Plato's Philosophy: 
A VERY Basic Introduction to "THE CAVE"

Although Socrates features prominently in the dialogues, his friend and “pupil,” Plato, wrote them. Socrates was tried and executed by the democracy of Athens for the crimes of religious heresy and corruption of the youth of the city.  In brief, he was executed because he told the young men of the society that their religion was riddled with error and that their elders, controlling society, were corrupt and ignorant. In hindsight, Socrates' criticisms were astute, but they were hardly welcome news to the populace of Athens. Plato puts some of his own views into Socrates' mouth, but attributing your views to your teacher was a common practice in their day.

After Socrates was executed, Plato wrote a number of dialogues in which Socrates is the main speaker. But not everything that Socrates says in them is intended to be an accurate representation of what Socrates himself said and believed. Much of it seems to be Plato's own view of how Socrates would have developed his ideas had he continued to do philosophy.

After you have read a little of the dialogues, you will see that Socrates (and Plato, since he went to the trouble to write this all down) is concerned with the ability to find a genuine definition for ideas that are typically taken for granted.  Above all, they are never satisfied with definitions and explanations that depend on simple examples. Plato's main understanding of Socrates' view is captured in a famous parable or allegory, The Allegory of the Cave.

As the Allegory of the Cave shows, accepting examples in place of real definitions is no better than regarding shadows as real objects!  Ultimately, Socrates and Plato are concerned with our ability to understand "the Good."  In place of the many specific examples of goodness which govern many of our lives, they want us to break free of society's assumptions and to grasp the Good for ourselves (the "absolute" good), so that we can use this knowledge to guide our own lives. 

In the allegory, Plato hopes to suggest the difference between Goodness itself and its many appearances. But in this pursuit for the one absolute good shared by many good things, they become interested in the GENERAL problem of how we find the one characteristic (the absolute) shared by many particular examples ("the many"). 

What the majority of people in society counts as good means nothing to the philosopher, for the majority has mere opinion, not knowledge.  First, Goodness itself is equated with the Form of the Good (so that when Socrates mentions the Form, he means the absolute of it, or whatever characteristic is the essential feature of many objects that share it). The Form is identified as that which we rely upon in classifying the multiplicity of cases of goodness.  For example, I may go to the fairgrounds and see that a certain cow has been given a blue ribbon, an apple pie has also won a ribbon, and one farmer's corn has won a prize.  Each of these things have been judged good, but what do a cow, some corn, and a pie have in common such that we classify them together in the same category, as good?  What we call 'good' is different in each case.  The Form of Goodness, supposes Plato, is their common connection, yet this Form is something we intellectually identify and use as a standard for classifying the multitude of objects presented to our sense perception.  There is nothing visually similar in all the objects classified together as good, so it is our mind and not our eyes which recognizes Goodness.  Plato literally holds that it is not possible to see Goodness at all.  We see many good things, but not Goodness itself.

Having divided things into those we see (lower-world) and those we know only with our mind (higher-world), Plato also holds that things in the higher world, like the objects outside the cave in the allegory, are more fully real.  This notion is probably the hardest for students to grasp: Plato seriously means that tables, cows, watermelons, and other objects that you see and touch are less real than the Forms which are known by our intellect.  Furthermore, these Forms are not simply ideas in your mind, but are genuine things or objects. Just as the cow you see at the fair is an object independent of yourself, so the Form of Cowness itself is a real object, more real than the cows you can see, and this Form is independent of you.

Drawing upon all of Plato's writings, not just The Republic, it is clear that Plato regards the real objects of our physical reality as inadequate, unstable imitations or copies of the Forms. Forms exist, but they cannot be grasped through the use of sight or the other senses.  Although the visual universe is changing and full of contradictions and deception, the Forms exist as perfect, unchanging models.  Whereas visual objects are complex, each having many characteristics, each Form is a simple unity, having no complexity and thus incapable of being misunderstood by those who grasp it.  For instance, while a good job is one that has a number of desirable characteristics (good salary, good benefits, good working conditions, a degree of challenge, etc.), two people can disagree about whether a certain job is a good one, since each person may place a different emphasis on the relative worth of each characteristic.  There can be no such dispute about Goodness itself, however, because it is nothing but Goodness.  The Form of Goodness, then, is the only thing that is really good; any other object which we regard as good, whether a job or a cow or an apple pie, will have many features which detract from their goodness.  Over time, their goodness may disappear entirely.  If the goodness of an apple pie is its taste and appearance, that taste and appearance will change over time; the pie will grow stale and then moldy, and it will no longer be good.  But the Form does not change, and it does not gain or lose any features, since it consists of nothing but goodness, so it simply is Goodness.  To know Goodness itself, therefore, one must grasp the unchanging Form.

Plato seems to have intended that, for any classification of objects you can specify, there is a Form, which is the real object.  The cave allegory is from Plato's Republic; elsewhere in that work, he discusses the Form of Bed.  While you may have several beds in your home, they are only inferior imitations of the true Bed, the Form.  Any time you judge two or more objects that exist in the visual universe to belong to the same category (two cows, six beds, four spinsters, two beautiful things), you are recognizing them to be copies of the eternal Form on which they are patterned.  Since each of us classifies visual objects according to their resemblance to the Forms, each of us already employs intellect, the mode of cognition required for knowledge.  To go into a room and to point at a bed and to say, "That's a bed," one has to possess some sort of knowledge.  Plato's point, however, is that one doesn't know by seeing.  One knows intellectually (grasps the Form), and one sees the visible object and believes in the presence of some set of characteristics, and thus one is able to classify what one sees.  To Plato, seeing is believing. Literally!  One cannot know by seeing. Our knowledge is about the Bed itself, the Form, while vision is restricted to beds, objects of belief.

As the allegory of the cave indicates, the only thing standing in the way of knowledge is our insistence that the visual universe is reality and that knowledge is secured by using our senses to interact with this universe of changing, complex objects.  Plato's theory is that, since we already have and use a different mode of cognition, which reveals different objects, anyone can leave the level of belief behind if they will only discipline themselves to turn away from sense perception and the objects of belief.

 At one point, Plato has Socrates say that the prisoners in the cave are "like ourselves."  In other words, Plato thinks that the vast majority of people in the world are in the situation of the prisoners in the cave, viewing shadows presented by the performers and their puppets.  Since the prisoners are at the lowest level, that means that the examples they focus on are not even based on their own use of sight.  Plato's meaning is that most of us do not even look at the visible universe to establish our opinions.  Instead, we let others, our teachers, put on a "performance."  These performers include the poets previously mentioned; they include anyone who tries to teach us by use of images.  These images may be visual or they may be literary, but in either case, the audience who believes that these images constitute truth is deluded by imagination.

 Text copyright Theodore A. Gracyk, 2002

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Last updated August 11, 2004