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The Allegory of the Cave - Plato (428-347 B.C.)

Plato is an ancient Greek philosopher, born in approximately 428 BCE. Plato spent much of his time in Athens and was a student of the philosopher Socrates and eventually the teacher of Aristotle. He is also one of the most important philosophers in history. He made notable contributions to ethics, the study of values and morality, metaphysics, the study of the basic assumptions and ideas that frame the world, and epistemology, the study of knowledge.

Most of Plato's works are dialogues, in which two or more people engage in a conversation about one or more theoretical topics. The dialogues are not records of actual conversations, but Plato, nevertheless, bases the characters in his dialogues on real people. The most notable recurring character is based on his teacher Socrates.

Plato, in Allegory of the Cave, attempted to answer some of the philosophical questions, most notably about the nature of reality. He tells the 'Allegory of the Cave' as a conversation between his mentor, Socrates, who inspired many of Plato's philosophical theories, and one of Socrates' students, Glaucon.

The dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon is probably fictitious and composed by Plato; whether or not the allegory originated with Socrates, or if Plato is using his mentor as a stand-in for his own idea, is unclear.

In the dialogue, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave, in which prisoners are kept. These prisoners have been in the cave since their childhood, and each of them is held there in a peculiar/strange manner. They are all chained so that their legs and necks are immobile, forced to look at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, on which people can walk.

These people are puppeteers, and they are carrying objects, in the shape of human and animal figures, as well as everyday items. The prisoners could only see these flickering images on the wall since they could not move their heads; and so, naturally enough, they presumed the images to be real, rather than just shadowy representations of what is actually real. Plato theorises that the echoing sounds the prisoners hear are perceived as reality. 

This false reality is all that the people in the cave know. They have no true knowledge of the real world. However, they fully believe that what they see on the cave wall is reality, and even try to name the shadows they see passing by.

Plato further adds to the allegory by stating the playing of a game by the prisoners in the cave. The game is guessing which shadow appears next. When one prisoner guesses correctly, he receives praise from the others, who call him “master”. Socrates would point out, that this was hollow praise, since, in fact, the images were not real.

Then Socrates offered a twist in the plot - what if one of the prisoners were to be freed and made to turn and look at the fire? The bright light would hurt his eyes, as accustomed as he was to the shadows, and even in turning back to the wall and its flickering images (which would only be natural), the prisoner couldn't help but notice that they weren't real at all, but only shadows of the real items on the walkway behind him.

After understanding greater reality, the prisoner returns to the cave to try to compel the other prisoners to experience this new world, but when he returns to the cave, his eyes can no longer see in the darkness.

Now, the prisoners mock the freed prisoner because he cannot see the shadows of objects on the wall in front of him. Plato theorises that they may even become violent to the other prisoner as he continues to describe the outside world, and descending back into the cave becomes dangerous. 

To watch a video of The Allegory of the Cave Click Here


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