The myth of Plato’s cave (meaning and history of this allegory)

The myth of Plato’s cave it is one of the great allegories of idealist philosophy which has so marked the way of thinking of Western cultures.

Understanding means knowing the styles of thought that have prevailed in Europe and America for centuries, as well as the foundations of Plato’s theories. Let’s see what it is.

Plato and his myth of the caves

This myth is an allegory of the theory of ideas proposed by Plato, and appears in the writings that are part of the book The Republic. It is essentially the description of a fictitious situation which he helped to understand the way in which Plato conceived the relation between the physical and the world of ideas, And how we go through them.

Plato begins by talking about men who have been chained in the depths of a cave from birth, never being able to get out of it and, in fact, without the ability to look back to understand the origin of these chains.

So they are still looking at one of the cave walls, with the chains hanging from them from behind. Behind them, at a certain distance and placed a little above their heads, there is a bonfire which lights up the area a little, and between it and the chains there is a wall, which Plato likens to stratagems. that cheaters and crooks perform so that their tricks are not noticed.

Between the wall and the bonfire, other men carry with them objects protruding from the wall, so that his shadow is cast on the wall who contemplate chained men. In this way, they see the silhouette of trees, animals, mountains in the distance, people coming and going, etc.

Shadows and lights: the idea of ​​living in a fictitious reality

Plato maintains that, as bizarre as the scene may be, these chained men he describes look like us, Human beings, because neither they nor we see more than these fallacious shadows, which simulate a deceptive and superficial reality. This fiction projected by the light of the bonfire distracts them from reality: the cave in which they remain chained.

however, if one of the men broke free of the shackles and could look back, reality would confuse and bore him.: The light of the fire would make him look away, and the blurry figures he could see would seem less real to him than the shadows he had seen all his life. Likewise, if someone were to force that person to walk towards the bonfire and beyond until they came out of the cave, the sunlight would bother her even more and she would want to return to the dark area.

To be able to grasp reality in all its details, one would have to get used to it, spend time and effort seeing things as they are without giving in to confusion and boredom. However, if at any time he returned to the cave and found the men in chains, he would remain blind due to the lack of sunlight. Likewise, anything he could say about the real world would be met with mockery and contempt.

The myth of the cave today

As we have seen, the myth of the cave brings together a series of ideas very common for idealist philosophy: the existence of a truth that exists independently of the opinions of human beings, the presence of the constant disappointments that make us stay away from that. the truth, and the qualitative change that accompanies access to this truth: once it is known, there is no turning back.

These ingredients can also be applied dailySpecifically, how the media and hegemonic opinions shape our views and our way of thinking without our realizing it. Let’s see how the phases of Plato’s cave myth can correspond to our current lives:

1. Deceptions and lies

Deceptions, which can arise from a desire to keep others with little information or the lack of scientific and philosophical progress, would embody the phenomenon of the shadows which scroll through the wall of the cave. From Plato’s perspective, this deception is not exactly the fruit of someone’s intention, but the consequence that material reality is only the reflection of true reality: that of the world of ideas.

One of the aspects that explains why lying has such an impact on human life is that, for this Greek philosopher, it is made up of what seems obvious from a superficial point of view. If we have no reason to question something, we don’t, and its falsehood prevails.

2. Liberation

The act of breaking free from chains would be the acts of rebellion that we often call revolutions, Or paradigm shifts. Of course, it is not easy to rebel, as the rest of the social dynamic is going in the opposite direction.

In this case, it would not be a social revolution, but an individual and personal revolution. On the other hand, liberation means seeing many of the most internalized beliefs falter, which produces uncertainty and anxiety. To make this state disappear, we must continue to move forward in the direction of the discovery of new knowledge. It is not possible to remain inactive, according to Plato.

3. The ascent

The ascent to the truth would be an expensive and awkward process that involves letting go of beliefs deeply rooted in us. It is therefore a great psychological change that results in the renunciation of old certainties and openness to truths, which for Plato are the foundation of what really exists (both in us and around us).

Plato was aware that people’s past conditions the way they experience the present, and so he surmised that a drastic change in the way things were understood would necessarily lead to discomfort and discomfort. In fact, this is one of the ideas that comes through in his way of illustrating this moment through the image of someone trying to get out of a cave instead of sitting down and who upon arriving at the outside, receives the blinding light of reality. .

4. The return

The return would be the last phase of the myth, which would consist of the dissemination of new ideas, Which by shocking can generate confusion, contempt or hatred to question the basic dogmas that form the backbone of society.

However, as for Plato the idea of ​​truth was associated with the concept of what is good and good, the one who has had access to authentic reality has a moral obligation to detach others from ignorance, and must therefore spread his knowledge.

Like his teacher, Socrates, Plato believed that social conventions about what is appropriate behavior are subject to the virtue it confers for attaining true knowledge. Therefore, although the ideas of those who return to the cave are shocking and generate attacks by others, the mandate to share the truth forces us to face these old lies.

This latter idea makes Plato’s cave myth not exactly a story of individual liberation. It is a conception of access to knowledge that it starts from an individualistic perspective, Of course: it is the individual who, by his own means, accesses the truth through a personal struggle against illusions and deceptions, which is common in idealistic approaches based on the premises of solipsism. However, once the individual has reached this stage, he has to bring his knowledge to the rest.

Of course, the idea of ​​sharing the truth with others was not exactly an act of democratization, as one might understand it today; it was simply a moral mandate emanating from Plato’s theory of ideas, and which did not have to translate into an improvement in the material conditions of life of society.

Bibliographical references:

  • Bury, RG (1910). The ethics of Plato. The International Journal of Ethics XX (3): 271-281.
  • Dillon, J. (2003). The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Ancient Academy. Oxford University Press.
  • Koller, J. (2013). Chad Meister and Paul Copan (eds). Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion. Routledge.
  • Reale, G. (1997). Towards a new interpretation of Plato. Washington, DC: CUA Press.
  • Rowe, C. (2006). Plato’s interpretation. A Benson, Hugh H. (ed.). A companion of Plato. Blackwell Editorial. pages 13 to 24.
  • Whitehead, AN (1929). Process and Reality.

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