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An allegory, by definition, is a figurative mode of representation conveying a meaning other then the literal. An allegory is referred to as a figure of language but it does not need to be expressed this way. It can be expressed in pictures, sculptures, and other forms of art. The “Allegory of the Cave” is of that used by Plato within his work, The Republic. This work is examined by his student Socrates and is found to be related to Plato’s “Metaphor of the Sun” and “analogy of the divided line.”
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Plato’s Republic tries to illustrate the degrees in which our nature can be enlightened or unenlightened. Plato in a discussion with an acquaintance by the name Glaucon, urges him to imagine the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here the men have remained since childhood, chained by the leg and by the neck. The men cannot move and can only see what is in front of them. At a high distance up there is a light of a fire burning behind them, between said fire and the prisoners there is a parapet built along it. This is used to hide the performers who show their puppets along the top of the parapet. Behind the parapet, there are a number of people carrying various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone and various other materials. There objects are projected above the parapet. Some of the persons are talking while others remain silent.
According to Plato the prisoners confined would see nothing of themselves or others except for a bit of the cave shadows carried past. They would also only speak in reference to said shadows. In every way, the prisoners would recognize reality as nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects. Plato then asks us to consider what would happen if one of the prisoners was released from their chains and set free. That prisoner would be forced to have to stand up, walk upright, and walk with his eyes directed towards the light. All these movements would be painful to said prisoner. The prisoner would also be dazzled by all that existed in this “outside world” to notice what objects had been making the illusions and shadows all along. If someone told him that what he had formerly had seen was a meaningless illusion and was actually now nearer to reality then before, it would be extremely difficult for the prisoner to believe. If someone actually showed him the various objects being carried and told what each of them was, the prisoner would be perplexed and would probably believe that most of the objects shown to him were not real and what he formerly saw was.
Plato then goes on to detail what would happen if the prisoner had to look at the firelight itself. According to Plato, the prisoner’s eyes would ache and he would try to escape to the things he could see distinctly. The prisoner would then be convinced that they were clearer then those other objects being shown to him. Plato also addresses what would happen if the prisoner were to be dragged away forcibly up the steep and rugged ascent and would not be let go until he faced the sunlight. The prisoner would be so affected by his treatment that he would suffer pain and confusion. The prisoner would then be blinded by the light of the sun and would not be able to see any of the objects he was told were now existent and real.
The prisoner would need to grow accustomed before he could see things in the “upper world.” He would have to start small, viewing things such as shadows and reflections before he viewed more complex images such as that of sky, the light of the moon, and the stars. The prisoner would then move on to view the Sun and contemplate its existence. From examining it, the prisoner would then conclude that the Sun produces the seasons and the course of the year and controls everything in the visible world, and moreover it is the cause of all that he and his companions use to see. The prisoner would then consider his former fellow prisoners and he would surely think himself happy in the change and would feel sorry for them. The prisoners may have had a practice where they honored and commended one another, with a prize for the man who had the keenest eye for the passing of shadows and the best memory for the order in which they followed or accompanied one another, so that he could make a good guess as to which was going to come next. Plato questions whether the released prisoner would be likely to covet those prizes or to envy the men exalted to honor or power in the cave. Plato questions if the prisoner would be like Homer’s Achilles, and he would far sooner endure “being on earth as a hired servant in the house of a landless man” or endure anything rather then go back to his old beliefs and live in the old way.
Plato then goes on to imagine what would happen if the prisoner went down again to take his former place within the cave. The prisoner would be emerging from the sunlight into a cavern filled with darkness. He would possibly be required to give his opinion on shadows, in competition with the prisoners who had never been released, while his eyes were still dim and unsteady, since the prisoner has not yet accustomed himself to the light. The other prisoners would laugh at him and say that he had left only to come back with his eyesight damaged, this according to itself would caution them from attempting to escape the cave. If someone did try to free them, they would more then likely to lay hands upon said person and try to kill them.
Plato then goes on to explain several things. The prison-like cave corresponds to the region revealed to us through the sense of sight and the firelight within it is similar to the power of the sun. The ascent to see the things in the upper world would be similar to the upward journey of the soul into the intelligible world. According to Plato, this is what he feels to be true but only Heaven truly knows whether it is true. According to Plato, in the world of knowledge, the last thing to be perceived and with great difficultly is the essential Form of Goodness. Once it is perceived, the conclusions must follow that, for all things, this is the cause of whatever is right and good in the visible world it gives birth to light and to the lord of light, white it is itself sovereign in the intelligible world and the parent of intelligence and truth. Without having had a vision of this Form no one can act with wisdom, either in his own life or in matters of the state
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According to Plato, individuals who have reached this state are often reluctant to manage the affairs of men. Their souls long to spend all their time in the upper world. They would have a difficult time interpreting from larger affairs such as the contemplation of divine things as opposed to the miseries of normal human life. The sensible man will remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways, by the change from light to darkness or from darkness to light; he will recognize that the same thing happens to the soul. He will then notice that the soul faces such differences. The soul will have difficulty differentiating between good and evil. In essence, education is not what it is said to be by some it does not put knowledge into a soul which goes not possess it, on the contrary, the soul has every available capability to have the power of leaning the truth and the organ to see it with. In order for one’s eye to see light instead of darkness their entire soul must be turned away from the changing world until its eye can bear to contemplate reality and the supreme splendor which we have called the Good. Hence there may well be an art whose aim would be to affect this very thing, the conversion of the soul; this would ensure that the soul instead of looking in the wrong direction would face the way it ought to be. We as individuals have souls that tell us the difference between good and evil. Our conscience helps us in learning what is morally acceptable and what is ultimately not.
According to Plato, wisdom is the virtue of divine faculty, it never loses its power, its use for good or evil depends on which way it is turned. The use of wisdom, however, can be greatly harmful when it is used for evil. Plato then goes on to detail how a state cannot be properly governed by those who are uneducated. These people know nothing of the truth and cannot differentiate from what is good and what is inherently evil. It is up to the duty of philosophers to inform the public of what is good. Philosophers must teach other to make the journey towards wisdom. It is then that law can be property applied to ensure the welfare of the commonwealth as a whole. This will ultimately unite citizens in harmony; the community will share its rights and privileges as one. This will ultimately lead to a more united state. According to Plato, there is no real injustice in compelling philosophers to watch over and care for other citizens. Philosophers will have to act as teachers and mentors to ultimately secure the safety of a nation. Due to this, individuals will become more capable of being men of thought and men of action. Individuals would then be able to live with the rest of the world in “darkness.” The only difference is that they will be able to recognize every image for what it is and what it represents. These individuals will already be familiar with the concepts of justice, beauty, and goodness. Due to this, society would be more suitable to live in. Those in office or in power will understand the needs of their nation and of their people. According to Plato, this government will ultimately be based in truth. A true government is at its best and free only when its rulers understands the consequences of his actions, the needs of his people, and does not desire power and glory. The holding of ruler and power will only be viewed as an unavoidable necessity.
The truth, according to Plato, is that we can have a well-governed society only if our rulers discover that there is a better life then that of being in office. Then power will be in the hands of men who value happiness and a good wise life above everything else. What goes wrong in government is when individuals seek happiness and power from public affairs. These rulers seek about fighting for power, thus ruining themselves and their own country. The life of true philosophy is that only one that looks down upon offices of state, who does not seek power and who does not love the ability to rule. If this does not exist, then life is open to warfare and turmoil. Ultimately, the best life is that of one lead by someone who seeks the best principles of government. One who does not covet power or wealth. This will ultimately lead to a good life for the ruler and his nation, this in the end being the best reward of all.
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” explains to us how we as individuals are in a “lower realm” of knowledge. “The Allegory of the Cave” symbolizes this journey and how it would look to those still in a lower realm. Plato is saying that humans are all prisoners and that the tangible world is our cave. The things which we perceive as real are actually just shadows on a wall. Just as the escaped prisoner ascends into the light of the sun, we amass knowledge and ascend into the light of true reality, where ideas in our minds can help us understand the form of “The Good’”. This notion of “The Good” ultimately leads us to live successful lives that are based on knowledge, much like rulers who know what is needed to maintain the welfare of their nation. Knowledge is the greatest thing to have, according to Plato it is the basis for all things “good” within the universe.
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