Plato was a Greek Philosopher, who was a student of Socrates. The Analogy of the Cave in Plato’s Republic was written as a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon. In the Analogy of the Cave, Plato describes the prisoners who lived an isolated life in the confined space of a cave. Plato’s Analogy explains a philosopher’s journey to knowledge and the difficulty that he faces along the way and the prisoners in the cave who have not embarked on the journey to true knowledge and are living their lives, only seeing what is on the surface, and what they want to see.
The Analogy relates to Plato’s Theory of Forms, which explains how the forms possess the ultimate reality. The World of Forms is the unseen world in which everything is constantly evolving and changing. The Analogy however, is the attempt to enlighten the prisoners and explain the philosophers place in society. He uses the story to explain the need to question everything like a philosopher does in order to distinguish between the unreal, physical world and the real spiritual world lit by the sun. The sun is the ultimate good and Plato gives the name of good the demiurge.
The cave is a symbol of the world; it represents the World of Appearances based on what people see by their senses. It is an illusionary physical world in which people are trapped by ignorance and false truths. It is a world where people ignore the truth and are unenlightened. The prisoners are in this illusionary world where they think that what they are seeing is reality however it is not reality at all. In the cave there are shadows of truth and echoes of reality. It is filled with illusions. It is a world of senses where the prisoners have gained empirical knowledge which is flawed.
Plato thinks that the prisoners’ situations are no different from ours, as we do not see the forms clearly, only the physical world. Plato believed that everything exists in its true, perfect form outside of the cave in the world of the forms. The Cave; the physical world imprisons a person by stopping them seeing the forms. The cave represents a world where everything comes to an end and will eventually die, however in the world of forms nothing will die or end. Everything is transcendent and evolving. People who leave the cave gain true vision and see reality.
The cave can also represent the body in which our souls (the prisoners) are trapped. Our souls constantly yearn for the World of Forms in which nothing ever decays. The cave may also represent society and the prisoners cannot see the world for what it really is as they are trapped in the claws of society. The prisoners are humans who have a lack of knowledge and are oblivious to the truth and reality. They are in an illusionary world. The prisoners are mankind or at least human thought and existence. They are chained mentally by culture; trapped in society and physically around their necks and feet, which means they are not able to move around.
This means that their minds cannot wander elsewhere and they remain fixed on the shadows/their reality. The chains also represent humanities inability to become enlightened and our consciousness. Their reality is the shadows of truth and the echoes of reality. They have never seen true good, true reality; the sun. They represent human beings like us as they are ignorant and oblivious to the truth and the world of forms. Their minds are full of ignorance and false impressions. They have beards which show that they have been there since childhood, and that the darkness is all they know.
The prisoners sit facing the wall and have spent their lives watching the shadow play. For them the appearance seems real, as they have never seen anything else. We have sympathy for the prisoners as they have been misguided and are oblivious to the ultimate good; the demiurge. They are people who accept everything at face value and never question or try to understand. Their lives are empty and meaningless. The people who carried the statues helped to shape the prisoners’ views however they also were thought to share the same views as the prisoners.
In the ‘Republic’, Plato criticized philosophers and politicians who lead the people but do not actually know the truth. The people carrying the statues are like the philosophers and politicians; oblivious to the World of Forms. The prisoners also represent our souls, which are yearning to get to a higher place. They are trapped inside the body, which is a physical form. The shadows are made from ‘all sorts of vessels and statues and figures of animals’, a mere shadow show orchestrated by the unseen men. They are the shadows which create the false images of distorted truth. They are the limits of reality.
The prisoner’s senses are misguided by the shadows. The shadows are deceitful; they are the false way people see things. The shadows that the prisoners look upon represent the perceived truth; the prisoners did not have the knowledge to look beyond the superficial, and only had the capacity to believe in shadows. We are also told about the fire. It burnt behind and above the prisoners. In front of the fire there was a puppet stage for the men to carry the object behind, this would cast the shadows. The only noises the prisoners would hear were the echoes of reality, and the only things the prisoners would see were the shadows of truth.
The puppeteers are ignorant for carrying on teaching the prisoners false knowledge. The fire in the cave represents the power of the sun. The fire has the ability to illuminate the false truths inside the cave; it magnifies what the prisoners can see, which shows them what to believe in. The fire represents false and incomplete knowledge and is also deceitful. It represents the illusions that keep us in the dark from truth. The journey out of the cave is the journey to truth and reality; it demands that you must challenge your pre-conceived ideas.
The prisoner’s journey out of the cave, his ascent is faced with hardships and struggles; escaping the chains, past the fire and up the steps. The reason the prisoner is described as being ‘dragged out the cave’ is because the journey is distressing and he is being forced out. Plato said ‘The object of knowledge is what exists and its function to know about reality’. It explains how reality is the world of forms and the job of the philosopher is to get knowledge, this is what the prisoner does when he goes out of the cave. He is the one who breaks away and makes the journey out; he is the philosopher who wants to know what is really going on.
He wants to see past the distorted truths. ‘And those who strive for reality and knowledge are philosophers’. The escaped prisoner could represent Socrates (Plato’s tutor). The journey out of the cave symbolizes the journey of an average person into the world of knowledge and wisdom through philosophy. This is achieved by looking into the depths of meaning and searching for answers.
The journey is uncomfortable as it requires the prisoner to challenge his beliefs. When the prisoner first breaks free he is in tremendous amounts of pain as his muscles have been unused for so long, and he is able to look directly at the fire rather than just at the shadows.
The path outside the cave is rocky, steep and unstable as the things that the prisoners once knew as reality are all becoming unclear. Once the prisoner is out of the cave, he is faced with the sun. The sun represents complete knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment. It represents the World of Forms, which the soul yearns to reach. It represents the ultimate good, the ideas/forms; the demiurge. It reveals the world to the prisoner, and how things can be if you come out of the shadows. It represents truth, beauty and justice.
When the prisoner see’s the sun, he becomes temporarily blind; this represents the enlightenment because he has discovered a world past the shadows. A world which is real. The sun lets him see the true beauty of things, not the shadows that he saw before. Plato suggests that in this world, the sun gives both life to being as without light, we and the plants and animals would not grow and flourish, and provides light by which these things can be seen. The sun is the source of truth and reason; it represents the perfection of realities.
Through the sun we will see the truth, real beauty and real justice. He comes to see a deeper reality, a reality marked by reason. Once the prisoner has embraced his new found knowledge, he wants to maintain it and no longer live a life of confinement trapped inside a cave. Once he sees reality, he makes a painful readjustment back into the darkness of the cave. This journey back is also painful as once he has seen reality, he does not wish to reminisce in the deceit of the past. However he is a good man, who gains true knowledge and wishes to enlighten the others.
He could represent Socrates going to enlighten Athenian Society. When he gets to the prisoners, he seems mad, as he describes a new strange reality. They laugh at him and mock him, and reject him to the point of threatening to kill him. Their disagree shows how previous philosophers such as Socrates were penalized and laughed at for their beliefs and ultimately killed. Plato’s Analogy of the Cave is a representation of the human condition, under the circumstances of our basic beliefs and behaviors in society.
It represents the lack of human knowledge, and the difference between the two worlds. It shows that in the World of Appearances, everything we see or experience are shadows of The World of Forms, they are impure. They show that we live in a world full of flux and decay and we are just matter. The World of Appearances is a Visible World and a Finite World whereas The World of Forms is an Unseen World, full of phenomenons, forms and ideals. The World of Forms is constantly evolving and changing; ‘You cannot step into the same river twice’. The World of Forms is outside the cave, and it is where everyone aims to go. The soul yearns for a higher place.
Courtney from Study Moose
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