The Myth Of Plato’s Cave (meaning And History Of This Allegory)

A metaphor that tries to explain the double reality that we perceive.

Plato’s myth of the cave  is one of the great allegories of idealistic philosophy that has so marked the way of thinking of Western cultures.

Understanding it means knowing the styles of thought that for centuries have been dominant in Europe and America, as well as the foundations of Plato’s theories. Let’s see what it consists of.

Plato and his myth of the cave

This myth is an allegory of the theory of ideas proposed by Plato, and appears in the writings that are part of the book The Republic. It is, basically, the description of a fictional situation that helped to understand the way in which Plato conceived the relationship between the physical and the world of ideas, and how we move through them.

Plato begins by talking about some men who remain chained to the depths of a cave since their birth, never having been able to leave it and, in fact, without the ability to look back to understand the origin of those chains. 

Thus, they always remain looking at one of the walls of the cave, with the chains clinging to them from behind. Behind them, at a certain distance and placed somewhat above their heads, there is a bonfire that illuminates the area a little, and between it and the chained ones there is a wall, which Plato equates to the tricks carried out by cheats and tricksters. so that their tricks are not noticed. 

Between the wall and the fire there are other men who carry with them objects that protrude above the wall, so that their shadow is projected on the wall that the chained men are contemplating. In this way, they see the silhouette of trees, animals, mountains in the distance, people who come and go, etc.

Lights and shadows: the idea of ​​living in a fictional reality

Plato maintains that, as bizarre as the scene may be, those chained men he describes resemble us human beings, since neither they nor we see more than those fallacious shadows, which simulate a deceptive and superficial reality. This fiction projected by the light of the bonfire distracts them from reality: the cave in which they remain chained.

However, if one of the men were to free himself from the chains and look back, he would be confused and annoyed by reality : the firelight would cause him to look away, and the blurred figures he might see would seem less real than the ones he could see. shadows you’ve seen all your life. Similarly, if someone were to force this person to walk in the direction of the fire and past it until they were out of the cavern, the sunlight would bother them even more, and they would want to return to the dark area. 

To be able to capture reality in all its details, you would have to get used to it, spend time and effort to see things as they are without giving in to confusion and annoyance. However, if at some point he returned to the cave and met the men in chains again, he would remain blind from lack of sunlight. Similarly, anything he could say about the real world would be met with scorn and scorn.

The myth of the cave today

As we have seen, the myth of the cave brings together a series of very common ideas for idealistic philosophy: the existence of a truth that exists independently of the opinions of human beings, the presence of constant deceptions that make us stay away from it. truth, and the qualitative change involved in accessing that truth: once it is known, there is no going back.

These ingredients can also be applied to day-to-day life, specifically to the way in which the media and hegemonic opinions shape our points of view and our way of thinking without our realizing it. Let’s see how the phases of Plato’s cave myth can correspond to our current lives:

1. Tricks and lies

The deceptions, which can arise from a willingness to keep others with little information or from a lack of scientific and philosophical progress, would embody the phenomenon of shadows that parade along the wall of the cave. In Plato’s perspective, this deception is not exactly the fruit of someone’s intention, but the consequence that material reality is only a reflection of the true reality: that of the world of ideas.

One of the aspects that explain why the lie has such an impact on the life of the human being is that, for this Greek philosopher, it is composed of what seems evident from a superficial point of view. If we have no reason to question something, we do not, and its falsehood prevails.

2. Liberation

The act of breaking free from the chains would be the acts of rebellion that we usually call revolutions, or paradigm shifts. Of course, it is not easy to rebel, since the rest of the social dynamic goes in the opposite direction.

In this case it would not be a social revolution, but an individual and personal one. On the other hand, liberation means seeing how many of the most internalized beliefs falter, which produces uncertainty and anxiety. To make this state disappear, it is necessary to continue advancing in the sense of discovering new knowledge. It is not possible to stay without doing anything, according to Plato.

3. The ascension

Ascension to the truth would be a costly and uncomfortable process that involves letting go of deeply held beliefs. For this reason, it is a great psychological change that is reflected in the renunciation of old certainties and the opening to the truths, which for Plato are the foundation of what really exists (both in us and around us).

Plato took into account that people’s past conditions the way in which they experience the present, and that is why he assumed that a radical change in the way of understanding things had to necessarily lead to discomfort and discomfort. In fact, this is one of the ideas that is clear in his way of illustrating that moment through the image of someone trying to get out of a cave instead of sitting still and who, upon reaching the outside, receives the blinding light of the room. reality.

4. The return

The return would be the last phase of the myth, which would consist of the dissemination of new ideas, which, because they are shocking, can generate confusion, contempt or hatred for calling into question basic dogmas that structure society. 

However, as for Plato the idea of ​​truth was associated with the concept of good and good, the person who has had access to authentic reality has a moral obligation to make other people free themselves of ignorance, and therefore he has to spread his knowledge.

In the same way as his teacher, Socrates, Plato believed that social conventions about what is appropriate behavior are subordinate to the virtue that comes from reaching true knowledge. Therefore, although the ideas of those who return to the cave are shocking and generate attacks by others, the mandate to share the truth forces them to confront these old lies.

This last idea makes Plato’s cave myth not exactly a story of individual liberation. It is a conception of access to knowledge that starts from an individualistic perspective, yes: it is the individual who, by his own means, accesses the true through a personal struggle against illusions and deceptions, something frequent in idealistic approaches to be based on the premises of solipsism. However, once the individual has reached that phase, he must bring the knowledge to the rest.

Of course, the idea of ​​sharing the truth with others was not exactly an act of democratization, as we could understand it today; it was simply a moral mandate that emanated from Plato’s theory of ideas, and that did not have to translate into an improvement in the material conditions of life in society.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bury, RG (1910). The Ethics of Plato. The International Journal of Ethics XX (3): 271-281.
  • Dillon, J. (2003). The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy. Oxford University Press.
  • Koller, J. (2013). Chad Meister and Paul Copan (ed.). Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion. Routledge.
  • Reale, G. (1997). Toward a New Interpretation of Plato. Washington, DC: CUA Press.
  • Rowe, C. (2006). Interpreting Plato. In Benson, Hugh H. (ed.). A Companion to Plato. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 13–24.
  • Whitehead, AN (1929). Process and reality.

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