The Allegory of the Cave is one of the most striking metaphorical examples ever written by a philosopher. In it, we can find enclosed the entire philosophy of Plato and Socrates. The Cave is an allegory about the way people construct the reality surrounding them. Knowledge acquirement is one of the key points made during the allegory. In fact, knowledge acquirement and its methodology is the core of Socratic epistemology (Watt, 4).
The allegory is based on irony regarding the way people evaluate the reality outside them. Thus, Socrates raises the problem of knowledge in this allegory as a fundamental problem for the human race. He points out the flaws of the existing method of acquiring knowledge and proposes its own methodology. Socrates is more concerned about the acquiring of knowledge in the form of wisdom instead of knowledge in the form of information. During the allegory he repeatedly insists that information about “how things seem to be, is not the true nature of knowledge” (Watt, 17).
‘Enlightenment’ in the modern educational system
The purpose of an educational system according to Socrates is to:
- Attain self-knowledge. A human being can be deemed educated when he/she knows himself/herself. That is wisdom for Socrates.
- Promote and enhance moral good of the person.
“The acquisition of knowledge is valuable for man because it makes him virtuous and happy. Socrates repudiated any ornamental theory of knowledge. In similar fashion Socrates would deplore the use of knowledge merely for material success in life. Knowledge is ethically and morally important for all men.” (Watt, 15)
- Education should promote skills in thinking and not just repetition.
“Each man must develop his skill in critically appraising propositions through the reasoning process.” (Watt, 16)
From the above mentioned criteria we can understand that Socrates would have been opposed to the format of the modern educational system. This is symbolized in the allegory of the Cave by the people in chains who are obliged to see only the shadows of the objects that the guardians have. Thus, they learn only what the guardians show them. They have no possibility of evaluating themselves the objects, not see them ‘in light’. Socrates believed that self education is the only way that a human being can achieve true knowledge. People do not have to go to an institution to be taught about the reality of things. Instead they should be taught how themselves should ponder and reflect on the reality of things.
For Socrates what you learn form a teacher or a professor in an educational institution is ordinary knowledge. It is not that this type of knowledge is futile and not worthy, but it does not give the possessor of said knowledge any expertise or wisdom worth mentioning (Watt, 23). It is only the enlightenment of the self reflective individual which will allow him to gain knowledge worth of mentioning.
The enlightenment is symbolized by the individual who manages to get off the chains and go outside of the cave. The hurting of his eyes from the light of the sun demonstrates that wisdom and true knowledge can be achieved with sacrifices. Nevertheless, that person does not surrender and begins to see shadows at first, because he was used to see only them in the cave.
Socrates is teaching us the methodology how we can move from ‘ordinary knowledge’ that one gets on university campuses, to the ‘real knowledge’. It is a gradual process which begins with gathering of information, seeing the shadows until your eyes get accustomed with light. The role that every teacher should have is to direct its students toward this path, according to Socrates. Thus, the role of education is to guide the individual toward internal enlightenment. But the modern educational system does not function on this basis. Instead, our educational system and institutions tend to ‘bombard’ the individual with information regarding the reality of objects in the world. That is to induce to the individual what is the reality of things; a reality which is constructed not by the individual himself but by the educational policy and curricula the institution has. In Socratic terms, that is to show shadows for objects to the individual.
A final characteristic of modern education is that it does not accept that an individual can acquire knowledge through the process of enlightenment. In the allegory of the Cave the free individual was ridiculed from his former companions when he returned to tell them about what he saw outside the cave. The problem with the modern educational system is that it does not accept that there can be any other source of knowledge other than the rational faculty.
The process of enlightenment as described in the allegory of the cave, goes beyond the rational faculty and rational method of modern science (Watt, 34).
In conclusion, we can say that the modern educational system is quite different from what Socrates envisioned the role education should have for the human race. In fact, Plato points out at the allegory of the cave that society, the majority of people, will refute and ridicule the ‘way of the philosopher’, the way to true knowledge and wisdom.
Watt, Stephen. “Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5-7)”, Plato: Republic, London: Wordsworth Editions, 1997.