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

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

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

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

In his theory, Plato explains how the existence of the two worlds can be captured, namely through 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 and 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, a bonfire illuminates the wall. In the middle, there is 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  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 outside of the cave, the sunlight would prove more bothersome to him, and he would want to return to the dark area.

The allegory ends, however, with the prisoner entering the cave once again to “free” his former companions in chains, thereby provoking laughter. The joke would be that this would prove his eyesight to have been impaired by his passage from sunlight to the darkness of the cave.

When this prisoner tries to untie and raise his former companions towards the light, Plato believes them to be capable of killing him; he is sure they would indeed take his life if given the opportunity.

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

The Allegory of the Cave today

The story brings together a series of very common philosophical themes, namely, the existence of a truth that exists independently of individuals’ opinions; the presence of constant deceptions that keep us from truth; and the qualitative change needed in accessing truth.

Various scenarios are easily comparable to these ideas; one great example is the information that is shared today across 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.

First of all, there is deception which posits that the reality provided by these sources of information are merely shadows or breadcrumbs of the intended message or actual truth; in other words, the general population consumes information without even questioning it.

One of the explanations as to how deception is so profoundly impactful on human life is that, for Plato, it is composed of what seems to be an obviously superficial point of view. If we have no reason to question something, we don’t, and its falsehood therefore prevails.

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

Liberation involves objectively analyzing the extent as to which 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. This is difficult to accept but once achieved, there is no going back.

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

The final stage to arriving to truth involves the ‘return,’ which is the culmination of the learning process between the different realities. This consists of the dissemination of novel ideas, the sum of which can generate confusion, contempt, or hatred for having the temerity to question the basic dogmas that structure society.

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