Plato was not only one of the most important philosophers of Ancient Greece.. In addition, he is one of the thinkers who has most influenced the West in the way it has thought about ideas and their relationship to the material reality that surrounds us.
These ideas are very well reflected in one of the most memorable writings of this Athenian philosopher: the one that refers to the so-called “myth of Plato’s cave”, and that is part of The Republicthe best known work of this author.
In this article we will see what the allegory of Plato’s cave says and how it embodies the ideas of this Greek thinker.
The myth or allegory of the cave
First of all, it is necessary to clarify that although this text is known above all as “the myth of Plato’s cave”, technically it is not a myth, but an allegory.
This is so because there is no evidence that it was a narrative or a reinterpretation of a traditional fictional story shared by a cultural community, as in myths.
In any case, it is a story that allows Plato to develop his ideas through an allegory that visually represents the process by which, according to him, the truth is accessed and true knowledge.
For this reason, the allegory of the cavern of platon presents us with a situation that has never happened literally nor does it have to happen, and that at the same time does not serve to explain either the nature of heroes, gods or demigods or their fictitious feats, but simply helps to understand a part of Plato’s philosophy.
Let’s see, then, what this story is told in an allegorical way, and what it means according to the Athenian philosopher.
What does Plato’s cave writing mean?
In the myth of the cave, Plato asks us to imagine a series of people chained to a rock at the bottom of a cave, all looking in the direction of one of the vaulted walls.
Behind these people and the great rock to which they are subject, there is a series of characters that the chained ones cannot see (being looking in the opposite direction and being the rock in the middle) and that hold over them figures in the form of silhouette of objects, animals, people and geographical accidents: in essence, representations of everything that we can perceive through the senses.
And behind these characters who are constantly moving and changing figures, there is a great fire, so that the shadow of these figures creates shadow silhouettes on the wall that the chained ones can see.
I mean: the chained ones can only see the vaulted wall and the silhouette-shaped shadows that are constantly projected on it. According to platón, the constant exposure to this kind of stimulus makes the chained people believe that the only reality that exists is these shadows: they don’t even ask questions about what it is that projects them.
In contrast to this, Plato points out that if any of the chained ones breaks this dynamic of passivity that implies looking at a wall contemplating shadows and decides to free themselves from the chains, they will have the opportunity to access the Truth, the true knowledge that supposes being aware that there is a world beyond that wall of the cave. However, this process of liberation is not easy and requires much effort and sacrifice.
The phases of access to the Truth
Let’s see here what are the phases by which, according to Plato, someone can abandon the phase of deception that involves depending only on the senses and, little by little, access to true knowledge.
1. Phase of deception and shadows
The fact that Plato uses shadows as an example of deception is not accidental: these represent the way in which the senses can give us to understand something that is notan element that can only serve us to access the truth if we look in the direction in which its origin is.
This is, according to this philosopher, the state in which all people are by default, since in order to want to access the truth it is necessary to consciously propose it and go beyond comfortable and convenient explanations about what happens in reality.
2. Release phase of the chains
Leaving the area in which one is imprisoned is a necessary reaction to being truly wise, according to Plato, but is not the only one, nor is it sufficient to access true knowledge. It is only the first step, the sign that the world of shadows is no longer considered the only possible world.
3. Ascension phase
This is one of the most important parts in the myth of the cave, given that is composed of almost every effort and sacrifice required to access the truth.. As we shall see, this is a battle against oneself and the deceptions of the senses, based above all on introspection and the use of reason.
At the end of this route up through the cave until the exit is found, the liberated person enters the outside, the open air. There it is dazzled by the sunlight, which in contrast to the light emitted by the fire of the cave, represents the true, that which is not intended to create deception, but exists by itself.
At first, getting used to sunlight is painful, especially for someone accustomed to the darkness of the cave. However, in the end, he who has freed himself from the chains and ascended through the cave learns to be exposed to that clarity.
4. Return phase
So far, we have seen a process of liberation that is above all individual, personal in nature.
However, Plato sees in the Truth something that must be known by all, beyond the preferences and priorities of each one. Since the true exists, it must permeate all human consciousnesses.
That is why those who have freed themselves and left the cave must return to it to share their knowledge with others and encourage others to free themselves from chains and deception.
Its relationship with the Platonic philosophy
As we’ve seen, Plato clearly distinguishes between the false and the trueIn this allegory he attributes two different spaces to them, each relatively isolated from the other, but in which the truth is much greater and is not restricted to a very particular context, but embraces practically the whole of reality.
This division is characteristic of Platonic philosophy, which on many occasions has even come to be defined as dualism, in the sense that the world of the true, composed of existing ideas regardless of what the senses tell us, seems totally detached from the world of the sensory, as if they were two parallel dimensions.
However, we must not forget that this disconnection between the two is relative, given that for Plato the sensorial exists as an imperfect and manipulated reflection of the world of ideas: they do not have a similar relationship, in which each reality is hierarchically equivalent in their respective worlds, but the world of ideas is clearly superior to that of the deceptions of the senses.
On the other hand, we can also see how Plato relates the process of access to knowledge to a series of morally charged actionsThe following: to remain chained is bad, and to come out of the cave is good. This is another of the most important aspects of Platonic philosophy, since Plato, contrary to the sophists of Ancient Greece (whom this thinker strongly criticized), understands knowledge and goodness as practically indistinguishable entities, just as his mentor, Socrates, did previously.
These three ideas summarize the meaning of Plato’s cave allegory: the existence of a world that is far beyond the material, of what we can perceive sensorially, the subordination of the sensory world to the world of ideas, from which it emanates, and the moral need to access the truth by transcending the delusions of the senses.
- Elliott, R.K. (1967). Socrates and Plato’s Cave. Kant-Studien. 58 (2): 138.
- Jaeger, W.W. (2004). Paideia: the ideals of Greek culture. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
- Pojman, L. & Vaughn, L. (2011). Classics of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.