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A Question of Reality in Plato’s "The Allegory of the Cave" and Richard Wright’s "The Library Card"

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Break the Shackles of the Mind

In Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” and Richard Wright’s “The Library Card,” becoming enlightened is the ultimate goal of both writers, and both of these men are asking the same question: What is true reality? Plato wanted the prisoners to question reality and by doing so, to become enlightened. He wanted to get across that one’s own personal perception of reality was not true reality. In both of these essays, Plato and Wright go through stages while gaining enlightenment: they both experience physical or mental chains; they realize sensory knowledge can be deceiving; they learn how to escape ignorance, and finally experience the pain that comes with gaining enlightenment. Wright applies Plato’s philosophy to his own situation in wanting to examine life for himself; he wanted to become enlightened to better his own life.

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Each of these essays engage in conflict with physical or mental chains that bind one’s capability to acquire knowledge and to become enlightened. Plato suggests that becoming enlightened is the process of one becoming aware of what shackles their mind. For Richard Wright, it was his race. He knew that because of the color of his skin that he would never be accepted into society as a respected individual:

I had no hope whatever of being a professional man. Not only had I been so conditioned that I did not desire it… Well-to-do Negroes lived in a world that was almost as alien to me as the world inhabited by whites (Wright 31).

Wright is clarifying in this quote that with his new knowledge, he realizes that he will never be respected as a skilled man because of the color of his skin. He was also conditioned to never desire being a specialized man because that is not the societal structure he came from, and due to that he did not even desire to be one. When Wright discovered his awareness, he not only found his old life and community unfamiliar, but he sensed that he would not belong in the white-structured society either. Richard Wright, when he reflects on enlightenment, is relating to the effect the penned words of others had on his perception of the world. The way that Plato describes the cave in which the prisoners are bound symbolizes Wright’s own prison of bigotry and ignorance from the white men whom he works for; enlightenment made him question society’s structure, which then permitted him to break the mental chains and comprehend what it meant to be enlightened.

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato is differentiating between two kinds of people: those who inaccurately refer to sensory knowledge as the truth, and those who really grasp the truth. With the prisoners developing from childhood to adulthood in the cave, their sensory knowledge is all they have known as truth. When one of the prisoners is permitted to leave the cave and can experience what knowledge and enlightenment actually is, the other prisoners do not want to accept this reality as the truth. They would rather put someone to death than have someone tell them that what they grew up trusting as the truth were really just shadows of the truth, “Men would say of him up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even think of ascending… and they would put him to death” (Plato 19). This quote describes how prejudiced the prisoners in the cave are towards someone who tries to enlighten them and tell them that what they perceive as reality is essentially a fabricated image that is not true to the actual reality. Plato wants the prisoner that is liberated to investigate what reality actually is and then inform the other prisoners. Plato wants the reader to envision realism and understand the role of one’s capability to separate reality from their experience in the world. “The truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (Plato 17). This quote is affirming that sensory knowledge can be misleading and lead to continuous ignorance that will thwart someone from pursuing the truth and becoming educated. The prisoners believed the shadows were genuine because that is what they could see and what they grew up with, they relied on sensory knowledge. The reluctance to question what they could physically see has caused the prisoners to live in a state of ignorance and false reality.

Applying this to Wright, he never before examined society’s structure because he assumed that the whites treated all whites the same and treated all blacks the same. It was not until Wright came to a page in the Memphis Commercial Appeal that had an article dealing with H.L. Mencken and calling Mencken a fool that he essentially began to question society’s structure. “The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negroes, and this man was not a Negro” (Wright 23). This quote is what ultimately powered Wright’s ravenous appetite for awareness and insight, and it separates him from individuals around him, which shoves the wedge fashioned from their differences deeper between them. Nevertheless, it gives Wright’s life significance and direction and gave him the capability to escape the ignorance that was shackling his mind.

Plato describes that people are so biased, and because of their prejudice, they will not be able to see past the shadows that shackle their minds and keep them from evading ignorance to become enlightened. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the chains are physical as opposed to figurative, and it is this idea that Plato wants to clarify in his essay. One prisoner is given the chance to pursue independence and education. However, he has to be involuntarily dragged into the light; this is because the dark cave and shadows are what this prisoner has known all his life and the idea of there being more to the prisoner’s diminutive world is terrifying. “He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves” (Plato 18). This quote describes that growing accustomed to accepting a new realism is difficult especially when they have trusted one reality and now they are being told that their reality is not genuine and must consent to a new reality. Their eyes have to “adjust” to the light or truth. It is a development and originally they will only see the shadows (their old reality), then reproductions of a new reality, lastly the truth itself. Plato wants the prisoners to comprehend that escaping ignorance is a process and that one should not be too ready to pass criticism on someone who has just seen the truth because it takes time for someone to adjust to the new influx of knowledge that they are accepting.

Examining Wright’s essay through Plato and how Wright arose to enlightenment is the same as how the prisoners in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” arose to enlightenment. Both the prisoners and Wright became pained after attaining knowledge through the process of enlightenment:

He is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled… (Plato 18).

This quote is asserting that attaining new knowledge is agonizing and at first, that person may not be able to see or grasp new knowledge. Instead, this person’s eyes will be dazzled, in other words, blinded to the truth. Wright is also struggling with the pain of gaining new knowledge. “I read Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie and they revived in me a vivid sense of my mother’s suffering” (Wright 29). Wright not only understood what it meant to be a woman, but he also understood what it meant to be discriminated against and this pained him. The pain was so overpowering that it made Wright inquire about the life around him and finally he saw the realism of reality influencing his life.

The significance of enlightenment emphasizes primarily on the indication of something limiting humanity from grasping their true potential. To Wright, enlightenment was vital because insight swayed crucial political discussions during the revolutionary era; and formed the occupations of America’s first African American intellectuals. Enlightenment also highlighted human reason, and directed the formation of colleges and libraries in European countries and America. Enlightenment was important to Plato because Plato believes that the majority of civilization lives in cavernous unawareness and are in terribly inacceptable environments because of lack of enlightenment. As humans, we should follow Plato’s philosophy as Richard Wright did and question our existence and make every effort to become enlightened. Deprived of knowledge, we are just vacant shells merged together with our smartphones, computers, and various other forms of technology.

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