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The Allegory of the Cave is a story from Book VII in Plato’s, a Greek philosopher, “The Republic,” written in B.C.E. 517. It is one of Plato’s best-known stories. Many would say its placement in “The Republic” is significant because it is the centerpiece of Plato’s philosophy. “The Republic” is overall concerned with how people acquire knowledge about justice, beauty, and good. The Allegory of the Cave uses the metaphor of prisoners chained in the dark to explain the difficulties of reaching and sustaining a just and intellectual spirit. Plato’s the Allegory of the Cave is a piece that has been much correlated and touched on by many in in analytical, societal, and political ways.
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As the Allegory of the Cave has been around since about 380 BC, many people, scholars, and analytical criticists have dissected and summarized the text. The allegory is set forth in a dialogue as a conversation between Socrates and his disciple Glaucon. Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Inside of the cave there are three prisoners tied to rocks with their arms and legs bound and their heads tied. They cannot look at anything but the stone wall in front of them. Behind them there is a fire, between them a raised walkway, and people outside of the cave walk along carrying various things on their heads. They cannot look at anything behind or to the side of them, they can only see the wall in front of them. They have never seen the any real objects before, so they believe the shadows of the objects are real. One prisoner escaped and he became shocked at the world when he is out, he cannot believe that any of it is real. He eventually adjusts and realizes that his former reality was wrong. He sees that the sun is the source of life and goes on an intellectual journey where he discovers the true beauty and meaning of life. The sun represents knowledge and philosophical truth that the escapee finds.
When he returns to inform the other prisoners of his findings, they do not believe him. They threaten to kill him if he sets them free because this is the only way of life that they know. I think that this represents that people fear philosophers and do not trust them because they would rather stick to what is familiar to them. I think that the benefit to re-entering the cave is trying to enlighten others. He / she has escaped and discovered a whole new way of thinking. Going back to the people he used to know and trying to fill them in is important. This is how the story represents philosophy because the escapee has discovered a new truth and wants to share it with others.
There have been many descriptions and summaries of this popular story, but what is even more interesting are the different takes and connections that people make to the Allegory of the Cave. One I found quite interesting was, “Escaping the Cave: On Film, Reality, and Civic Education” by Patrick J. Deneen. Patrick J. Deneen is an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. He is the author of The Odyssey of Political Theory as well as essays on ancient and American political thought. In his article Deneen discusses the use of motion pictures as a mechanism for people to escape reality. He explains how in the Allegory of the Cave, Plato has created an image that almost all modern humans are familiar with, going to the movies. When we visit the movies, we walk down long nondescript hallways and sit in chamber like rooms. Inside these rooms we sit in rows with all our heads faced forwards and a light is projected onto a screen from behind us. For the time we sit in this “cave,” onlookers suspend doubt, believing what we see to be real, often to the point of pure happiness or tears. Or to the point of terror and absolute fear. As Deneen states, “The cave Socrates describes is a place from
which all should desire to escape. The modern movie theater is a place we frequently elect to escape to” (Deneen, 2002). For many, the movie theater exemplifies an illusion in some respects more real than unattractive daily realities they face. It is interesting how the roles have been reversed modern day. In the story, the prisoners believe everything that is in front of them because it is all they know. Today, even with all that we have discovered and learned; we choose to escape through false realities such as movies. Connected to this Deneen states, “We enjoy being able to live in another world for short periods of time We thus watch a projected image about projected images that come to life and enter our reality, although that reality is in fact only an image on a screen” (Deneen, 2002). As a society, we have become wrapped up in many unimportant / noncrucial things, such as movies and television, because it is a form of escape. It is now a way of relaxation and distraction from the very real things going on around us. I love how Deneen connected this to how society acts today. It is almost as if we have come so far past the notion of knowledge and enlightenment, that we would rather choose to escape than face what is in front of us. Overall, I enjoyed the author’s take on the Allegory of the Cave and thought his connections to modern times was brilliant.
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Another take on the Cave is a political influenced view. The very beginning of The Republic, the political themes of liberation and of Socrates’s trial appear large, and then connect those judicial themes back to the Cave’s imagery. The Cave represents the visible realm and the world outside the cave represents the actual comprehensible realm. Many, including Hannah Arendt (philosopher and political theorist), argue that the Cave is not comparing the visible and the comprehensible, but the natural and political. Through the image of the Cave Plato expresses his critique of Athenian society and politics. The cave itself is a metaphor for the city. Plato is making a political statement about the effects that corrupt cultures have on the philosophical mind. The Allegory of the Cave incorporates the political theme of Socrates’s trial in the description of the response of the prisoners to the return of the released prisoner to the cave. As Arendt states, “The returning philosopher is in danger because he has lost the common sense needed to orient himself in a world common to all, and, moreover, because what he harbors in his thought contradicts the common sense of the world” (Arendt, 1990). These prisoners, as he said, would kill the returning escapee for attempting to reveal to them the truth and the extent of their ignorance. Socrates also suggests that the prisoners are like people in courts who contend about shadows of justice, which reinforces the allegory’s connection to judicial themes. What Socrates seems to be saying is that for a philosopher to reach to the intelligible realm, he must look at the visible realm with eyes uncorrupted by the destructive cultural influences of the city. The statement is thus, once againpolitical. Arendt states, “If they want to look at things as they really are, they must turn around, that is, change their position because, as we saw before, every doxa depends and corresponds to one’s position in the world” (Arendt, 1990). Only by stepping out of the political dynamics of the city can the philosopher engage in the type of examination that will eventually lead to the logical world. The philosophically inclined soul must refrain itself from politics until it has reached the “enlightened” stage that can allow it to return to the cave in order to govern it with justice. The Allegory of the Cave’s purpose is to discover in the realm of philosophy those standards which are appropriate for a city of cave dwellers, to be sure, but still for inhabitants who, though darkly and ignorantly, have formed their opinions concerning the same matters as the philosopher.
Overall, The Allegory of the Cave from Book VII in Plato’s, “The Republic,” is one of Plato’s best-known stories. Since it is the centerpiece of Plato’s philosophy, many would say its placement in “The Republic” is significant. Due to the use of the metaphor of prisoners chained in the dark to explain the difficulties of reaching and sustaining a just and intellectual spirit, it is a piece that has been much correlated and touched on by many in in analytical, societal, and political ways.
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