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The myth of Plato's cave

The myth of Plato's cave

September 30, 2022

The myth of Plato's cave It is one of the great allegories of the idealist philosophy that has marked so much the way of thinking of the cultures of the West.

Understanding it means knowing the styles of thought that for centuries have been dominant in Europe and America, as well as the foundations of Plato's theories. Let's see what it consists of.

Plato and his myth of the cave

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, basically, the description of a fictitious situation that helped to understand the way in which Plato conceived the relationship between the physical and the world of ideas , and how we move through them.

Plato begins by talking about men who remain chained to the depths of a cave from birth, without ever being able to leave it and, in fact, without the ability to look back to understand what is the origin of these chains.

Thus, they always remain looking at one of the walls of the cave, with the chains holding them from behind. Behind them, at a certain distance and placed somewhat above their heads, there is a bonfire that illuminates the area a little, and between it and the chained ones there is a wall, which Plato equates to the tricks performed by cheaters and tricksters so that your tricks are not noticed.

Between the wall and the bonfire there are other men who carry with them objects that protrude above the wall, so that his shadow is projected on the wall who are contemplating men chained. In this way, they see the silhouette of trees, animals, mountains in the distance, people who come and go, etc.

Lights and shadows: the idea of ​​living in a fictional reality

Plato maintains that, however bizarre the scene may be, those chained men that he describes resemble us , human beings, since neither they nor we see more than those fallacious shadows, which simulate a deceptive and superficial reality. This fiction projected by the light of the bonfire distracts them from reality: the cavern in which they remain chained.

But nevertheless, if one of the men were to free himself from the chains and could look back, reality would confuse him and bother him : the light of the fire would make him look away, and the blurred figures he could see would seem less real than the shadows he has seen all his life. Similarly, if someone forced this person to walk in the direction of the bonfire and beyond it until leaving the cave, the sunlight would still bother him more, and he would want to return to the dark zone.

To be able to capture reality in all its details, you would have to get used to it, dedicate time and effort to seeing things as they are without giving in to confusion and annoyance. However, if at some point he returned to the cave and met again with the chained men, he would remain blind because of the lack of sunlight. In the same way, everything he could say about the real world would be met with ridicule and contempt.

The myth of the cave today

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

These ingredients can also be applied to the day to day , specifically to the way in which the media and the hegemonic opinions shape our points of view and our way of thinking without our realizing it. Let's see how the phases of the myth of Plato's cave can correspond to our current lives:

1. Cheating and lying

The deceptions, which may arise from a willingness to keep others with little information or the lack of scientific and philosophical progress, embody the phenomenon of shadows that parade through the wall of the cave. In Plato's perspective, this deception is not exactly the fruit of someone's intention, but the consequence that material reality is only a reflection of the true reality: that of the world of ideas.

One of the aspects that explain why the lie impacts so much on the life of the human being is that, for this Greek philosopher, is composed of what seems obvious from a superficial point of view. If we have no reason to question something, we do not, and its falsehood prevails.

2. The liberation

The act of liberation from chains would be the acts of rebellion that we usually call revolutions , or paradigm changes. Of course, it is not easy to rebel, since the rest of the social dynamic goes 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 how many of the most internalized beliefs are shaken, which produces uncertainty and anxiety. To make this state disappear, it is necessary to continue advancing in the sense of discovering new knowledge. It is not possible to stay without doing anything, according to Plato.

3. The ascension

The ascension to the truth would be an expensive and uncomfortable process that implies detaching from beliefs very rooted in us. Therefore, it is a great psychological change.

Plato had in mind that the past of the people conditions the way in which they experience the present, and for that reason it assumed that a radical change in the way of understanding things had to necessarily bring discomfort and discomfort. In fact, that is one of the things that are clear in his way of illustrating that moment through the idea of ​​someone trying to get out of a cave instead of sitting and getting the blinding light on the outside. reality.

4. The return

The return would be the last phase of the myth, which would consist in the diffusion of new ideas , that by shocking can generate confusion, contempt or hatred for questioning basic dogmas that form the backbone of society.

However, since for Plato the idea of ​​truth was associated with the concept of good and good, the person who has had access to authentic reality has a moral obligation to make other people detach themselves from ignorance, and therefore he has to spread his knowledge.

This last idea makes the myth of Plato's cave not exactly a story of individual liberation. It is a conception of access to knowledge that part of an individualist perspective , yes: it is the individual who, by his own means, accesses the true through a personal struggle against illusions and deceptions, something common in idealistic approaches when based on premises of solipsism. However, once the individual has reached that stage, he must take the knowledge to the rest.

Of course, the idea of ​​sharing the truth with others was not exactly an act of democratization, as we could understand it today; it was, simply, a moral mandate that emanated from the theory of the ideas of Plato, and that did not have to be translated in an improvement of the material conditions of life of the society.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bury, R. G. (1910). The Ethics of Plato. The International Journal of Ethics XX (3): 271-281.
  • Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and reality (in English).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave - Alex Gendler (September 2022).

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