Monday, October 12, 2015
Plato's Allegory of the Cave
PLATO'S CAVE, article in The Guernsey Magazine 1882
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Plato, the celebrated Greek philosopher, and founder of the Academy, was born B.C. 429 or 430, at Athens or AEgina. He was the son of Aristo, who belonged to one of the most illustrious families of Athens. He first received the name of Aristocles, but it is believed that the surname of Plato was given to him on account of the breadth of his shoulders. He studied literature and science with the greatest success, and excelled especially in geometry. He also cultivated poetry in his early youth, but soon devoted himself entirely to philosophy. When about twenty he attached himself to Socrates, whose assiduous pupil he continued for ten years. On the death of his master (400 B.C.) he retired with his fellow-pupils to Megaera, and afterwards set out to travel He visited Italy, where he had intercourse with the Pythagoreans, Archytas, and Philolaus; went to Cyrene, in Africa, and afterwards to Egypt, where it is said he was initiated into the mysteries of the Hermetic doctrines. Hence he returned to Magna Graeca, and travelled through Sicily (B.C. 390). During his stay at Syracuse, Plato became intimate with the virtuous Dion; but he incurred the anger of the tyrant Dionysins the elder, who caused him to be sold for a slave. He was ransomed and set at liberty by Anniceris, a philosopher of the time, and then went to Athens, where, in a suburb of the city, he opened his famous school, known by the name of the Academy. He soon had the most distinguished men of Greece among his pupils, and also some women. In 364 Plato made a second visit to Sicily at the request of Dionysins the younger, who had just ascended the throne, and professed a desire to regulate his conduct by the dictates of philosophy. But Plato despaired of reforming the court of the tyrant, and soon left it. In 361, however, he again returned to Sicily to attempt to reconcile Dionysins and Dion, but was unsuccessful. On his return to Athens, he occupied himself wholly in teaching and writing.
The dialogues of Plato, all of which are more or less dramatic in their character, are amongst the most popular of his works. In almost every dialogue Socrates is introduced. The death of that remarkable man is related with touching simplicity in the Phaedo.
The allegory of the "Cave" is one of the most ingenious and imaginative of Plato's compositions. It occurs in the seventh book of "The Republic." Socrates, after having laid down, in the preceding books, the fundamental principles of state which he regarded as the best for the welfare of a community, proceeds to discuss with Glaucon the important question—Who are the best fitted to control the affairs of state? Whether the welfare of the state is most efficiently preserved by those who take a high and lofty view of virtue, or by those who adapt themselves to the exigencies of the time, and who are supposed to be more practically acquainted with things as they are, or rather as they seem to be.
A number of captives, enslaved from their infancy, are represented as being imprisoned in tho profound depths of a mysterious cave, from which the light of day is totally excluded. The prisoners are chained so that they are unable to move a limb, or even to turn the head. Behind them, at a considerable distance, is a fire, affording the only light which is permitted to enter the cave. The reflection of this light falls on a wall directly under the gaze of the captives. At intervals, certain figures are made to pass before the fire, so that their shadows may be cast on the wall; and it is from these shadows alone that the unhappy prisoners have the means of forming any idea of what things really are.
The heads of the prisoners are all turned in one direction. All look towards the same wall—all observe the same mysterious shadows; and seeing nothing else, their united experience suggesting nothing else, they all arrive at the conclusion that these shadows are realities; that they do not only indicate things that exist, but that they are, in fact, those very things—that they are substances, and not shadows.
But one of the prisoners is released from his bonds. He is permitted to turn his head. He sees no longer the dusky shadows on the wall, but the fire, to whose light—knowing not whence it came—he has been so long accustomed. He sees real objects passing to and fro, but they seem to him less real than the shadows on the wall
His captors lead him up a subterranean ascent, and bring him forth on the roof of the cave. He is stunned by the novelty of the scene, blinded by the brilliancy of the light. But, after a time, he grows so far accustomed to the new world as to gaze with curious interest on its marvellous glories, and the sights which are so unlike the phantoms of the cave. With what ecstacy he looks on the variously-tinted foliage of the trees—on the green grass studded with flowers—on the marble roofs of city palaces—and on the uuruffled bosom of the sea, that stretches far away to meet the azure sky. Everything has its shadow. Not a blade of grass, not a wild flower, but its shadow is marked on the earth. And the water has its shadows—but how unlike the shadows—scarcely should we call them shadows, rather reflections in the water, reflections sharp in outline and bright with colour. The brilliant orb of day, the glorious sun, shining in all his strength, renders the picture singularly grand. Towards that orb the dazzled eyes of the poor captive are turned in wonder, fear, and love. Curiosity is lost in admiration, and admiration changes to worship. He adores the sun as the author of all which he beholds, and begins to pity the ignorance of the prisoners in the cave.
But to that cave he must return. In his descent a sense of horror comes over him, and he thinks, as the obscurity increases, that he is losing his sight. When at length he arrives in his old prison, he is gradually re-accustomed to the place which has so long been familiar, but as the shadows pass before him on the wall he sees them with new eyes, and is soon involved in disputes with his fellow-prisoners as to the nature and origin of the phantoms. They have but little sympathy with him, and as little faith in his assertions. What do they know of the sublime spectacle which he has witnessed the splendours of noontide which have stood out before his enraptured gaze? the ecstatic joy which has filled his heart? They look incredulous enough over their iron collars, and maintain their faith in phantoms against all his logic and experience.
Socrates expounds the parable. The cave is the world; phantoms, the worldly man's image of the things that are—of good and evil; the captive who is led upward to the light, the philosophic soul, which rises above the petty interests of life into the effulgent light of truth and virtue. He alone it is who, thus brought into communion with the Infinite, can rightly estimate the value and importance of the things of this life, who can form any adequate conception of the true end of existence. And therefore the conclusion of the allegory is that wise and virtuous men are the only fit rulers in the model republic; men who shall strike the chains from off the helpless captives, and shall lead them to believe in something better, higher, and nobler than in the phantoms on the prison wall.