Philosophical Explorations I
Plato’s “myth of the cave”
In Book 7 of The Republic, Plato presents an interesting allegory known as “the myth of the cave.” In this myth, Socrates (Plato’s teacher) tells Glaucon to imagine a cave in which a group of people are chained and are forced to always face a wall at the back of the cave. A fire is burning behind these prisoners, and another group of people constantly walks back and forth between them and the fire, carrying various objects that represent the things of the natural world.
Since the prisoners cannot turn their heads, they are only able to see the shadows on the wall in front of them. These prisoners believe that they are seeing the only reality that exists, even though they are actually seeing “nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects” (Plato
Socrates continues by telling Glaucon to imagine that one of the prisoners is freed and is made to stand up and turn around. As Socrates points out, this prisoner’s first reaction will be to experience confusion, fright and even pain (because he is not used to facing the blinding light of the fire). Socrates goes on to describe the prisoner being dragged outside the cave, where he is made to see all the real objects of nature as shown by the light of the sun. After the prisoner becomes accustomed to his new surroundings, he will begin to understand that the cave where he
formerly lived was merely an “appearance,” or illusion, as opposed to being the true “reality.”
As Socrates says, the prisoner would then feel pity for those still trapped inside the cave, and when he returned he would try to tell them about the truth of reality he has experienced.
However, the prisoners in the cave would end up pitying him because his eyes would then be adjusted to the light instead of the darkness and they would assume that his sight had been ruined by his journey outside the cave (Plato 517a). As Socrates points out, the man’s fellow prisoners might even look upon him as being crazy or dangerous because of his strange point of view.
This myth has an important message which applies to the contemporary world as much as it did to the world of ancient Greece that Plato lived in. The way of thinking that is expressed in the myth is based on the view that the material (or sensual) world is only part of the “Big
Picture.” Furthermore, it is based on the view that the material world is only an “appearance” and that the world beyond the senses is the “real” world. As Flew notes, Plato’s way of thinking on this subject is known as “Idealism,” a philosophical perspective that continues to exist today
(although, of course, not everyone agrees with it). According to Idealism, ultimate reality is to be found in an eternal, unchanging immaterial world, not in the visible, everchanging world that we commonly regard as “reality.” Thus, in the words of Flew, Idealism is the view of “those who consider our everyday world of common sense and common experience to be less real and less important than some other and immaterial sphere” (Flew 66).
Plato’s views on this subject are also embodied in his Theory of Forms (or Ideas).
According to this theory, “every temporal object in the world... is the copy of an eternal idea that exists in the mind of God” (Thomas 100). In other words, individual people, animals, objects and qualities are all imperfect copies of “Ideal Forms” that exist beyond the material world.
Clegg describes this theory by noting that the things of nature are works of “divine art,” as created by God (Clegg 49). In the myth of the cave, the concept of God is allegorized by the sun. When the prisoner is dragged outside the cave, he comes to realize that the sun makes the plants grow and causes the changes of the seasons; furthermore, the sun causes everything to be visible. The sun even enables