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Plato: An Outline of the Allegory of the Cave

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The Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is still a useful tool used to argue a question most people ask at some point in their life; what is that? The Allegory of the Cave starts with a dialogue between Socrates and one of his students, Glaucon. The dialogue between these two philosophers sets up a parable including three people in a cave, who have been chained and restricted movement; they can only see what is directly in front of them. Behind them is a wall and a fire to cast shadows for the prisoners to look at. Because the prisoners only know the shadows, they believe that they are completely real; however, the allegory asks the question, what if one of the prisoners was released and allowed to leave the cave and see the world how it truly is. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is still a useful piece of rhetoric in today’s society. The Allegory of the Cave is not completely accurate; moreover; it represents an ideal reality where all people are perfectly aware of their surroundings without any questions as to what is real and what is not.

Today’s society is set up in a similar manner as the cave. People only know what is presented to them and are ignorant to everything else. Much like the prisoners, “those who were chained would consider nothing besides the shadows of the artifacts as the unhidden.”(Plato) The difference between Plato’s Allegory and todays society is that people in today’s society are allowed to branch out further that just shadows on a wall, but not by much. There are still many restrictions on what society is and is not allowed to know. The people casting shadows on the walls for the prisoners to see represent the higher members of society that know more than the prisoner chained to the floor. Many aspects of society are only shadows on the wall and not necessarily the truth; however, they are not lies either. This is why it is so important to question everything and never be satisfied with a definite answer.

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As members of society, the fact that we will never completely be out of the cave must be accepted before anything else. Some people may be further down the path than others; however, it is impossible to know the exact true form of something. It is possible to get closer to the end of the cave by asking questions and receiving new knowledge about different things. In Plato’s Allegory, Socrates states “if someone were [then] to show him any of the things that were passing by and forced him to answer the question about what it was, don’t you think that he would be a wit’s end and in addition would consider that what he previously saw [with is own eyes] was more unhidden than what was now being shown [to him by someone else].”(Plato) The prisoner must accept this new knowledge, but if he had once thought the shadows on the wall to be the true form of something, he should at some point question the new knowledge he is presented and wonder if that too is not completely real.

Once the prisoner in Plato’s Allegory escapes the cave and is allowed to go outside, his eyes would be filled with glare and he would not be able to see everything perfectly; however, after some time, the prisoner’s eyes would become accustomed to the sun and “by this time he would also be able to gather the following about the sun: (1) that it is that which grants both the seasons and the years; (2) it is that which governs whatever there is in the now visible region of sunlight; and (3) that it is also the cause of all those things that the people dwelling in the cave have before their eyes in some way or other.”(Plato) These new things would shock the prisoner; however, he would be forced to accept them because he trusts what he sees. The prisoner will never be able to fully comprehend this new knowledge because he will always be influenced by his time raised in the cave.

In a perfect, ideal world the prisoner would return to the cave and share his newfound knowledge with the prisoners that had not yet left. The prisoners that stayed would let the returning prisoner know “that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up.”(Plato) The prisoner would also try and explain what he had learned to the ones who stayed but their ignorance to the more defined forms would make it nearly impossible for them to understand. This occurs in todays society and the outcome is often the same; without releasing the prisoners and letting them learn for themselves the true forms of the objects, there is no way for them to truly understand what is real and what is not. The prisoners of our society are intentionally left in the dark, only being shown what a higher level deems appropriate for them to see or learn. The prisoners are forced to accept what is presented to them as a fact and not to question it; however, society must learn to question everything and never settle with anything because there is no way to tell if what we see is a shadow or the true form.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a timeless piece of rhetoric that makes many good points and is still relevant to modern society. The Allegory of the Cave is not perfect; moreover, many of the points made are based on an ideal society where everything is black and white and that is not the case. There are many different levels of knowledge and shadows in today’s world and society must learn to always question what they learn and see because it may not be the complete truth.

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