On Philosophy & the Allegory of the Cave

Recently I have become really interested in philosophy. My knowledge of the subject is still very modest, but I like how it makes you question everything and most importantly how it can help you categorize your thoughts and views on life which makes things easier, I believe. For example, if you believe reason to be the source of knowledge then you are a rationalist and if you believe experience to be the source, then you are an empiricist. What I like in philosophy in comparison with religion, is that although both concern themselves with the unnatural world and with what cannot be proved, philosophy gives you the freedom of choice. Many philosophers with many contradicting views, and you are free to choose which one you conform with. 

But I digress. One of my favorite philosophical metaphors or stories is the one provided by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The following is the description of the allegory: 

Inside the cave

In Plato’s fictional dialogue, Socrates begins by describing a scenario in which what people take to be real would in fact be an illusion. He asks Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their legs (but not arms) held in place, but their necks are also fixed, so they are compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads “including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials”. The prisoners cannot see the raised walkway or the people walking, but they watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.

Socrates suggests the prisoners would take the shadows to berealthings and the echoes to be real sounds created by the shadows, not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard. They would praise as clever, whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world, and the whole of their society would depend on the shadows on the wall.

 

Release from the cave

Socrates then supposes that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they were and could not name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees.

“Suppose further,” Socrates says, “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real? What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave: wouldn’t the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be distressed and unable to see “even one of the things now said to be true” because he was blinded by the light?

After some time on the surface, however, the freed prisoner would acclimate. He would see more and more things around him, until he could look upon the Sun. He would understand that the Sun is the “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing”.

 

Return to the cave

Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man. “Wouldn’t he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn’t he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?” The prisoners, ignorant of the world behind them, would see the freed man with his corrupted eyes and be afraid of anything but what they already know. Philosophers analyzing the allegory argue that the prisoners would ironically find the freed man stupid due to the current state of his eyes and temporarily not being able to see the shadows which are the world to the prisoners.

 

All of us believe that we are in possession of the truth. That their reality is what’s real. Otherwise, we wouldn’t believe it. Conservatives think they’re right, liberals think they’re right, Christians think they’re right, Muslims think they’re right, atheists think they’re right, and so on and so fourth. So who’s right? What is reality? Is there such a thing?

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10 responses to “On Philosophy & the Allegory of the Cave

  1. I taught on this at a university in the USA some time ago, and then again (in Arabic) here in Nazareth. Plato would say that what can not be changed and is certainly true are the forms. And the form of the good (justice) is the pinnacle of all the forms.

    Or let me put it this way (as a Christian): I told my son David (age 8) yesterday, “There are three words we have to talk about one thing: the good, the true, and the beautiful. They are all different ways of describing who God is.” I understand that after the mu’tazila controversy my Muslim friends cannot make the same statement. But you asked a question and that is the answer that comes to mind.

  2. I think you should look up heidegger, farah, amazing theories.

  3. Also, yeah true. For once I thought “well maybe the atheists can be better” but even the atheists (or most of them) are kinda extremist in actions in Jordan; they just always act so uppity like they’re better than theistic people because they “know the truth”.

    They should all shut up and live their lives, as hippie as it sounds, respect and tolerance (love) is all we need.

    By the way, I was thinking about it the other day in comparison to our culture; maybe it’s because of our culture’s difference from the common hollywood culture (google recommends I capitalize the H in hollywood, how ironic) that exists in media that people everywhere consume. Well here’s what I mean, our culture is a “be led into leadership” culture, you know, the tribe leaders would lead their tribe until someone else can take their place. It’s actually kinda nice and endearing, gives you a sense of culture/belonging/family etc…

    But I think there’s a flip-side to it, which causes people being led to want to lead their lives alone (especially when they mix with the culture of individuality and “democracy”). Maybe that’s why everyone can’t wait to feel more dominant than he others, since their life is already dominated by their parents and culture; the second they feel different it gives them power (it gives them power because that’s how it is in the consumed hollywood culture). i.e. The idea of domination is introduced through the hollywood ideas, making people deviate from the norm of “eastern” culture and want to dominate rather follow into a set path.

    So at this point everyone is seeking individuality and domination over their own lives in contrary to being led their entire lives, making everyone more stubborn than before, everyone trying to stand out in their own hollywood hero image they have of themselves in their heads.

    Well now that I wrote it I don’t think it makes that much sense anymore, but hey I might as well put it out there.

  4. There are some lectures in Arabic here if you are interested: http://philosophyarabic.wordpress.com/

  5. @duanemiller can you elaborate on the mo’tazila controversy? are Muslims not allowed to describe God as beautiful/true/good?

    @saed I read an excerpt by him, where he describes how humans often turn to the question of ‘why is there anything instead of nothing’. If you have any books of his or recommendations, let me know 🙂 Ah BTW, did you know he was a Nazi? well I guess most people were at his time, but I still found it interesting.

  6. Hello Farah,

    After the mu’tazila controversy the doctrine that the essence of God is entirely unknowable became the orthodox Islamic teaching. Thus words like loving and beautiful can only characteristics (sifaat) of God, but can never actually describe his true, inner essence. There were other doctrines proposed by the mu’tazila that were also labeled as heretical, for instance their rationalistic theory that Qur’an was a created thing.

    –Duane

  7. Okay I did not know that. I read about them, its such a shame that they were suppressed. The implication of a society that believes in free will would be huge (positive, I would imagine). Keep the philosophical comments coming 🙂

  8. it’s interesting that he was a nazi because then you know exactly where “arbeit macht frei” came from ^ ^
    Hitler defined the existence of his umm… “people” and prisoners by himself, while it’s silly when you state it, you can use it on every single person doing anything in their life and seeing what makes them upset and how you can win them to your side. a bit douche-y, but just an idea you know.

    I don’t have any books by heidegger but we learned about him in class and I can send you some slides the teacher gave us, most of them were philosophy-based. They’re not in-depth though. I’m sure you can find some books online or a list of his writings.

  9. As to books in Arabic on PDF, I have the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, and I also have Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which is both philosophy and theology. I also have ‘The Story of Philosophy’ by William Durant. I have Plato’s Republic too, but only in print…If you want any of these books let me know.

  10. Pingback: Using Science Fiction to Teach History (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Distant Future) – Tropics of Meta

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