Plato — Understanding His Philosophies and the Allegory of the Cave
The allegory of the cave is one of the most famous dialogues from Plato, and has had a major influence on Western philosophy. It is a passage from Platos The Republic, and is about the nature of philosophical nature at the time. But before we try to understand it, who truly was Plato?
Who Was Plato?
Plato was a philosopher born in 427 BCE, who was a student of Socrates. He is known for not only his philosophical writing, but for being the main source we have of Socrates philosophies, as he did not write any of them down.
Plato had to watch his mentor, Socrates die as a result of the state of Athens, causing him to leave Athens and go on a 12-year road trip, through which he learned from the likes of Euler and Theodorus and travelled across Europe and the Middle East.
At this point, he had learned the methods of Socratic thinking from Socrates as well, allowing hum to create some of Greece’s greatest pieces of writing, many of which included dialogues between different philosophers and wise men, some of which were never truly spoken!
In most of Plato’s writing, Socrates remained as the central figure. He was showcased as a wise man, but the accuracy of his portrayal of Socrates’ actions and beliefs to this day remains contested.
Plato went on to form the Academy, the first European university that studied not just philosophy but all of the known sciences. The modern word ‘academia’ is likely derived from his school! The school ran for nearly 900 years and included famous students such as Aristotle.
Plato’s Theory of Reality
One of the most interesting philosophies of Plato relates to his worldview. He believed that everything on our planet is just a copy of a perfect form that exists on a different planet.
Plato asserted that there were two realms; the physical and spiritual realms. The physical realm consists of the material things we interact with and see every day, and changes constantly.
The spiritual realm, however, exists beyond the physical realm. Plato calls this spiritual realm the Realm of Forms. Plato's Theory of Forms asserts that the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality of the Realm of Forms.
The Forms Plato refers to are abstract, perfect concepts which never change unlike our physical realm. Even though the Forms are abstract, that doesn’t mean they are not real. So, concepts beauty, justice, or goodness are Forms (and thus they are commonly capitalized).
Individual objects like a red book, a round ball, a beautiful girl, a just action, or a good person reside in the physical realm and are simply different examples of the Forms. A round red or green ball, for example, is just a variation or image of the true, perfect Form.
The Allegory of the Cave
In The Republic, Socrates, Plato’s mentor, tells the allegory of the cave to Glaucon, who’s one of Plato’s brothers. Imagine an underground cave, in which a group of prisoners are chained and can see only in front of them. Their hands, feet, and necks are chained so that they are unable to move. All they can see in front of them, for their entire lives, is the back wall of the cave. Socrates says:
Some way off, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners above them runs a road, in front of which a curtain wall has been built, like a screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets.
Since the prisoners have only been exposed to these shadows, they assume the shadows are indeed reality. One of the prisoners escapes, and escapes from the darkness of the cave. After seeing the light outside, he realizes that the light of the sun and what he is experiencing is actually reality!
Feeling pity for his fellow prisoners, he goes back in the cave to try to liberate them. In the end, the other prisoners kill the one who is trying to free them, so convinced are they that the shadows they experience inside the cave are the only true reality.
The allegory of the cave ties together all of the other analogies that Plato uses to explain his worldview. Those who are enamoured with the world of images are like the prisoners in the cave, completely caught up with images they perceive to be real.
The man who breaks free of his chains is the philosopher who, using his intellect ascends out of the cave (out of the world of the senses and into the world of the forms).
Plato believes that the true philosopher — and we should think of Socrates here — would choose to return to the world of the senses, or the prison, to try to liberate his fellow man, even though he naturally would prefer to remain permanently in the world of the forms and would face persecution and possible death for doing so.
A fascinating aspect of this allegory is how it correlates to the story of Socrates; in the story, Socrates potentially represents the man who chooses to liberate others from the world of the senses.
Socrates aimed to question everything throughout his life, hoping to show others the limited scope of their knowledge, with the goal of helping them understand the world around them.
As a result of this and his anti-democracy views, Socrates was sent to execution. It is likely Socrates who is represented as the prisoner who escapes. But how does the story relate to our life?
Is Our Reality a Shadow?
The Allegory of the Cave aims to highlight how unaware we are of the true reality, the Realm of the Forms. Since the prisoners remain so caught up in appearances, they choose to neglect what the ‘Socratic’ prisoner tells them. In our life, these appearances are likely similar to things such as money, houses, cars, fame or followers, which are likely the effect of programming and social conditioning. In the physical realm, these materialistic desires are constantly changing, meaning obtaining these things will never truly help us achieve happiness. Wow! 💥
Thanks for taking the time to read through my thoughts on Socrates! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to chat with me on Twitter. Or if you would like to learn about any new content I put out, subscribe to my monthly newsletter to see new projects, conferences I go to, and articles I put out!