A Summary and Analysis of Themes in “The Allegory of the Cave”
The Allegory of the Cave is considered as one of Plato's most outstanding philosophical works. It seeks to compare the impact of education and the lack of it on our nature. It has been written as a dialogue between Glaucon, Plato's brother, and Socrates, his mentor. The discussion was narrated by Socrates, who, via a parable, seeks to demonstrate a concept on how one can gain wisdom, knowledge and "consider the essential form of goodness" (Plato & Jowett 2017). Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine prisoners trapped in a cave since birth, surrounded by total darkness and chained to limit their movements and force them to only look at the wall in front of them so that that's all they know.
Further, he asked Glaucon to envision a fire lit behind them with a puppet stage in front of the fire. This technique allowed other people to project shadow figures on the wall before the prisoners to recreate the different kinds of animals, objects, and people from outside the cave-prison in the form of shadows. Rhetorically, he asked if the prisoners would take these shadows as the only depiction of these objects' existence since they don't understand that they were shadows and representations of objects. In this case, the shadows would be what they know as the real representation of things rather than the right items they had yet to see. Glaucon goes ahead to ask what would happen if one of the prisoners was freed and finally had the chance to see the light. In paragraph 15, line 5, Glaucon notes that the prisoner would likely be too overwhelmed to identify objects whose shadows he had been used to seeing (Plato & Jowett 2017). He would also believe that the shadows he saw were more real than the actual figures and objects. The sight of fire would be too painful, and he would likely turn back towards the familiar darkness.
In this case, in paragraph 21, Socrates suggests slowly exposing them to the "shadows," then images of men and water reflections and finally the things themselves. Using his imagination, he concludes the parable by envisioning the prisoner re-enter the cave where his eyes will be filled with darkness, and the other prisoners would not believe him. The latter would think he is blind and try to kill him if he tried to set them free. The rest of "The Allegory of the Cave" focuses on Socrates clarifying the parable while talking to Glaucon. He associates the cave's darkness with visual boosts, fire like the sun, and the outside world as "the upward trajectory of the soul into the place of the coherent" (paragraph 31, line 5). This is the land of knowledge, and the one thing perceived with difficulty is the concept of goodness. Socrates ends the parable with the perception that influential leaders are not only wise but also acknowledge that the act of ruling is a burden since "access to power must not be entrusted to individuals who love it."
Themes in "The Allegory of the Cave"
In "The Allegory of the Cave," human beings cannot obtain proper understanding since real knowledge can only be achieved through a philosophical approach and reasoning. For instance, the prisoners have spent their lives in a cave with shadows as their only view. In their opinion, the shadows are reality. In the cases where the prisoner escapes and realizes that life comes from the sun, he understands that his initial outlook of existence, according to human perception, was unjustified. Based on "The Allegory of the Cave," human perspectives are biased since they will directly or indirectly exercise individual biases on what they observe within their surroundings.
Additionally, human beings will view the same objects and make different conclusions from their observations. Based on Socrates's parable and hypothetical situations, it is evident that human behavior is influenced by individual beliefs and the overall outlook of their environment. According to Plato & Jowett (2017), when another prisoner on the outside releases the other prisoners, they would even get angry, citing disturbance since they have been accustomed to their surroundings such that change becomes impossible. After the prisoners have spent their time in the outside world, they understand the differences between "shadows” and reality.
The Cave allegory is defined by humans' acceptance of conventional situations and his reluctance to explore and discover various ways of living and thinking. In paragraph 1, line 1, Socrates states that "here is a parable to demonstrate the extent to which our nature can be enlightened or unenlightened" (Plato & Jowett, 2017). In this regard, knowledge, wisdom, and discernment are critical factors in "The Allegory of the Cave." Enlightenment is associated with physical light and the ability to see. This is because the prisoners are trapped in darkness; a representation of the ignorance of the reality. Hence, turning the light; first, the fire and the outside world allowed them to perceive the proper form of objects.
In "The Allegory of the Cave," enlightenment is neither easy nor comfortable. Socrates notes that "with knowledge, the last thing to be acknowledged with difficulty is the essential Form of Goodness." This difficulty is also evident when the prisoner is exposed to light for the first time. Plato's work shows man's aversion towards intellectual and societal changes via resistance or ignorance. The theme of enlightenment is symbolic of the present society. Human beings are afraid of change since they are accustomed to certain beliefs. This is why Socrates recommends gradual transitions to allow individuals to adapt to their new realities.
The philosopher-king is the final stage that recognizes the Form of Goodness. This is symbolic of the sun, which gives the prisoner light to see everything facilitating understanding of all forms. Since birth, the prisoners who lived in the caves view the truth as the movement of shadows along the wall, which they assume is real. Socrates equates the visible aspects of the world to the cave. According to Plato & Jowett (2017), the prisoners' journey towards freedom is similar to the journey of the soul to the world of new concepts and Form of Goodness. Education is viewed as the process of changing peoples' mindsets (how the prisoner in the cave turned around to the light) and encouraging people to search in the right place for knowledge. The philosopher is taught to realize the Form of Goodness, then return to the cave, the world of Belief, and enlighten others. Hence, understanding is the ultimate goal of "The Allegory of the Cave."
Plato., & Jowett, B. (2017). The allegory of the cave. [Place of publication not identified]: Enhanced Media.