The Allegory of the Cave is probably Plato’s most famous metaphorical story in all of his works and is certainly the most memorable moment in his Republic. The Allegory of the Cave is doing many things for Plato, it is a commentary on humanity’s origo, it is a commentary on epistemology, it is a commentary on what the life of the philosopher is like, is an esoteric critique of the sophists, and it is also a commentary on the nature of mass society. In this post, we will briefly explore all these aspects to Plato’s most memorable metaphor.
Plato’s origo of humanity is not the state of nature of liberalism, and it is not the communion with wisdom and beauty as in Plotinus. It is the Cave: the cold, dark, wet, and ignorant Cave. That said, Plato does not think that humans desire to remain in this Cave. Instead, we have innate ideas of the Forms within us and we need to come to understand these Forms in our lives; the faint knowledge of the Forms is what compels man to leave the Cave (seek understanding). The innate ideas are what propel the soul – which is the thinking mind – to venture toward the light of truth. It fulfills our instinctive want for wisdom. Thus, for Plato, humans naturally desire to know – but this desiring to know does not always end well.
So we return to what we know about Plato: he is an epistemological foundationalist. That is, he believes that not only is there truth in the world but that we can come to know it. This separates him from the sophists who sing the tune that we are all familiar with today: While there is probably truth, we cannot know truth, so we shouldn’t spend our time on trying to know truth, instead, we should spend our time knowing the world of social construction, because this is the only world that we can know because it is the world we’ve constructed. Plato rejects this outright. He also opposes the nihilists who take an even more radical position: there is no truth and life is totally and unambiguously meaningless.
The sun represents the Forms in Plato’s metaphorical analogy. As Plato recounts, the philosopher, who is simply the person the person who follows his soul toward the light of the sun, gets up and starts pursuing wisdom. The pursuit of wisdom is the pursuit of the light rather than the Cave of Shadows, which is the Cave of Opinions. But our first exposure to the light is not good. Having spent our life, up to this point, in the cold, dark, wet, and ignorant cave, the light of the sun overpowers the philosopher. The philosopher retreats back into the Cave.
The retreat back into the Cave is not because we do not desire knowledge, or wisdom. Instead, it is because we are not used to knowledge and wisdom. We are used to the world of conventional opinions and personal prejudices and biases. The retreat back into the Cave at the first exposure of the light of truth is our learned defense mechanism. We like to think that we already know what there is to know about the world and about the things we discuss and converse about. That is because we are all the children of sophistry in Plato’s view. The ills of sophistry have distorted us to seek the comfort of opinion rather than the pursuit of truth. Had there never been the rise of sophistry, our instinctive appetite would have simply moved from the darkness of the cave to the light of the sun out on the plains because we would instinctively know light is better than darkness, and that warmth is better than dampness. However, the sophists have made us accustom to darkness and dampness. This is what we have become used to, hence, when the philosopher first encounters the light, he retreats back into the Cave.
However, this encounter with the light of truth intrigues him further. He is curious and wants to learn about this light. After all, he has never had an encounter with this light before. As such, his inquisitive soul pushes him back out toward the light. The philosopher does not reintegrate into Cave society. Instead, he once again leaves for the light.
This is where the famous analogy of the Dividing Line comes in. The Dividing Line, in essence, is the point of no return. It is the line (epistemologically speaking), where one transitions from the world of social construction and the senses, which observe only the socially constructed world, and into the world of the Sun, which is the world of the Forms. It is the moment when the philosopher fully leaves the Cave of Opinions and enters the realm of truth. The philosopher loves the world of the sun, and, in coming to know this world which is vastly superior to the world of the dark and ignorant cave, he has actualized his soulful potentiality in dwelling with the light of Truth.
When the philosopher, who is enjoying the world of the sun, has come to know the fullness of the world of the sun, he seeks to share this knowledge and joy with the people in the Cave. But, as Plato says, his reentry into the cave blinds him. He has become so accustom to the light of truth that he stumbles throughout the cave because it is the world of opinion and senses. It is not the world of truth and the thinking mind.
The other prisoners, who see the blind philosopher stumbling through the Cave, infer, incorrectly, that the pursuit of wisdom has hurt him. They then deduce that the journey to the light was foolish. It is, in fact, deadly. The pursuit of truth, to the sophists, is a deadly and dangerous pursuit as evidence from their wrong perception that the blind philosopher was blinded by the danger of the light, rather than being blinded by his reentry into the dark world of opinions.
This blinding of the philosopher in his return to the Cave is Plato’s warning to the philosopher. If the philosopher, who genuinely wants to help others, reenters the Cave, he risks becoming blind again. In other words, the world of opinion, which is the Cave world of the sophists, is so powerful and dangerous that it can remove the truth you had come to know and re-mold you back into a citizen of darkness and ignorance. Additionally, Plato warns of the dangers that the philosopher faces if he reaches the mass herd in the Cave and speaks of the wonderful world of the Sun. The people in the Cave, spurred on by the sophists, assert that the philosopher is mad. From their perspective, he is mad. He is blind and has stumbled down back to the Cave. He can’t see anything. He speaks unintelligibly (to them because they don’t know truth). And, as Plato says through Socrates, the Cave society becomes annoyed with the philosopher and kill him.
Plato notes throughout that the light of truth cannot enter the Cave. Instead, you can only leave the Cave. Thus, it is a choice we must make. We either leave the world of opinion and sophistry for the world of the Sun, however hard that might be initially. The philosopher, who returns to the cave, cannot bring light to them either. Instead, he can only speak to them about the world of the sun and try to lead them to that world. But as Socrates says at this point, the people would not want to leave. The philosopher seems insane, paranoid, and blind. As the philosopher helps to guide them back up, the cave people decide to kill him.
The killing of the philosopher is twofold. First, it represents the social contract that is the Cave, repressing anything that challenges it. In other words, the philosopher has broken the public law and must suffer the consequences for trying to bring people out of the Cave, thereby attempting to break the power of the sophists and their conventional contract that enshrines opinion as fact, at condemns the pursuit of truth as breaking the law of the cave. Second, it represents the danger of mass society. While we want wisdom and truth, those who have fallen prey to the sophists will think the world of the Cave is truth. In thinking the world of the Cave is truth they ignorantly defend opinion as truth. They do not know any better. Ignorance is truly bliss. Thus, this is also a cautionary tale to the philosopher of the dangers of reentry into the Cave and of mass society.
Ultimately, then, Plato advocates that the philosopher needs to detach himself from the Cave and cave mentality. This is also, to Leo Strauss, another dividing line in his letters to Alexandre Kojève. Strauss argues with Kojève that the “intellectual” (a term that Kojève uses) is the noble and heroic philosopher who attempts to mobilize the Cave to leave and reach the world of the Sun. Strauss argues that such a view is foolish, and Plato tells us that such a view is foolish because it blinds the philosopher to the point of him becoming an ideologue for this effort of mobilization and exodus. Instead, the true philosopher remains in the world of the Sun and will be joined by other philosophers who leave the Cave on their own. The intellectuals, who descend back into the Cave, either die or conform back to the ways of the Cave.
Lastly, the world of the Cave, which is the world of sophistry, is also totalitarian and tyrannical for Plato. After all, the people of the Cave are prisoners. They are chained. They are dominated by the Sophists who control them, and who seek to keep them in the Cave. They do not seek the wisdom that Plato thinks humans naturally crave, instead, they’ve been conditioned to suppress their thinking soul (to think is life in Plato’s broader outlook) and accept opinion as truth. As such, the prisoners will never find the happiness that they desire.
This essay was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 16 August 2017.