25 February 2013
Allegory of the Cave
In his book, Republic, Plato tries to explain justice through different dialogues between Socrates and other people. He explains how to live a just life, what a just society should be, and how just leadership should be taken. One of the arguments he uses to explain justice involves four stages of philosophical education. He describes them through dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon at a dinner party. Socrates uses what is called the allegory of the cave to explain the importance of education and just leadership in society. The four stages he uses line up with a previous conversation about the four conditions of the soul. They correspond with four subsections: the highest of which is understanding, next is thought, then belief, and the last is imaging. Plato’s allegory illustrates the imaging stage first.
The allegory of the cave begins with prisoners at the bottom of Socrates’ cave. These prisoners are bound there, unable to move their necks and legs. Behind them is a fire providing the only source of light for them, but they cannot see the fire. Between the prisoners and the fire is a wall, where there are people that hold up all different kinds of artifacts above it to cast shadows against the wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners would suppose that the shadows passing in front of them were talking as the carriers talked, and they would have names for all the different things they saw. Therefore, the prisoners would believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows that the carriers are casting in front of them. This is what the imaging stage is in the allegory.
The belief stage is next. Socrates tells Glaucon to picture what would happen if one of these prisoners were to be freed and turned towards the light of the fire. The light would hurt his eyes, and he would be unable to name any of the real objects that passed by the fire. He would want to return to what he believed was true and clear. Socrates goes on and imagines what would happen again if the prisoner is forced to walk out of the cave and into what Socrates relates to as the intelligible realm.
This journey out of the visible realm and into the intelligible realm relates to the stage of thought. Again, the prisoner’s eyes would ache at the exposure to the sunlight that he has never seen before. At first, he would only be able to see and recognize the shadows around him. Eventually, the prisoner would be able to discover this new and beautiful world he has stepped into. He would also eventually come to the conclusion that the sun provides the seasons and the years, and is also the source of all things visible. This conclusion brings the prisoner to the final stage of understanding.
Now that this prisoner has discovered these things, he would certainly consider himself lucky to have been freed from his former life in the cave. Socrates and Glaucon both agree that the prisoner would rather suffer anything than go back into the darkness of the cave with the others and live like that again. If he did return, his eyes would not be able to recognize anything in the dark for some time, and he would be ridiculed by the others for having been dragged out of the cave and becoming slower in the competition that they have with the shadows. They would decide that if someone tried to get them out of the cave and take them upwards, they would kill them for trying to ruin their eyesight. This opens up the door for the freed prisoner to represent what a just leader should do.
It will be up to the freed prisoner to open up the minds of the other prisoners and show them true knowledge. One important thing that Socrates says is, “They are like us.” He means that we are like the prisoners. We would rather stay in our comfort zones and take the easy route than go through pain even though there could be a much higher reward afterwards. In this allegory, light resembles education. The light of the fire and the light of the sun cause irritation and pain at first, but the discoveries that can be made are highly beneficial. Once one understands the Form of the Good, which is the sun, going back into the “darkness” is both difficult and unattractive. He understands what a life of justice is, and what the benefits are of living a just life.
The people who understand the meaning of a just life should be the leaders in the world, and strive to make the truth known to all people. The carriers of the objects in the cave are like the leaders in the world, who can manipulate people by controlling what they can and cannot see. The ones who question what is going on, like philosophers, often get ridiculed and laughed at. This is also why the journey upward into the light has pains and aches. It is a struggle to get used to a new understanding of the world, but once it is achieved it is even harder to go back. A just leader will try to bring others out of that ignorance.
Socrates also uses an example of somebody who turns from divine studies to the evils of human nature. That turn to evil is like the return into the very dim light, and it would be difficult for that person to get used to this new way of life. Glaucon agrees that it would not be surprising that this person would appear to be completely ridiculous if he is “compelled to contend about the shadows of justice.” He would be arguing against everything that the people understand, and for justice that they have never seen before. Socrates points out that even if the just man were to make fun of them, he would still be less ridiculous than someone who laughs at a soul that understands the Form of the Good and is just.
Socrates points about education are all about seeking justice. He shows how being educated and gaining understanding for the soul seems ridiculous and not worth it, but is actually very important for society. So many people in the world live in ignorance, not wanting to step outside the comfort zones of what they know and believe in. Society needs educated leaders to seek justice and show the truth to everyone. This is one of the responsibilities of being a philosopher and questioning the way things are being run in the world.