A VERY Basic Introduction to "THE CAVE"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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").
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.