Analogy of the Cave

This is different from the other sections as it isn’t a dialogue, it is just a very famous analogy from Plato’s magnum opus, his Republic. The dialogue is incredibly long and features his main beliefs.

Seeing as the majority of his dialogues don’t even end on a point or a definition, it’s strange to see him so obviously explain one of his beliefs.

The Theory of the Forms

The Forms were Plato’s theory on the nature of existence. He believed that for every single thing in the universe, there was a Form, a perfect idea of that thing which all versions that we see are imperfect copies of.

I use the ambiguous term “thing” because Plato believed there was a form for quite literally everything. Simple objects, living beings, the abstract, everything that we’ve experienced in our lives has been an imperfect version of the true version, the Forms

These true versions exist in a realm connected but removed from our reality called the Realm of the Forms, where these perfect ideas exist in some kind of heavenly catalogue.

He says that this is why we have a vague but strong idea of what things should be, we know what is a chair and what isn’t, why we live by ideas such as what is good and just, because we are remembering parts of the perfect Form we saw when our soul was in the Realm of the Forms.

Plato had some quite dodgy ways of proving that the Forms existed, such as heavily leading a slave boy through maths problems, and then saying that the boy recalled the answers himself, because he had never been taught maths, but one analogy he used to try and prove it’s existence ended up being a famous exercise for those wondering about the state of reality, the Analogy of the Cave.

The Analogy

It goes by many names: Plato’s cave, the Shadows on the Wall, ect, ect. You can easily recognise this analogy regardless of the name, if it talks about prisoners being shackled so that they can only face forwards towards a cave wall, which has shadows cast on it from a fire behind the prisoners.

To first understand what is going on, you need to understand how the cave is laid out.

The shackled prisoners are on the ground of the cave, shackled to face the far wall. Behind them is a walkway above the prisoners that has guards and other people walking across it throughout the day, in front of a torch that is the only source of light in this part of the cave.

For the sake of the analogy, Plato says that the prisoners have always been in chains, and have only ever seen that wall of the cave their whole lives. You’re gonna have to ignore any scepticism about how they eat, if they couldn’t just turn their head around a bit, or listened to any conversations that they hear from the guard.

Plato says that these prisoners’ existences is defined by what happens in their world, the world of the cave wall. They base their existence off of the shadows cast by a far off light, reading importance into things that anyone raised normally would recognise as a basic function of light. They are completely developed in their world of shadows on the wall.

Plato talks about if one of the shackled prisoners was set free. He would go through a series of shocks, first that he could move, second that he could see things other than the wall, and he would keep on moving out of the cave, seeing what is actually real in the cave until he reaches the surface and sees the sun, a colossal truth that he was completely ignorant of.

Now if the man returned to the prisoners and tried to tell them about the truth, about the real world around them, he would be called mad. It is impossible for them to comprehend what he is saying, as they didn’t go through the gradual shocks that he did, and because it is one person disputing what many think is the truth, the returned prisoner would be called mad.

This analogy was made by Plato to dispute those who called him mad or said that his theories made no sense. He was the freed man who had seen the truth and tried to teach it to the masses, but as the masses were still stuck in their ways, they just thought he was mad.

The analogy also has some very cliched symbolism. Light here is a symbol for truth. Our world, the world of shadows on the wall, is based in truth, but has been warped and imperfectly transferred. By realising that he was in shackles, Plato was able to break free and start discovering the truth. Moving through the cave, Plato was able to pass by the smaller truths, the torches along the way, until he reached the ultimate truth, the sun, the Forms.

While it is very easy to dispute his theory and this analogy, it is a great exercise to think about where you stand on Plato’s Cave. Maybe you agree with the idea but not with Plato’s connection to The Forms, maybe you think that it’s a flawed analogy in general and shouldn’t be as famous as it is. In any case, growing diverse ideas, knowing why you believe them and knowing what those ideas lack allow you to dissect that idea and others in a debate, the true way to prove your philosophical mettle.

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