Monday, 11 October 2010


The works of Plato would be impossible to sum up in a simple blog post. Instead, here is one of his most notable ideas that has influenced philosophy since it's development and publication in Plato's Republic - a ten volume Socratic philosophical dialogue of ideas and theories. (Plato was a student of Socrates, credited as a founder of Western Philosophy.)


Plato created the Analogy of the cave theory and the point of this theory is to suggest that everything that we see in our lives is an illusion of the perfect world which is beyond our minds.

This is Plato's Analogy of the Cave in the form of a diagram:

Inside the deep cave at the very back are some prisoners. These prisoners are chained up in shackles and are facing the back of the cave with very restricted movement. These prisoners have been chained up for their whole lives and have seen nothing but a wall for their entire lives.

However, the prisoners can see shadows on the wall in front of them which move around. This is all that they can see. These shadows are being created by people carrying things such as pots on their heads and the shadows are being created by a fire which is burning behind these people who are carrying pots on their heads. The wall that the prisoners are leaning against is a rampart which the people with pots on their heads are walking past. The fire is past these people and it is burning brightly creating these shadows of the pots on the wall which the prisoners can see. (The rampart is as tall as a man so only the shadows of the pots are created and not the people carrying them.) Past the fire is the rest of the cave entrance which leads into the outside world where all the perfect forms can be found and the sun which creates light which opposes to the darkness of the cave.

The prisoners that can see the shadows believe that what they are seeing is real. This is reality to them. They can also hear echoes which they believe are real sounds.

However, if a prisoner was to break free from his shackles, he would be so cramped up from sitting in the same position for his whole life that it would be difficult for him to move and also when he turns around the light from the fire would hurt his eyes. It would be difficult for him to adapt and to get rid of the urge to look back at the wall and the shadows which he believes are reality.

If the prisoner was to be taken out of the cave, it would take him a long time to adapt to the surroundings as he would be blinded by the light and shocked by the truth. If he was to return to the cave he would be blinded again because of the darkness and the prisoners would refuse to believe everything he tells them about the outside world and the truth as they are so used to seeing the shadows on the wall which they believe to be reality.

The Meaning of Everything in the Cave and the Cave Its Self

The Cave

The cave its self represents life and society around us and basically the physical world which contains illusions of the truth. The objects in the cave such as the fire and the pots on the people’s heads are only partially real. This is because as the prisoner turns around he is able to see the objects creating the shadow which means he is coming closer to reality.

The Prisoners

The prisoners represent normal everyday people who have not been enlightened by philosophy. Human beings who are prisoners in their own bodies is a way of putting it. We are all prisoners and in this life we do not experience true reality. Everything is an illusion of the true world because the prisoners are accepting that the shadows they are seeing are real. They are shackled up and the shackles symbolise the holding back of everyday people being able to question things.

The Shadows

The shadows are representing the illusions which we see everyday in our everyday lives. The shadows are not real. They are a mere fuzzy representation of the real thing. The shadows are as real as a reflection of a face in water or a painting of a flower.

The Objects on the People’s Heads Creating the Shadows

The objects are not fully real but they are more real than the shadows. They are representations of the objects in the true world outside the cave. These objects are like a beautiful flower. We can see beauty in a flower. But we can also see beauty in many other flowers so there must be a flower in the true world which shows the true form of beauty in a flower.

The Outside World

The outside world of the cave represents the true intelligible world that is fully real. This world contains the Forms, the universal and ultimates of all objects. The flower shares the form of beauty, but the form is the ultimate and unchanging idea of beauty.

The Journey Out of the Cave

The prisoner on his journey out of the cave, struggling to accept what is behind the rampart and what the shadows, represents a philosopher who is fighting his way though a lot of tough questions to find the truth. The prisoner has to fight his way through all the difficult things he sees as a philosopher gets his mind around a lot of difficult and often unanswerable questions.

The Sun

The sun in the outside world is the source of everything. The sun is life and growth. What the philosopher sees in the visible world depends on the sun and also what happens in the cave depends on the sun. Plato uses the sun to represent the ultimate Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is the, “Highest form of knowledge.” The Good is the source of reality and truth. All Forms and objects which participate in them derive their usefulness and good from the Form of the Good.

The Return to the Prisoners

A prisoner who as escaped the cave and seen the real world and experienced the truth and also reached the source of the world which is the sun, can now return to the cave to tell the other prisoners the truth and what he has seen as he is now knows what is true. However, the prisoners are so comfortable in their artificial life that they do not want to believe what that philosopher is saying as they are so used to what they have seen throughout their whole lives and that is what they believe to be true. This can result in the philosopher being either killed (like Socrates was) or just totally ignored.

A Depiction of Plato by Raphael as a central figure in his painting, 'The School of Athens' (1510-1511)

Be seeing you!

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