Monday, September 23, 2013

Why is Plato's Cave so important?

Why is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave so important and so widely discussed? The reason is simple – in The Parable of the Cave Plato answers the essential question in philosophy – ‘What is the aim of philosophy?’. Why do we study philosophy? Are philosophers learning about the world just for themselves or are they primarily focused on others? And why are philosophers so often unsuccessful? The Analogy of the Cave from The Republic was designed by Plato as a dialogue between Glaucon (his  brother) and Socrates. Not only does it answer the mentioned questions but it also raises new ones. This is why it has become the most famous philosophical allegory ever written.

Before I mention the exact problems raised in Plato’s Cave let me just give you a short summary of the allegory. Imagine a few people imprisoned in a cave since their childhood. They cannot move – both their legs and necks are held in place by chains so they constantly gaze at the wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners there is a huge fire and between the fire and the imprisoned - a raised walkway where strangers walk carrying objects on their heads: wooden figures of men and animals. Since all this is happening behind the prisoners the only thing they can see are shadows casted on the wall. They also hear echoes of the sounds produced by people walking.

Plato's cave
The prisoners would take the shadows to be real things and the echoes to be real sounds. They would not even think they might be just reflections of the reality as they have never seen anything but the shadows on the wall. Their social status would probably depend upon the ability of predicting which shadow would come next, that is upon the understanding of what they take as the reality.

One day a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up for the first time in his life. If he saw the figures that casted the shadows he would not be able to recognise them. At this stage, the shadows on the wall would still seem more real than what he has just begun to see. If he looked at the fire he would be struck blind and try to look again at the shadows, his reality. And imagine that someone dragged him by force out of the cave. The man would be angry! The light would be so strong that he would not be able to see a thing. However, after some time his eyes would get used to the new conditions and he would see all different kinds of plants, animals, and finally even the Sun which he would most likely take as the steward of all things in the visible place, and in a certain way the cause of all those thing he and his companions had been seeing.

What would you do if you were that man? Wouldn't you like to help your old companions and enlighten them? Imagine what would happen if you came back to the cave. Your eyes would have already been accustomed to light and you would no longer be good in the which-shadow-comes-next game. Your companions would deduct that your vision has been impaired and the last thing they would want to try would be going to the vision-distorting place. Or – let’s call a spade a spade – they would all treat you as an idiot.

Unless one of them were a philosopher. A true philosopher pursues the truth and rather than remaining in a comfort zone he is not afraid of challenging different ideas and conceptions. After all, he has nothing to lose. If he manages to prove a challenging idea wrong, his original idea becomes stronger. And if the challenging idea happens to be true, he is still better off because his perception of reality is closer to the truth. Here is a very short list of philosophical questions connected with Plato’s Cave. Feel free to think them over. If your friends are interested in philosophy, or if you are a member of a philosophy club, these questions are great way to start an interesting discussion.

  • Are we living in a cave? Is there a greater reality which we are not aware of?
  • How would we treat a man claiming he has visited another reality? Would we mock him, be afraid of him or agree to go with him?
  • Is reality built of an infinite number of caves?
  • How is solipsism similar to Plato’s cave?
  • What the freed man could have done differently to convince his fellows to go outside the cave?
  • Is it sometimes better/safer to stay in the cave?
  • If we travelled by a time machine to Plato’s time would we be perceived as people from out of the cave? What if Plato travelled to the 21st century?
  • Can we really know the reality?

These are just a few questions connected with The Allegory of the Cave. Feel free to express your opinions about Plato’s parable, your objections and questions. And if you enjoy the blog, do not forget to like our Mind and Philosophy page on Facebook to keep in touch!

Is it always better to know the truth?


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