegory ends, however, by making the prisoner enter the cave again to “free” his former companions in chains, which would make them laugh at him. The reason for the mockery would be to affirm that his eyes have been ruined when he is now blinded by the passage from the sunlight to the darkness of the cave.

When this prisoner tries to untie and raise his former companions towards the light, Plato tells us that they are capable of killing him and that they will indeed do so when they have the opportunity.

This entire story  is an allusion to Socrates’ effort to help men to reach the truth and their failure to be condemned to death.

The Allegory of the Cave today

The story brings together a series of very common ideas for philosophy: the existence of a truth that exists independently of the opinions of human beings; the presence of constant deceptions that make us stay away from that truth; and the qualitative change that is needed in order to access that truth.

There are scenarios easily comparable to these ideas; one great example is the information that is shared today, across the all the world’s media, including social networks and the rest of the internet.

If we compare this by means of the stages of Plato’s allegory, we will obtain a more detailed analysis of the relation of the story to the present.

In the first stage — deception — it is observed how the reality that these sources of information present us are the shadows of what they really want to share; in other words, the general population consumes information without even questioning it.

One of the explanations of how deception impacts so much on human life is that, for Plato, it is composed of what seems obvious from a superficial point of view. If we have no reason to question something, we don’t, and its falsehood prevails.

Few manage to access the second stage — liberation, which is achieved through questioning, research and study.

Liberation involves seeing how many of one’s beliefs falter, which of course produces uncertainty and anxiety. To get through this state, however, it is necessary to continue advancing and discovering new knowledge.

Acceptance can be considered the most complicated stage, since it implies letting go of previous beliefs. It is difficult to accept it but once it is achieved, there is no going back.

Plato took into account that our past conditions the way in which we experience the present, which is why he assumed that a radical change in the way of understanding things had to necessarily lead to discomfort.

Finally — return implies the culmination of the learning process between the different realities. This consists of the dissemination of new ideas that can generate confusion, contempt or hatred for having the temerity to question the basic dogmas that structure society.

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