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How Knowledge Plays a Key Role in Plato's Allegory of the Cave

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Things are not always what they seem. It’s hard to argue otherwise unless one has the full story. Sure, everyone has their opinions, but one can only form a true opinion when privy to all the information. The truth will always stand out when contrasted to illusion. To prove this, Plato composed a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon that presents a situation and a problem. The Allegory of the Cave seeks the purpose to make one think both critically and logically. Hence, forcing the reader to observe a situation where one’s mind is changed once presented with all the facts.

A group of prisoners have faced a wall all their lives since childhood. A fire burns behind them with nothing in between them save a bridge that workers walk over, carrying a variety of objects. The prisoners are chained and shackled in one position, only able to see the wall of the cave and the shadows that dance upon it from the flames. With nothing to entertain themselves but the shadows cast from the flames, they take this to be reality. The shadows to them are actual objects and as far as the prisoners are concerned the only reality. Socrates offers a plot twist to this scenario that involves one of these prisoners being freed. Now able to turn around, this prisoner is able to differentiate what is real and what is not. He can see what caused the shadows he had come to know and forever his view on reality is changed. Socrates takes it even further and releases this prisoner from the cave completely. After being blinded by the sun, he soon adjusts and can now see dimensions, the world is no longer flat and so he pities his friends back down in the cave. When he returns to the cave to share his knowledge of the real world, the other prisoners perceive him as insane and for the most part deranged.

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The prisoners in the cave still will always only have one side of the story, therefore never really knowing the truth. Uneducated they are stuck, in the same cycle of thinking, unable to break free. Their perceptions and opinions will always only be half formed since they only know the illusion of reality. The illusion of reality created by the shadows to them is as real as their own hands to them, therefore it is their truth. The prisoner who has tasted freedom has “corrupted eyes” in the opinion of the other prisoners. Since they are not able to see what he has, they write it off as mythical information from a mad man. Hence, ironically the situation is switched. For the prisoners, the shadows are reality and the outside world is the illusion. Because of this stubborn thinking, their minds stay closed to the idea of an alternate reality that isn’t flat and dark like that of the shadows on the cave wall.

Outside the allegory of the cave, this same thinking can be applied to modern times. When one lives one’s life one way or thinks one thing only, they are closing oneself off to the many possibilities of the world. A one sided story is not a full story, and so there are multiple ways to perceive one thing such as reality. The reality of a blind person is different to the reality of a person with sight. Just as the reality of a religious person can be very different from an atheist’s. The illusion is only present if one does not start to ask for the truth. That blind person can choose to stay in ignorance, and never know what the world looks like by staying inside and shutting themselves out from the rest of the world. Or, they can go outside and use their other sense to experience the world, thus educating themselves and finding the truth. One should always keep an open mind and hear the other person’s side of things. For only then can one truly form a fully formed opinion of the world. Once the freed prisoner is educated, he is able to fully form his opinion on reality. When a person is given education and absorbs said education, their mind is able to contemplate the world on its own. Rather than relying on the reality of others, with education we can be independent and opinionated. Thus further reasoning for him to not return to the cave.

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