Plato was born in Athens, Greece, around 429 B.C. He was expected to become a politician by his family but he chose not to for two reasons and took the road of philosophy and mathematics. The first reason was the Peloponnesian War where he found out that some of his relatives were part of a dictatorship and were removed for corruption. The second reason was the death of Socrates who was the biggest influence in Plato’s life. Socrates was executed by the new Athenian government. Plato started writing and became a philosopher. He studied under Pythagoras in Sicily. After returning from there, he founded The Academy, a place where he and other people discussed philosophy and mathematics to come to better conclusions.
Plato’s allegory of the cave proves the power of reasoning over the senses. Personal human experiences will not amount to the truth. Proper philosophical reasoning is the only way to find the truth. To understand his allegory of the cave, you first need to understand his theory of forms. So Plato states that reality exists on two specific levels. First is the visible world which has sight and sound. Second is the intelligible world which gives the visible world its being. For example, when a person sees an ugly face he’s quickly able to identify its ugliness of it. Because in his mind he has an idea of ugly that allows him to point out ugly. He was able to spot the ugliness because he has an abstract idea of what ugliness is. The current state of that ugly face might change in the future because everything keeps changing in the visible world but the form of beauty, ugly etc is eternal and never changes. This is the theory of forms.
Coming onto the theory of caves, The allegory of caves was a conversation between Socrates and Plato’s brother, Glaucon. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a world where illusion is believed to be reality. To prove his point further, he asks him to imagine a scenario where there’s a cave and 3 people are locked up inside the cave since their birth. Their necks and legs are chained and cannot escape from the cave. They can only see what is in front of them. Behind and above the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and prisoners, there is a low wall from where people walk with objects in their heads. Now, these prisoners can only see the shadow of the object and therefore they believe the shadow to be the real form of the object. Because the prisoners have never been exposed to real objects, they start to believe that the real form of that object looks like a shadow. If a shadow of a hammer were to appear, they’d believe the shadow of the hammer to be the real hammer. They are not saying that it’s a shadow because in their reality no shadows exist. They think it’s an actual hammer. One of the prisoners will eventually be able to understand the nature of this illusionary world and would be able to guess what shadow will come next. This will lead to him being praised by the other 2 prisoners.
Suppose, one of the prisoners is set free. He escapes the cave and gets to see the world. He gets angry and frustrated after seeing the real world because he believes the cave illusion to be his reality. When his reality is disproved, he becomes angry, sad and frustrated because he is now forced to believe something else and step out of his comfort zone. Eventually, he’ll be able to make sense of what he has seen and accept that the cave illusion was not his reality. He has now accepted that his past was based on a lie and that is not the way he should perceive things going ahead because he has now found out that it was all an illusion. He goes back to the cave to tell the other prisoners about the real world. When he tells them whatever he has witnessed, they don’t believe him and threaten to kill him if he tries to free them. They are so comfortable in their fake reality that they don’t even want to make the effort of exploring a new possibility because that might lead them out of their comfort zone and face chaos. People mistake what is in front of them as reality and choose to live in ignorance. And when parts of the truth start to emerge in front of their eyes, they get frightened. Because that threatens their ignorant reality. However, a person who pays attention to these flashes of truth and is open to the idea of exploration will always have a better understanding of the world around him. Always aim for reasoning rather than simply believing what seems easy to believe.
*I was influenced to write this article after coming across the book Philosophy 101 by Paul Kleinman*