In Plato’s most famous book, The Republic. It tells of Socrates talking to a follower of his Glaucon and is telling him what it’s like to be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom because most people, including ourselves, live in a world of relative ignorance where most people are imprisoned by their misperception that the shadows are the true world. We are comfortable with that ignorance because it is all we know. Plato realizes that the general run of humankind can think, and speak, without any awareness of his realm of Forms.

The allegory of the cave is supposed to explain the journey from the ignorance of the cave to the knowledge and understanding of the world, it also shows the difficulty of becoming a philosopher. In the allegory, Plato likens people to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads, all they can see is the wall of the cave, behind them burns a vivid fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a bridge, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave.

The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, they see the puppets as ‘real’ objects, actually believing that if the object is a cat, it is a real cat. Plato’s analogy of the cave emphasises the difference between the appearance of the world (inside the cave) and the reality behind this appearance (the outside world) each feature within the analogy develops this contrast so as to convince the reader of the importance of making the effort to discover reality. The people in the cave are everyday people who think they are seeing real things when they are only seeing the shadows of things and they have not yet discovered true knowledge.

What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. These prisoners would mistake appearance for reality, they would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows, which shows the prisoners ignorance of the real world because they believe that inanimate objects are real. They have been deceived by what they see into believing that there is nothing beyond the shadow play, which for them is the full extent of reality.

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So when the prisoners talk, they are not actually talking about a ‘real’ object but just the appearance of what they think is a real object. If an object (eg. a cat) is carried past behind them, and it casts a shadow on the wall, and a prisoner says “I see a cat,” (s)he thinks (s)he is talking about a cat, but (s)he is really talking about a shadow but (s)he uses the word “book. ” Plato’s point is that the prisoners would be mistaken, as they would be taking the terms in their language to refer to the shadows that pass before their eyes, rather than (as is correct, in Plato’s view) to the real things that cast the shadows.

Plato turns from the senses and begins to investigate the realm of ideas. The realm of appearance (what you see) only contains opinion and error, knowledge is only possible in the Realm of Ideas. If a prisoner says “That’s a cat” (s)he thinks that the word “cat” refers to the very thing (s)he is looking at. But (s)he would be wrong, they’re only looking at a shadow. The real version of the word “cat” (s)he cannot see, to see it (s)he would have to turn his/her head around. Plato’s point is that the rules of our language are not “names” of the physical objects that we can see.

They are actually names of things that we cannot see, things that we can only grasp with the mind. When the prisoners are released, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. Plato emphasises that this journey is painful and confusing because it involves rejecting everything that is familiar, like the prisoner we are dazzled and fridgtened by reality. We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds, Plato’s aim is to describe what is necessary for us to achieve a complete understanding, but even without it, it remains true that our very ability to think and to speak depends on the Forms.

We use their meaning by “naming” the Forms that the objects we think they are. The prisoners may learn what a book is by their experience with shadows of cats. But they would be mistaken if they thought that the word “cat” refers to something that any of them has ever seen because they’re shadows. We may also acquire concepts by our experience of physical objects. But we would be mistaken if we thought that the concepts that we think were on the same level as the things we see. The cave is the world as we see it, a distortion of the truth. It is distorted by our refusal or inability to pursue philosophically the journey to truth.

The journey out of the cave is a difficult philosophical journey to the truth. When those who have seen the truth return to persuade others, they think the others are fools due to their restricted perceptions. Throughout Plato’s analogy of the cave the idea that we live in an imperfect world is explored throughout. Plato believed that we live in an imperfect world and that there is another world called the Realm of Forms. The Realm of Forms is where every ‘form’ (eg a circle) is completely perfect, but in our ‘imperfect’ world the circle would never be completely perfect, therefore it is imperfect.

Plato argued that people were wrong and ignorant to believe that this ‘imperfect’ world was the only world that existed because the forms were never perfect. Whereas in the Realm of Forms every Form was perfect and the idea of each perfect Form had to come from somewhere, the Realm of forms. As knowledge is only possible in the Realm of ideas the Philosopher (ex-prisoner) does not remain in the world of ideas, but comes back to his fellow men (prisoners in the cave) and tries to show them that the world of truth awaits them if they will only listen to him and follow him, but instead the prisoners try to kill their old colleague in the cave.

Plato does not take experience into account” Plato believed that the reason we knew of “Forms” and how we can relate to the appearance of things and know what they are is because we went to the realm of Forms before coming into this life and Plato reckoned that we came into this world knowing all the forms. Central to Plato’s “Theory of Forms” is the belief that the world we see around us, and observe with our senses, is not the true world. He theorised that the abstract world of the Forms, and not the material and physical world we live in, is the highest form of reality.

He felt that true knowledge could only be attained through reasoning, and never through experience. Plato did not value any experience of the physical world, as he believed that the senses were easily tricked, and so, as shown in his Allegory of the Cave, we could be fooled into thinking that the “Cave” of the physical world, is the ultimate reality. Experience is the observing, encountering, or undergoing of things, generally as they occur in the course of time. This explains why Plato would dismiss experience as either useless or not to be trusted.

He did not believe that, as humans, anything we “observe” through the use of our senses, could be taken as definite fact. It would be absurd to suggest that experience in the physical world is meaningless, because we all live fulfilled lives and would point towards how all scientific discoveries of the past all came about through sensory experience, and have since improved the quality and length of our lives and the way we live (technology) giving us more time to devote to what Plato would call “The Meaning of Life,” understanding the Form of the Good.

Therefore, it could be said that sensory experience is above our efforts to discover the Good, and it could be said in the case of Plato, where it was his experience of the death of Socrates, that drove him to a life of Philosophy and toward the discovery of the Forms and fundamental knowledge.


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