The Cave Allegory (Preface)

Preface: The Cave Allegory

Update: 22/02/2013

Drawing depicting the cave in Plato's allegory

Plato, one of the many philosophers to which I personally aspire, written a great allegory which is not only prophetically relevant to today’s problematic society, but it also delivers an explanation as to what I aspire to achieving with philosophy. The allegory follows a tale which takes place in a cave, where a woman, or variably a man, is bound by chains and consequently only capable of facing a wall. Behind her a fire emblazons the walls, and before her the silhouette of figures, such as horses as soldiers, are being cast onto the cave’s wall. It is naturally understood in this tale that the silhouettes are being cast by people behind the imprisoned lady, yet her unknowing of this leads us to believe that the men behind her are tricksters, or otherwise called “Sophists”.

After being imprisoned for such a long time, the woman gradually believes that the shadows are not representations of objects, but rather actual beings; the lady begins to interpret the shadows as reality in its entirety. Eventually, after much time in imprisonment, the woman breaks free from her chains, and runs outside of the cave hurriedly. Upon exiting the cave, the external world’s light leaves her incapacitated, but only temporarily. Once her eyes affix to the lighting conditions, her very foundation of so-called reality is shattered as the sight of towering trees, the distant sound of whistling birds, and the heavenly aroma of nearby flowers immediately usurp the throne for her new conception of reality. In this new light of discovery, she returns to the cave to tell her fabled silhouettes of the world beyond the cave’s confine. Yet, upon re-entering the cave, the light dissipates and she is left in darkness, as her eyes are no longer affixed to the cave’s dark atmosphere. Meanwhile, the tricksters, or Sophists, who charmed her into believing a false truth, are quick to control her and bring her under the shackles of a false, synthetic reality once again; however, in re-imprisonment, her eyes remain closed and the memories of the external, legitimate reality flood her eyes, giving her a sense of clarity which no imprisonment could exterminate.

Do we achieve Independent thought?

Do we achieve Independent thought?

From this tale, Plato identifies three significant types of people: The manipulators (or Sophists), the manipulated, and, most importantly, the bearers of truth. This allegory, told in the Republic, bears an almost scary relevance to contemporary politics and social agenda.The Sophists in modern terms are regarded as lying Politicians and, more prominently, social Media. Politicians and social Media are notorious for manipulating the general population into voting, or buying a desirable product, or even marginalising socially acceptable opinions of events. Politicians and the Media are undoubtedly quintessential examples of those depicted as tricksters in Plato’s allegory. A prime example of sophism would be a case of product advertisement; consider an advertising agency promoting anti-perspiration products as being able to attract the opposite sex with unfounded success, when any sense of rationality dictates that this is clearly not the case.

The allegory presents a second type of person who, out of a lack of knowledge, foolishly believes the rhetorical endorsements of sophists. This category of gullible people are considered as the general population of people; those without an education, and those without any interest in intellectual integrity or truth. As the most common of all three categories, these people are the reason as to why sophism is so financially successful. The third type of person in this allegory is the person who understands that spraying deodorant over them clearly does not make the opposite sex racing to have sex with them. Instead, this type of person has enough reason and clarity to only justify buying such a product for its legitimate purpose – anti perspiration.

Plato regards this third, unique class of people as philosophers, or at least those capable of being professional philosophers. Surprisingly, this category is rather small in comparison to the other two. Philosophy, as well as mathematics and logic (both formal and informal), excel in educating people about rationality and resisting the urge to succumb to being manipulated. Unfortunately the Philosopher is more than often prone to being ostracised by general society, as the sophists deliberately demote the mentality of the Philosopher in order to protect their product endorsements and political positions. It’s a rather vicious circle, but anybody with enough intellectual integrity to question the authenticity of their favourite political party or their most favourable news station, philosopher or not, is a man who deserves the clarity which was offered to the woman in Plato’s cave allegory.

Plato, pointing up in the sky; indicating his cosmological beliefs

    Plato, pointing up in the sky; indicating his cosmological beliefs

In this respect, I (hopefully with some modesty) regard myself as the third class of person. My profession is Philosophy, and I am often in the situation in which I am being ridiculed by society. Yet, I find it noble that I have not succumbed to buying a can of Coca Cola entirely for the sake of altering my identity to what was depicted on their Television advertisement, or applauding a political party because of my parents adamant worship of the party in question. With this being said, I hope that I retain my modesty in saying that I don’t regard myself as some self-proclaimed Doomsday prophet who claims to have ‘seen the light’, or that I excel everybody else in terms of intelligence.

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2 thoughts on “The Cave Allegory (Preface)

    • People have a tendency to believe that which they want. If you’re interested in this subject, then there’s a great documentary recently published called “The Imposter”. It’s a great documentary about a french man who posed as a long-lost son for a family, and it shows how deception often requires no more than a faith to believe.

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