Plato's Allegory of the Cave

And why it is still relevant today.

Posted Jun 29, 2019

 Wikimedia Commons
Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Allegory of the Cave (circa 380 BCE)

Human beings spend all their lives in an underground cave with its mouth open towards the light. They have their legs and necks shackled so that they can only see in front of them, towards the back of the cave. Above and behind them, a fire is blazing. Between them and the fire is a low wall behind which men carry diverse statues above their heads, and the fire casts the shadows of these statues onto the back of the cave. Because the shadows are all they ever see, the prisoners suppose that the shadows are the objects themselves.

If a prisoner is unshackled and turned towards the light, he suffers sharp pains, but in time begins to discern the statues. He is then dragged out of the cave, where the light is so bright that he can only look at the shadows, and then at the reflections, and then finally at the objects themselves, of which the statues were but pale imitations. In time, he looks up at the sun, and understands that the sun is the cause of everything that he sees around him—of light, of sight, and the objects of sight.

The purpose of education is to drag the prisoner as far out of the cave as possible; not merely to instill knowledge into his soul, but to turn his whole soul towards the sun, which is the "Form of the Good."

Once outside, the prisoner is reluctant to go back into the cave and involve himself in human affairs. When he does, his vision is no longer accustomed to the dark, and he appears ridiculous to his fellow men. Nonetheless, he must be made to go back down and partake of human labors and honors, because the State aims at the happiness not of a single person or class but of all its citizens. What’s more, the freed prisoner has a duty to give service to the State, since it was by the State that he was educated to see the light of the sun.

Quoting from Book VII of the Republic:

The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst ... You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life ... And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other? 

Discussion

What if we are being radically deceived? What if I am no more than a brain kept alive in a vat and fed with stimuli by a mad scientist? What if my life is nothing but a dream or computer simulation? Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, I would be experiencing not reality itself, but a mere facsimile or simulacrum of reality. I could not be said to know anything at all, not even that I was being deceived.

Which would you prefer: a life of limitless pleasure as a brain in a vat, or a genuine, human life along with all its struggle and suffering? Most people actually opt for the latter, suggesting that we value truth and authenticity and, by extension, that we value knowledge for its own sake, as well as for its instrumentality.

But, as I argue in my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinkingeven if we are not being radically deceived, it is not at all clear that we can have any knowledge of the world. Much of our everyday knowledge comes from the use of our senses, especially sight. "Seeing is believing," as the saying goes. But appearances, as we all know, can be deceptive: A stick held under water appears to bend; and hot tarmac, when viewed from a distance, looks like sparkling water. Our senses are subject to manipulation, as, for example, when a garden designer uses focal points or clever planting to create an illusion of space. My mind interprets a certain wavelength as the color red, but another animal or even another person may interpret it as something entirely other, or perhaps not perceive it at all. A bat or a salmon experiences the world very differently to me. And what about you? How do I know that what I experience as pain is also what you experience as pain? You may react as I do, but that need not mean that you are minded like I am, or even that you are minded at all. All I might know is how the world appears to me, not how the world actually is.

But according to Plato, if we care enough about the truth, or are made to care, we may be able to apprehend the true nature of reality by the use, not of our limited senses, but of our free-ranging reason and intellect. This ever-broadening perspective qualifies us to rule, but is so captivating, so bright and blissful, that we are unwilling to do so—preferring instead to hide out in our cozy libraries and lush gardens. And yet we must stoop down, dirty our hands, and expose ourselves to the public glare, because, as Plato says, the penalty for refusing to rule is to be ruled by someone worse than yourself.

See my related post, "What is Truth?"

References

Plato, Republic, Bk VII, 514a–520a. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.