Storm's Journal

--| Plato's Cave |--- 

Socrates: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is
enlightened or unenlightened:, Behold! human beings living in an
underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all
along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their
legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before
them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above
and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and
the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low
wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in
front of them, over which they show the puppets.

Glaucon: I see.

Socrates: And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all
sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and
stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are
talking, others silent.

Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Socrates: Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows,
or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall
of the cave?

Glaucon: True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they
were never allowed to move their heads?

Socrates: And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they
would only see the shadows?

Glaucon: Yes, he said.

Socrates: And if they were able to converse with one another, would they
not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other
side, would they not be sure to fancy, when one of the passers-by spoke
that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

Glaucon: No question, he replied.

Socrates: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the
shadows of the images.

Glaucon: That is certain.

Socrates: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the
prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of
them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck
round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the
glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of
which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some
one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now,
when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more
real existence, he has a clearer vision,, what will be his reply? And you
may further imagine that his instructor is pointing And when to the
objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, will he not be
perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are
truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Glaucon: Far truer.

Socrates: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not
have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in
the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be
in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

Glaucon: True, he said.

Socrates: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep
and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of
the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he
approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to
see anything at all of what are now called realities?

Glaucon: Not all in a moment, he said.

Socrates: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper
world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men
and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he
will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled
heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun
or the light of the sun by day?

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere
reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper
place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the
season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible
world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his
fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Glaucon: Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about

Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the
den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate
himself on the change, and pity them?

Glaucon: Certainly, he would.

Socrates: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among
themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and
to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which
were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to
the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories,
or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything,
rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Glaucon: Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than
entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Socrates: Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the
sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have
his eyes full of darkness?

Glaucon: To be sure, he said.

Socrates: And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring
the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while
his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the
time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be
very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that
up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not
even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead
him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put
him to death.

Glaucon: No question, he said.

Socrates: This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon:,
to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the
light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you
interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the
intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire,
I have expressed, whether rightly or wrongly God knows.

(Plato, The Allegory of the Cave, from: The Republic, Book VII)


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SUBMIT AN ARTICLE posted: September 27, 2001