Analyzing a particular philosophical concept, the reader might come to realize that philosophy is such an interpretive subject, which implementation can be applicable to different historical periods. The key factor is in taking specific excerpts more or less fitting into a different setting, in which the philosophical idea can be explained or used as an explanation. One form of representation, not limited to philosophy, is allegory.
Allegory can be understood as an expression of an abstract notion, through the usage of artistic images. In that regard, allegory can also be used to relate to contemporary issues, as the abstractness of the notion, or the concept, facilitates its application to a wide range of subjects. In that regard, a philosophical concept explained through allegory would be a perfect example showing the connection between ancient ideas and modern times, and in that sense, there are only a few allegories as famous as Plato’s allegory of the cave.
In the light of the aforementioned context, the present paper will attempt to explain Socrates’ statement that the prisoners in the cave from the allegory are “[l]ike ourselves” (Lawhead), providing a personal reflection on the way such similarity situations can be remedied in a contemporary context.
Summary of the Allegory
The allegory is taking a form of dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave in which people are imprisoned since their childhood, where their legs and necks are chained in such way that they see only the wall before them. Behind these people, on a raised ground, there is a fire, where men move statues and figures just like a puppet show, so that the prisoners in the cave see their shadows on the wall moving, and the echo of the men moving the statues sounds like the voice of the shadows on the wall. These shadows on the wall are the only thing the prisoners see since childhood, and accordingly they believe that is the way the real world look like. When one of the prisoners manages to free himself from the chains and climb out of the cave, the daylight blinds him causing him to suffer a great pain, after which he could not see even the shadows on the wall. As his eyes got used to the light, his vision becomes clearer and he was able to see the world, and comprehend that the objects he previously conceived as the real world were merely shadows.
Socrates explained that if such person would come back to tell other prisoners of the real world, his eyes which got accustomed to the light will no longer be able to see the shadows on the wall, and if there was a competition on recognizing and measuring the shadows he will certainly fail to compete with the others. In that regard, the prisoners will refuse to follow him up, as they will assume that they will come back losing their sight, just like he did, and might even put him to death for such attempt to destroy their common perception of the world.
Although Plato’s allegory might have many interpretations and different contexts, the main idea can be seen through the representation of two worlds, or two realities, one of which is the real one, while other realities transcends from them and are perceived based on subjective experiences.
In that regard, the first comparison that can be made between the prisoners in the cave and people in ordinary society can be seen through the way people are attached to the reality to which they are taught since childhood. All around the world and through all historical periods, people perceive the reality to which they were born and taught, and which accordingly is believed to be the only true reality. People raised in villages, which they never left, will perceive the rest of the world to be just like their village. Indigenous people in the new world believed that the only existing reality is their reality, in which the culture, the religion, the creation, and other aspects are perceived through “the wall” they were chained to look on. In that regard, even in a modern context, groups, communities, nations, cultures, and religions, are a representation of caves of varying sizes, in which each group of people watches their own statues and figures reflected by their own wall.
In that regard, it can be said that the remedies are accordingly the same in the allegory and in real life, where in order for the people to acknowledge the existence of wider reality, they have to unchain themselves, and look in other directions. Similarly, searching for the ultimate truth and reality, people make certain efforts that start with questioning the reality they live in. In the a modern context, the process of education can be seen as one of such efforts, where people at childhood are absolutely convinced of certain subjects, or only know little about them, then after questioning and learning, they either acquire a more complete knowledge or abandon the old one and acquire new. Accordingly, just like in the cave, the process of remedy can be seen through exchanging the experience, where the prisoners speaking with the man coming form the outside can be paralleled to the way people travel, and communicate in order to change their usual perception of the world.
Another area of comparison between the prisoners in the cave and the people can be seen through the indicated blindness and pain accompanying the process of coming out of the cave and seeing the real world. The blindness in the allegory and the blindness in real life are not identical, where in the latter it is not a physical impairment, but rather a representation of the process of frustration, where the new knowledge prevents people from seeing the previous convenient truth. The process more resembles an intermediate state, where people are not able to perceive their world as before, but at the same time they do not see the new reality yet. There are numerous examples of the pain that can be inflicted at the stages of acquiring the truth. These examples can range from the simplest one, such as the pain that can be received, when the child acknowledges that the fire can hurt, to more complex examples, such as the death of scientists by the inquisition in the name of their inventi0ons and discoveries. In that regard, the example of the Italian scientists Galileo Galilei, whose main contributions included supporting the belief that the sun is the centre of the universe (Wilde), can represent the man coming out of the cave, frustrated by the knowledge, and then killed because of his attempt to convince the rest of the prisoners of the truth.
The remedy for such situation is evident and logical. Similar to the cave, the gradual ascending g to the light, can be represented in real life by the stages at which people learn. In that regard, it can be seen that different systems of education mostly represent such concept, where the process of learning starts from the basics, and gradually extends to include more complex topics. The same can be applied to teaching other people, where telling the whole truth can be painful, and thus, the teaching process should be taken in a gradual manner as well.
The last area of comparison, can be seen in the preference of the majority of people for the non-physical reality. In that regard, it can be assumed that some of the prisoners in the cave might have been convinced that the there is an outer real world, but nevertheless, they preferred the convenient reality they lived in. Similarly, it can be seen that television and the media in general, are presenting such a spectacle of shadows, comparing to which the real world seems as pale alternative. People since their childhood are chained to the television, and they want to live in this created reality, although they are aware that it is not real.
Accordingly, the last situation can be seen as the hardest to remedy, as people will always prefer the reality that is the most convenient to them. In that regard, the only approach that should be taken is drawing a clear distinction between the two, so that the fictional reality does not overwhelm the real world.
It can be concluded that the presentation of the similarities between the prisoners in the cave and the people in real world demonstrate, not only the nature of knowledge which did not change through the time, but also the fact that people’s perception of this knowledge is almost the same. Thus, it can be said that there are still many cave s in our times, and accordingly many prisoners, who prefer to watch the shadows on the wall, than coming out to the light.
Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey : An Interactive Approach. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006. Print.
Lawhead, William F. The Voyage of Discovery : A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed: Cengage Learning, 2007. Print.
Wilde, Megan. “Galileo and the Inquisition”. 1995. The Galileo Project. Web.