Themes in Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave”

Introduction

Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” is one of the most well-known philosophical passages. In this excerpt from The Republic, the philosopher raises several serious questions and offers their analysis in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon (Plato, 1961). Such aspects of people’s lives as ignorance and knowledge, imagination and reality, and the need for the philosophical understanding of the world are discussed in “The Allegory of the Cave.” The most important themes raised in the excerpt seem to be those of education, reality, and society.

Discussion

The issue of education is rather prominently depicted in the passage. At the beginning of “The Allegory of the Cave,” the narrator suggests to his interlocutor to compare people’s “nature in respect of education and its lack” to the experience described in the passage (Plato, 1961, p. 747). People in the cave are referred to as “strange prisoners” whose legs and necks have been “fettered” from an early age (Plato, 1961, p. 747). In this example, Plato compares uneducated people to prisoners and argues that such individuals do not experience any progress but merely “remain in the same spot” for the whole lives (Plato, 1961, p. 747). Thus, the author emphasizes that people without knowledge are doomed to have a monotonous life that is limited by the things they are allowed to see and the names they can assume for these items.

The acquisition of some knowledge or education is compared to coming out of the cave and seeing the bright light. Plato remarks that if a person were “compelled to look at the light itself,” his eyes would hurt, and he would “turn away and flee” to the things he can discern (Plato, 1961, p. 748). What is more, the objects to which the cave person is used, although dark and shadowed, seem to him “more clear and exact” than those lit by the sun (Plato, 1961, p. 748). As such, it is pointed out that for an uneducated individual, the process of getting to know about things may be complicated due to the long-lasting belief in the opposite.

The theme of reality is closely associated with the topic of education since they both represent the enlightenment and the problems with which it may be associated in case a person has lived in artificial conditions for too long. Staying in the cave is related to the deceitful ideas, whereas coming out is referred to as getting to know some new things (Plato, 1961). Thus, the person who is “freed from his fetters” and “lift his eyes to the light” may feel discomfort or even pain (Plato, 1961, p. 748). However, without the light, according to the author, it is not possible to perceive the real objects and ideas existing in the world.

A very common mistake of uneducated people is described further in “The Allegory of the Cave.” Plato argues that “the dazzle and glitter of the light” would make the person unable to discern “the objects whose shadows he formerly saw” (Plato, 1961, p. 748). As a result, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to persuade such a man that everything he has known before “was all a cheat and an illusion” (Plato, 1961, p. 748). Therefore, the shadows of the objects previously seen in the cave would seem to this person as more real than the authentic items presented to him in the daylight.

Plato also mentions that there is a high likelihood that the man would rather “flee” to the cave where he was able “to discern” things than continue finding out about the real ones due to the pain that he experiences (Plato, 1961, p. 748). By creating this allegory, the philosopher outlines the painstaking process of admitting reality by the people who are learning some new concepts. It is easier to stick to one’s ideas and reject the inevitable, but denying reality is not going to make any good to anyone.

The third significant theme raised in the passage is the society and the relations of individuals within it. There are two classes of people in the cave: the ones with “legs and necks fettered” and “able to look forward only” and the ones “carrying […] implements of all kinds […] and human images and animals as well” (Plato, 1961, p. 747). Thus, Plato distinguishes between the higher and lower ranks in the hierarchy, where the individuals ranked higher dictate rules and govern the understanding of the world by those ranked lower. The people living in chains have never seen any other reality than “the shadows cast from the fire on the wall” (Plato, 1961, p. 747). Thus, those members of the society that do not have the right or possibility to formulate their point of view have to conform to the opinions issued by their authorities.

Another important aspect of the reflection of societal relations is depicted through the reaction of the prisoners to their representative who had an opportunity to go outside the cave and see the world as it is. Instead of thinking about the possibility of trying to discover reality and gain knowledge and education, these individuals would rather keep their erroneous ideas. The attempt of their friend to explain how much there is to explore outside the cave would “provoke laughter,” and it would be considered that he “had returned from his journey […] with his eyes ruined” (Plato, 1961, p. 749). Moreover, this group of people would think that is “was not worthwhile even to attempt the ascent” (Plato, 1961, p. 749).

Finally, the most tragic outcome of the people’s reaction would be the decision “to kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up” (Plato, 1961, p. 749). By this allegory, the author shows the relationships between people within their social groups and between different levels of society’s hierarchy.

The reflection of each theme raised in Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” can be traced in the modern world. Education and knowledge are regarded as a state of darkness and obscurity. The possibilities of people who lack literacy are quite limited. These individuals do not understand the basic political and social processes, they cannot participate in discussions, and, what is probably the worst, they cannot defend their rights. Without knowledge, one’s life is miserable, and one cannot reach the things he or she could have achieved. In the modern world, as well as in Plato’s passage, ignorance can be compared with darkness and the state of instability.

The notion of reality nowadays is linked to the state of knowing things. Without education, it is not possible to learn what is true and what is not true. Moreover, the lack of knowledge disables people from the possibility of discerning between real and illusionary things, between the truth and fiction. Without experience, one cannot progress or make some significant contributions. Without the desire to admit the existence of truth, one will never get rid of the hypothetic chains limiting one’s perception of life. As Plato points out, people should be able to deny the illusionary ideas, no matter how difficult it may be for them. Without such denial, there will be no space for development.

Plato’s description of the societal structure and people’s relations within it is also relevant to modern life. There is a division between those who have power and those who have no freedom of speech. Authorities are dictating the rules and citizens who have to obey these regulations. What is more, modern people also tend to mock the representatives of their group who attempt to explain something differently because the majority cannot believe that only one person can know something better. Because of these and other issues, there are many misunderstandings in modern society.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is viable to remark that the ideas expressed in Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” are still relevant. The most important themes analyzed in this passage are those of education, reality, and society. Using philosophical explanations and discussions, Plato outlines the most dangerous aspects of ignorance and refusal to try to understand the unknown. The allegory is a successful way of explaining to people how deceitful their leaders may be and how crucial it is to strive for the truth.

Reference

Plato. (1961). The allegory of the cave. In E. Hamilton & H. Cairns (Eds.), The collected dialogues of Plato (pp. 747-752). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.