The allegory of the cave.

I’d like to talk to you all tonight about a famous passage in Plato’s work “The Republic.” That is, no doubt, his most famous work, and this is, no doubt, the most famous part of that work. I highly encourage readers to read Plato. I’m not asking you to agree with him, though I agree with many of his ideas, but I do think you can’t really consider yourself educated without engaging the great ideas of the past.

In this passage, Socrates, the main speaker, asks us to consider a cave. In this cave are prisoners who have never seen the outer world. They are chained up so that they are facing a wall. Behind them are fires and people pass by carrying different objects. The shadows of those objects are seen on the wall by the prisoners and any sounds they hear they think are coming from those objects.

One day, one prisoner is freed somehow. He turns and sees the things as they are, but is blinded by the light. He goes to the outer world and sees the world as it really is. He doesn’t want to return, but he does so anyway. Now his eyes have to get used to the shadows again, but they do. When he tries to tell his fellow prisoners about the real world, they mock him. If they could get free, they would kill him.

What is Plato’s point?

Plato would tell you that you are that prisoner. The shadows on the wall that you see are not the things themselves, which he would call the forms. The forms are the eternal things that you only see representations of here on Earth. You could have a perfect horse, table, computer, etc. However, he also spoke of justice, beauty, equality, and the good.

How is it that you know what good is or equality is? Plato would say it does not come through your senses. For him, these eternal forms exist and when you die, you see them and then you come back later on with a faint memory of the forms. Now it’s not likely that Plato believed in reincarnation, but this is just a likely story for the time being. He would simply be saying he has no better answer at the present.

One could also argue that the prisoner is Socrates. Socrates was the one who came to tell Athenians the truth about Plato’s forms and they chose to kill him and instead stick to sense-experience. If you want to know about this, read the dialogues of Plato which are the apology, Crito, and Phaedo.

By the way, Augustine took the forms and said they were eternal ideas in the mind of God and that the way we know them is that we bear the image of God and they are implicit and innate in us.

Platonism had a shaping in Christian thought for several centuries in the church fathers. Though he was a pagan, that doesn’t mean all Plato taught was false. We as Christians should engage with the ideas of him and the other great philosophers and take the truth that is in there and throw out the rest. God gave men wisdom, and it would be a shame for us to think it only dwells in Christians.

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