Doing Time in Plato’s Cave by Paul Ewing
[This text reflects a simulation of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” I have done with my introductory philosophy students at Yavapai College, Verde Campus, Clarkdale, Arizona these past 24 years]
As a story, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is deceptively simple. A small cadre of prisoners is chained immobile, staring with their gaze fixed at the back wall of a cave. All they see are shadows on the wall; all they hear are echoes, deflected sounds coming from the same wall. The shadows and sounds are projected by mumbling ‘puppeteers’ who move objects along a parapet in front of a fire located in the middle of the cave. One of the prisoners is freed and guided by a teacher to turn and face the light of the fire. At first, the newly released ward is literally blinded by the light. But as the two approach the fire, the prisoner begins to discern shapes, shadows and reflections. The teacher starts asking questions about the difficulty of the transition between darkness and light, about the relationship between shadows and real objects, echoes and real sounds.
The teacher, with prisoner in tow, ascends to a higher terrace of the cave and eventually they walk to the cave entrance. At this juncture the prisoner finds the light of the sun far more blinding than the fire and his disorientation even greater. As in the earlier transition, the prisoner becomes accustomed to the new light, begins to make out shapes and shadows, and the teacher commences to ask questions about the difficulty of this latest transition and about the relationship between this ‘higher’ level of reality to the lower depths of the cave. The prisoner would like to stay out in this ‘brave new world’ of blazing light but the teacher disappoints him by telling him it is his duty to return to the cave wall and to inform his cellmates that their reality is insignificant compared to the greater realities about which he has just learned. He assumes his former position as a prisoner facing the back wall. He tries but fails at the naming games he used to play with the other inmates. And he begins to place doubts in their minds by telling them that what they understand as reality is false and misleading. For his trouble, the other prisoners think him ruined, uppity and crazy. They hate him, fear him and wish him dead.
Pretty simple stuff, or so it would seem. But as in all good allegories, there is far more here than meets the eye. If we search long enough, dig deep enough, we can discover in this simple tale elements which represent Plato’s entire philosophical paradigm and its self-consistent, intricately interlocking component parts. This allegory reveals Plato’s metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, esthetics, social philosophy, and political philosophy not to mention his philosophy of education and what he understood the life and death of Socrates to mean. It is also, ingeniously, an allegory about philosophy, the philosophical journey and the methodology of philosophy itself. Not bad, for a piece of work that takes up only a few pages in The Great Books of the Western World.
One of the most fundamental things the Allegory of the Cave spells out for us is Plato’s metaphysical position, his understanding of the nature of the universe. The cave wall and shadows upon it symbolize the physical world. The prisoners who gaze at this wall are misled by it. The ‘real world’ is a realm of optical illusions and auditory hallucinations, chimeras all. The cave wall represents the lowest level of reality and what we experience there is common and cheap. When the freed prisoner reaches the fire, he has moved higher up in the physical world but is still trapped within it. It is not until he and the teacher move beyond the fire that they cross into a higher level of reality, the realm of mathematics. It may be significant in this regard that over the entrance to Plato’s Academy was a sign saying, “Let no one without geometry enter here.” Farther on, at the entrance to the cave, prisoner and teacher gaze upon the ultimate truth, the ultimate good, the ultimate reality– the Sun. The Sun is a “form” or an “ideal,” an archetype for all that is good. Plato suggests that the realm of “forms” is the real world and the physical world below is an insignificant imitation of the mental one. What’s real is unreal and what’s unreal is really real. Now this defies common sense but that, my friends, is precisely what philosophy is for! Plato is one of the West’s earliest, but not the earliest, “idealist.” Reality he proposes is, ultimately, idea. Because Plato reduces everything to this one thing, he is both a reductionist and a monist.
Because the universe is ultimately idea not matter, Plato’s epistemology emphasizes reason not our physical senses. At the back of the cave, prisoners use their eyes and ears to try to comprehend reality. To begin with, their reality itself is poor. But by using empirical methods the prisoners compound their confusion. Our senses deceive; one only needs to consider the mid-summer mirage on an Arizona highway. In the half of the cave which includes the prisoners, the parapet and the fire, knowledge is imperfect, at best conjecture or simple belief [as the prisoner on leave gazes at the fire and the objects before it]. It is only when the dynamic duo cross the line between the world of the visible into the world of the mind that they make the transition from opinion to knowledge. The questions the teacher asks about transitions between light and darkness are significant. Light represents knowledge and darkness ignorance. For the uneducated, transitions between the two are painful, arduous, confusing. Beyond the fire, ascending up the terrace, using mathematics and other abstract forms of reasoning, the prisoner begins to understand. It is only at the cave entrance when the prisoner is able to see the sun and other forms or archetypes that pure reason is brought to bear. One might say that at this point the prisoner has become a philosopher. He has ‘seen the light.” His method of knowing, pure mentalism is called rationalism. Plato was one of the West’s earliest rationalists.
What does ‘the cave’ mean in terms of ethics? Since ultimate knowledge concerns the Sun, and the Sun represents “Good,” one can assume that the universe itself is good. Perhaps light symbolizes good and darkness symbolizes evil? Ignorance is certainly a serious problem. On the other hand, knowledge, enlightenment and philosophical wisdom are the ultimate goals of mankind. That which is physical is corrupted and that which is ‘form’ is pure. The various levels of the cave could symbolize states of moral, as well as intellectual, awareness. If you inhabit the lower regions of the cave, your ability to make clear moral distinctions is inhibited severely by ignorance. Since reasoning well is the ultimate good, the “Cave” suggests that epistemology drives ethics. After seeing the sun, the furloughed prisoner learns that his duty as a neophyte philosopher is to return to the darkness at the cave wall in order to instruct his colleagues about the state of their ignorance. The concept of duty is itself intrinsically normative or ethical. Furthermore, there is in Plato the assumption that all men and women are capable of ‘seeing the light.’ Like the universe itself, goodness [and the intelligence from which it is derived] exists in all of us. In another dialogue, “Meno,” Socrates asks geometry questions of a young boy. Why? To prove that the boy already knows what he does not know. All human beings are capable of knowledge; therefore, all are capable of choosing ‘the Good.’ (To be continued, a work in progress, as philosophy always has been and always will be)
Copyright Paul Ewing III, 2013