Essay: Plato's Cave

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Plato's Cave

Plato wants the reader to be both a philosopher and an agent of socio-political change. This is clear by the lesson that he draws from the cave allegory. This paper will explain the cave allegory and show how Plato reaches his conclusion concerning the role of the philosopher in the Republic.

The image of the cave is full of symbols. The cave itself is a symbol of a city, the prisoners symbols of the ignorant citizens. Their education is limited to their speculations concerning the shadows on the wall. They are, in other words, uneducated. The light of truth is far behind and above them. They can be brought into the light with the help of the philosopher. But this philosopher must be willing to come down from the mountain of truth, enter into the cave, and draw the people towards the light. The light symbolizes the good and the beautiful and the true.

The good and the beautiful and the true recommends that the people as a whole strive towards the light of truth. Thus, the philosopher must also be an agent of socio-political change, for if he is not no one will lead the citizens out of the darkness of their own ignorance. If the agent of socio-political change is not a philosopher, he will be like the persons walking back and forth behind the wall, carrying artifacts that throw their shadows on the wall. They will be full of activity but no meaning. They will not help to enlighten the citizens. Plato ultimately advocates a warrior-philosopher, who exercises his dual-rule in a spirit of humility.

The Philosopher and the Agent of Socio-Political Change

Plato's form of education in the Republic better prepares the reader to become both an agent of socio-political change and an enlightened philosopher, because politics and philosophy are inextricably linked in his vision of the ideal Republic. Through the Allegory of the Cave, Plato expresses this idea, comparing unenlightened citizens to chained prisoners, philosophers to those who break free and move towards the light, and the engineers of socio-political change as those same philosophers who return from the light to the prisoners of the cave in order to spread their enlightenment. This paper will provide a close reading of the Allegory, explain the key components of the Allegory, and show how Plato's form of education insists on enlightened individuals helping others to ascend to the highest good.

The image of the cave that Plato provides is one in which the citizens are turned away from the ultimate or higher reality, the light of truth. They are chained to their places and all they can see are the shadows that dance on the wall in front of them. These shadows are thrown upon the wall by "puppeteers" behind them. They are not really puppeteers, but rather people moving along a path, "carrying artifacts" (514c), relics of the past, which may or may not convey meaning to the people in the cave. The citizens who have grown up in bondage see only the shadows of these artifacts, which are paraded around behind them. They have no intelligence of their being. The shadows that they see represent their superficial grasp of reality: they know only the "shadow" of truth. The "puppeteers" are perhaps the socio-political workers who work like ants, yet have no philosophy with which to actually reach and enlighten the citizens still in bondage, for they too are turned away from the light of reason and truth, which remains above them.

These "puppeteers" keep the citizens entertained with the shadows that they inadvertently throw upon the wall and with the voices they supply them, but it is pure entertainment, or entertainment without enlightenment. It is only when one of the citizens is freed from his chains and able to turn his head and see the bright light from above that he truly begins to realize the reality of being. He will need to adjust his eyes to this new brightness. This freed person can travel upward, towards the light, seeing how the shadows have been effected by these other persons. He will pass them as he climbs out of the cave and up the mountain of truth, towards the light. He will realize that truth is not just "nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts," (515c) but actually the identity between what is in the intellect and what is reality. If he thought that shadows on the wall were all he could know of truth, he has now seen that he was mistaken.

Yet, Plato observes that the freed person is "dragged," (515e) as though against his will, into the light of truth. Plato suggests here that truth is not often pursued voluntarily, but something that is thrust upon someone, something to which men must adjust or adapt or conform to. But by seeing the sun, which represents the light of truth, the man would begin to understand "the seasons and the years," the cause of things, the truth of things (516c).

Here, Plato makes an assertion that shows why he does not wish the reader to become solely a philosopher and not also an agent of socio-political change. He remarks that the man, freed from bondage and drawn to the light of truth, who rejects the honors and society of those citizens in the cave in preference for a life of contemplation upon the mountain of truth, does a disservice to those citizens still imprisoned in darkness. He is actually no different from the man who having seen the light, rejects it to return to the cave of darkness and play at guessing the meaning of the shadows on the wall; his companions will "ridicule" him for having abandoned "his upward journey" and may in their ignorance even try to "kill him" who tries to lead them out of darkness (517a). This latter example is the man who tries to become an agent of socio-political change without philosophy. He has seen the light but turned his back to it.

Plato advocates becoming both a philosopher (a discerner of truth) and an agent of socio-political change (one who returns to the cave to help those in darkness understand and live according to the light of truth).

Thus, as Plato asserts, the "upward journey" is the "movement of the soul to the intelligible realm," or rather the approach of the intellect/spirit to truth/reality (517b). The light of truth is "the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything," and "provides truth and understanding" (517c). From this definition of the light of truth, Plato moves to a definition of justice, which concerns the role of the philosopher in the Republic.

Plato states that it is an act of justice for the philosopher to concern himself with the men of the city (i.e., of the cave of darkness) rather than to concern himself only with the light of truth (520a). They must be like good kings, nurturers of society and politics, raising up the citizens to the beautiful and the good.

Good governance depends upon the philosopher recognizing his role among the people of the city, and the politicians and social advocates recognizing their dependence upon philosophy. Or, as Plato asserts, the guardian of the Republic "must be both a warrior and a philosopher," (525b) -- a philosopher because philosophers love wisdom and truth, and a warrior because he must be willing to fight for what is good and beautiful in order to protect the Republic from those who love lesser things.

Furthermore, it appears that Plato wishes education to proceed through a spirit of humility or docility. The pupil must be willing to accept and submit to truth rather than seek his own desires (either for wisdom or political/social power). If the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Plato's Cave."  February 27, 2013.  Accessed June 26, 2019.