Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (2)


Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is one of the most important narratives about freedom in the history of philosophy. In the story, people are in a cave, who have been there, enchained, from birth. They are facing toward a wall on which shadows are cast that they view not as shadows but as real objects of the world. The shadows are in fact of puppet images that marionettes hold before a fire that casts the shadows on the wall — that mixed with images of those passing before the fire. But the prisoners, who cannot move their bodies or heads to see behind them, know nothing of this. They do not see that there are marionettes or puppets. They accept the shadows in front of them as the sole realities of the world.

Plato asks us to imagine one of the enchained being released, actually being dragged out of the cave. This person, also used to the shadows, would not eagerly make his ascent from the cave. He would not trust his initial new experiences, but would question himself. Even his eyes and other senses would only slowly and painfully adapt to the new reality that he is able to perceive. Slowly, though, he would adapt. Once outside the cave in the world, he would eventually recognize real objects of the world and would come to perceive the sun. He would be able to understand that, like the fire in the cave, the sun was able to cast shadows of trees and other objects. He would come to understand that the earlier opinions he had while in the cave were spurious, that what he had taken for real objects had in fact only been shadows.

In this new situation, Plato imagines that the man would be happy at having overcome his earlier delusions. He would not be eager to return to the cave. He could not imagine again living with the earlier false beliefs. Were he to return to the cave, however, say from pity for those enchained there, he would not likely be welcomed. Were he to begin to question the prevailing views that the shadows in the cave were real objects, those in the cave would think he was confused, that he had somehow lost the ability to think right. Under these conditions, Plato posits that those enchained would not be interested to share the new odd ideas of their former cave inhabitant. They might even try to kill him or anybody who would attempt to unchain anyone of them.

We can of course imagine well that Plato is thinking of his own mentor Socrates as one of those individuals who have questioned the predominant views of society, who has then come into the cave of Athenian marketplace. There, challenging the prevailing views, he was not accepted and made a ruler, as Plato hopes might happen to the philosopher who is emancipated from the cave. Rather the citizens of Athens were threatened by him and set out to kill him. Is this the plight of all philosophers? Are they bound to be rare and misunderstood, or is there some possibility of them emancipating those enchained to opinion and reforming the social world in which they make their decisions and come to understand reality? Plato, in the Republic, imagines an ideal polity guided by philosophers, the searching and the wise. He imagines a society which is enlightened rather than one like is described in the cave. It is a society in which education is focused on virtue, where leaders who are virtuous, direct the social life, where wisdom, courage, moderation and justice prevail. But it is not clear that he thinks this is possible. Maybe he suspects that more likely is the situation he describes in the cave, one in which wisdom is rare, and hope for the dominance of courage, moderation and justice is slight.

As is well-known, Plato begins to explain this allegory in relation to divided line (indicating his understanding of human knowing process) and world of the forms (indicating his metaphysical views). Before looking at any of those details it will be helpful though to highlight the background for the narrative: first, the allegory is a freedom narrative; second, Plato maintains that truth or knowledge sets us free; and third, Plato underlines that the analysis of concepts (which is fundamental to Plato’s understanding of rational thinking) is fundamental to how we achieve the knowledge that will set us free.

The divided line

Plato’s two-world metaphysics has had an enormous impact on Western civilization. In the classic depiction of the genesis of this metaphysics, Plato combines the views of two important Pre-Socratic metaphysicians into his own new system. Heraclitus, who Plato understood as the philosopher of flux is one of these. Parmenedies, who Plato understood as the philosopher of permanence, is the other.

In Plato’s view, the world that we perceive with our senses is the Heraclitian world of flux, where all objects are involved in constant change. This world of change depicts one aspect of our human experience. Yet, in Plato’s view, there is more to the world than these changing objects that we perceive with our other senses. There is a separate world, on the other side of our imagined divided line. In this world, there are permanent essences of things. In Plato’s view, in this intellectual unchanging world, we do not have particular entities, like the person Heraclitus or the person Parmenides. But we do have abstract ideas, like “humanness” that both Heraclitus and Parmenides “participate in” — to use Plato’s vocabulary. We thus have a world of changing particular entities, on the one side of the line, and a world of unchanging general ideas or forms, on the other. The two worlds, however, do touch one another in some ways. For one, particular entities of any general kind “participate in” the “ideas” or “forms” that are unchanging. For example, Heraclitus and Parmenides participate in the form of humanness. So too, Secretariat and Donerail (two horses to have won the Kentucky Derby) participate in the general form of “horseness.” Or to use language a bit less odd: they share in the horse nature. We can also think of abstract ideas of mathematics as having their existence in this intellectual realm, this world of the forms. For another, human beings, who have the capacity for rational thinking — or a “rational soul,” to use the Platonic language — are able to come to an understanding of the abstract ideas or forms that have their existence in this unchanging intellectual world. The human rational mind is connected always to a realm of unchanging rational (and thus real) ideas or forms.

The language here of course sounds quite esoteric to us today. Yet we should be able to understand the difficulty that Plato is grappling with. Plato embraces a pretty common idea that knowledge claims are true through time. For example, 2+2=4 is not something that was true yesterday but not tomorrow. Rather, 2+2=4 was true yesterday, is true today, and will be true tomorrow. Plato views true ideas as eternally true. (Historical truths comprise a special complicated kind of truths. But let’s stick with our other examples for now.) How do we come to know things that are eternally true when we appear to live in a world where everything is in flux? In Plato’s view, it is the “rational soul,” that eternal part of the human, that allows us a segue into a rational and eternal intellectual world, the world of the forms, where these essences have an actual existence.

As Plato discusses these matters further in the Republic, the dialogue in which the Allegory of the Cave is described, he underlines the various thinking capacities that humans have. He discusses these as he depicts the various capacities of the human soul. His discussion of the soul is complex, but it will help to outline it. We have so far mentioned the human “rational soul.” However, Plato thinks that this “rational soul” is only one part of the human soul. He introduces a tripartite view the human soul — that is, a three-part view of the soul. We have an appetitive and spirited part of the soul as well. Plato offers us one of the first depictions of the human that emphasizes some characteristics that we share with the larger biological world. The appetites we have and desires of the spirited part of the soul appear to equip us with capacities we share with the broader animal kingdom. But it is “rational soul” that makes us uniquely human. In our day-to-day human functioning all of these powers of the soul are in use at some times. However, it is only the capacities of rational soul that allow us achieve truth and understanding of the eternal world of forms. It appears to be that eternal part of us (though details of this are debated among Plato scholars).

In fact, when we only use certain thinking capacities like those of some other animals — perception, perhaps a rudimentary imagination — we do not come to know truth. If we use these cognitive abilities (of perception and imagination) alone, we will remain trapped in the world of opinion. We will not arise above the world of flux to the world of true forms. We will find no satisfactory and rational way to mediate disagreements.

It is only through the analysis of concepts and even of the process of reasoning itself that we begin to do the higher level of thinking required for knowledge. We might see Plato as building on Socrates’ earlier expressed view that we need to live examined lives. To have meaningful lives and to gain truth, this examination cannot, though, consist in merely a leisurely bantering about. Rather, we need  discursive reasoning and direct intuition of the first principles of reasoning to achieve truth. It is through the exercise of the higher order capacities of human reflection that we rise above the world of “common sense” and mere opinion to genuine knowledge. The exercise of the higher capacities of our rational soul allows us entry into the eternal and unchanging world. Or perhaps, since we all actually have those capacities, at least in rudimentary form, we might better say that we need to “remember” those ideas. That’s how Plato puts it. He thinks we have to awaken the use of those power and then we can discover the truths. In Plato’s view we already have these truths written on our minds. As rational souls, we exist always in some sense already  connected with that eternal world of forms. We need only to awaken to them, or to open our eyes to see the light, or — to turn to our example here — to make our ascent from the cave to the real world of forms.

Plato in fact believed things nearly all philosophers today find very implausible. The soul pre-exists the human life. Humans then are born with knowledge inscribed upon their souls. They needed only to remember this knowledge. While these details of Plato’s metaphysics are unlikely to resonate with us, the general questions of the allegory are still very pertinent.  It remains useful for us to think about how rational thought facilitates human freedom, about the value of the analysis of ideas, about the place of understanding first principles of our reasoning. Our answers will differ from Plato’s. But his questions remain vital, as do narratives like the Allegory of the Cave, which can be interpreted anew for our own time in productive ways.

For a general discussion of truth and freedom, it would be good to keep in mind the analysis of our human reasoning capacity that Plato is engaged in: He is already recognizing the difference between the faculties we have of perception, imagination, understanding, discursive reasoning. He is emphasizing that we will strongly benefit from a use of understanding and discursive reasoning and that without this we might just become mired in exchanges of opinion that lead nowhere fruitful.

Continue to Plato on Gyges’ Ring

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