Essay on platos analogy of the cave


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The artistic quality of this set up is what I think stands out most from Socrates's description: the prisoners are watching a performance that seems to be primarily about virtue and human relations; precisely the kind of performance familiar to the type of Greeks Socrates is addressing, who were accustomed to have tragedies and comedies as part and parcel of their cultural milieu. This is why we are explicitly told that the puppets themselves represent whether exclusively or primarily people and other animals cf b ; that is, the sorts of characters that would be needed to produce plays and dramas with moral content.

In fact, as Asli Gocer has argued, it is likely that Plato meant for this whole theatrical setup inside of the cave to not only evoke popular entertainment at large, but more specifically, to bring to mind the entire culture of comedy and, in particular, Aristophanic theatre cf Gocer This aspect of the Cave therefore foreshadows some things Socrates will say later in Book X about poets, playwrights, and other artists.

Notoriously, Socrates is there preoccupied with the nefarious effects of these arts on the philosophical spirit and on the ideal city. He tells us that, "all poetic imitators, beginning with Homer, imitate images of virtue and all the other things they write about and have no grasp of the truth" e, emphasis added ; and adds later on, that it is precisely because they do not know the truth, and they so easily influence the irrational side of the soul, that these imitators and their imitations are for the most part "able to corrupt even decent people" c. The talk about corruption is significant here because we should recall that the Cave is, by Socrates's own account, concerned with education and its effect on the soul, which means that it is presumably also concerned with the effects of bad education.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave - Alex Gendler

The message Socrates seems to be trying to convey to his interlocutors here is that there is a kind of upbringing that keeps the philosophically inclined person imprisoned. As we find out later, such bad education is partly the result of the effects of poetic imitation on the soul, and in that respect, as I have said, the Cave points us forward to the last part of The Republic.

Recall that Socrates urges Glaucon to fit the whole image with what was said before cf. This is the place to comment a little more on this very ambiguous statement. For "what was said before" can be anything from the prior two images that had been discussed just a moment ago by Socrates and Glaucon, to the opening claims that were made at the very beginning of the whole dialogue.

The phrase itself does not point us in any particular direction. Of course, the sentence that immediately follows this statement seems to settle the matter in a definitive direction, for it instructs us to liken the visible realm to the prison dwelling, and the fire burning inside of it to the power of the sun ibd. This seems to be a clear reference to the Sun and the Line, with the added explicit instruction that we think of the inside of the cave the prison dwelling as standing for the visible realm, and hence for the two lower segments of the Line.

I will discuss my disagreement with this implication later when I examine the second assumption that was mentioned above, namely, that the cave corresponds to the visible realm while the world outside the cave stands for the realm of the Forms. For now, I want to draw attention to the fact that the injunction to fit the image with what was said before seems to have been worded in an intentionally ambiguous manner.

It is, after all, a little suspicious that after having established a clear link between the prior two images, that of the Sun and the Line, by suggesting that the latter constitutes a more detailed examination of the former cf a , Socrates now gives us a very open-ended instruction to fit the image of the Cave with what was said before. He could have spared his interlocutors this ambiguity by explicitly suggesting to Glaucon that he fit the Cave image with the prior two images.

That he does not could be construed as an indication that he wants the attentive listener or reader to ask himself whether the strange drama of the Cave, that has just been described, might not be related to something else the group had been discussing earlier.

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Indeed, in Book VI, not long before they started considering the images of the Sun and the Line, Socrates and his interlocutors had been debating the demerits of sophistic education. Especially, that education afforded by the greatest sophist of them all: the many. In that prior conversation, Socrates attacked the sophists and the many for corrupting the young and for educating them through compulsion cf ee. The link between that prior discussion and the Cave is clearly discernible in the fact that both conversations are framed around the problem of education, which by Socrates's own admission is the central topic of the Cave cf a.


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Socrates's emphasis on the coercive nature of the sophistic education resonates strongly with his description of the Cave. Take for instance, the passage in c where Socrates tells us that one of the distinctive marks of the many, is the use of public gatherings to comment on the various things that are said and done in a very loud manner, "so that the very rocks and surroundings echo the din of their praise or blame and double it" b-c. Later, in the image of the Cave, Socrates speaks of the voices of the carriers as also echoing in the rocky walls of the cave cf b.

Indeed, this compulsion is so great that, should their words fail to influence, the many "punish anyone who isn't persuaded, with disenfranchisement, fines, or death" d. The alternatives for the philosophically inclined seem plain: either be a slave or a prisoner of the sophists and educators whether the many, or individual sophists like Thrasymachus, who is present at the conversation , or be vanquished by them.

To be sure, it cannot be said with certainty that these sophists have a malevolent intent in their teaching; this is especially true of the many, which at ec are described as a kind of mindless mob and a beast that is simply viscerally responding to its appetites, so that the pedagogical influence it exerts through its praise and blame seems to be instinctually driven.

Both private sophists and the sophistic multitude could be simply victims of their own ignorance. The emphasis is on the coercive nature of those methods not on whether there is an actual malicious aim behind them.


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  7. The distinctive feature of those methods, at least in this first discussion on the effects of bad education, seems to be the practice of pandering to the appetitive side of the soul both of individuals and of the city at large through praise and blame, which is a feature that seems to echo the Cave's talk of honors, praises, and prizes among the prisoners. Additionally, it should be observed that in this earlier discussion it is suggested that poets and craftsmen in general would be compelled to produce the things that the multitude praise cf d , which means that their artistic products only cater to the pleasures of the many and not to the truth.

    I have argued that the admonition to link the Cave with what was said before could be read as an invitation to recall Socrates's first pedagogical discussion in Book VI concerning the bad effects of sophistic education. This discussion itself is conducted against the background of a prior argument in Books II and III regarding the correct education for the guardians in the ideal city, which, significantly, revolved around the bad influence of art on the young, and the urgency of finding an austere form of artistic education and storytelling that could better serve the real needs of the guardians and the citizens at large cf eb.

    All this anticipates the more detailed discussion and criticism against art in Book X that I mentioned already. The Cave appears to be the central axis upon which all these different strands, coming from both the beginning and the end of The Republic, converge and are woven together into a strange drama that is predicated on the pernicious influence of current educators on the philosophically inclined soul, and on the necessity of instituting a genuine philosophical upbringing that can reform the city and liberate us from such bad cultural influences.

    Explain Plato's use of the metaphor of the shadows in his Allegory of the Cave.

    But following these connections between the Cave and Plato's ironic contention against the theatrical culture and the corrupting educational system of his time, leads us to another very notable place that clearly seems connected to this famous allegory, and that is likely meant to be part of the things that we are supposed to recall when Socrates urges us to link the Cave to what was said before.

    It is a place that in its treatment of the topics of heroic liberation, of death and rebirth, and of Socrates's trial and execution, also confirms the supreme importance of political themes for the image of the Cave, an image that, as I have claimed, seems to be the real heart of the book as a whole and of all the discussions that precede and succeed it. Let me begin with the theme of liberation and Plato's portrayal of Socrates as a kind of heroic and revolutionary emancipator who is meant to enact the kind of reform needed to cleanse the city of its corrupt politics.

    As commentators have noted, The Republic opens with a metaphor of descent and return that sets the stage for everything else that is to follow. Socrates begins the narrative with the words "I went down kateben to the Piraeus yesterday" a. The sentence appears to deliberatively echo Odysseus's remarks to his wife towards the end of Homer's Odyssey: "I went down kateben inside the house of Hades, seeking to learn about homecoming, for myself and for my companions" XXIII But, of course, the important point to emphasize here is that talk of descent into Hades brings to mind, the released prisoner's return by way of descent into the cave.

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    This is no mere circumstantial association, for the Cave's connection to these themes is clearly established, among other things, by the direct quotation of the dead Achilles's words to Odysseus in Hades, that Socrates employs while insisting to Glaucon that the released prisoner would "feel, with Homer, that he'd much prefer to 'work the earth as a serf to another one without possessions', and go through any sufferings rather than share their opinions and lives as they do" d.

    Even though there are many different tales of mortals dying and later becoming gods in Greek literature, likely this latter reference is an explicit allusion to the story of Heracles for, as Eva Brann has noted, there are many signs in The Republic that point to the fact that the figure of Socrates is in different ways metaphorically playing the role of Heracles and reenacting his famous Labors cf.

    Brann When he is finally able to interrupt the dialogue to interpose his own opinion, Thrasymachus roars and pounces upon Socrates like a wild beast cf. And at one point Socrates insinuates that quarreling with Thrasymachus is as crazy as shaving a lion cf. The metaphorical connection between Socrates and Heracles is significant because we should recall that the final and most important Labor of Heracles is his descent into Hades. In the course of performing this task, he also releases Theseus who has been chained down in the underworld.

    In fact, Heracles seems to have a knack for releasing chained prisoners since he is also responsible for liberating Prometheus, who was bound to a rock as punishment for having shared the secret of fire with humanity. The allegory of the Cave, with its fire burning behind the wall and its clear reference to the shades of the underworld, seems to have been crafted so as to deliberately recollect these myths of liberation, thereby emphasizing the very political theme of Socrates's role as a revolutionary figure that threatens the traditional order by attempting to emancipate the nobly inclined souls that have been corrupted by the political and cultural dynamics governing the democratic city a role, of course, for which he was judged and executed.

    As we will shortly see, the Cave is also linked to these judicial and political themes. In fact, it is difficult not to hear in the Cave's imagery and descriptions an ironic jab at Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, in which Prometheus tells us that, before he came to their aid, men "lived like swarming ants in holes in the ground, in the sunless caves of the earth" Prometheus Of course, Aeschylean tragedy is not the only target of Plato's biting pen here. As mentioned earlier, the image of the Cave seems to be also in direct dialogue with Aristophanic comedy. Indeed, Nickolas Pappas has argued that a case can be made that Plato constructed his dialogues as philosophical modifications of Aristophanes's plays, which, as far as we can tell from the works that have survived, appear to have dealt often with metaphors of death, regeneration, and rebirth cf In The Republic, Plato ironically reverses many of Aristophanes's comedic and satiric invectives, most notably by presenting to us a Socrates that does not, as the comedian would have it, imprison his students inside a sun-deprived thinking-shop that resembles the cave of Trophonius, in order to turn them into pale intellectual bums cf Aristophanes , , Instead, Plato has his Socrates act as a midwife that helps release his students out of their dark existence into the sunlight.

    In this connection, it is worth mentioning that Plato's description of Socratic education as an act of midwifery is meant to contrast with the description he gives in Book i of the sophist Thrasymachus's preferred pedagogical approach, which consists in having a wet nurse forcefully feed knowledge into a child or a person cf. This is, thus, another way in which the conversation in Book i is meant to prepare the ground for the Cave allegory with its instruction to fit the image with "what was said before", while at the same time highlighting the Cave's connection to the very political theme of the clash between an emancipatory educational system that could reform the city so as to turn into a birthing ground for justice and the good life, and the coercive pedagogy that actually rules in current cities, plunging them into the deadly underworld of corruption and injustice.

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    Additionally, we should note that these themes also link the Cave once again with Book X, through a route other than the one already mentioned above viz. For the myth of Er that is told at the end of The Republic also traffics with themes of descent, death, and rebirth. The myth tells the story of Er, a man who descended into Hades, and was able to journey though the underworld to return to the world above; in other words, the very myth Socrates has just finished enacting himself by descending into the Piraeus and journeying through the whole dialogue which he is now recollecting on the next day recall that Socrates begins his dialogue by telling us that his descent to the Piraeus happened "yesterday" cf Sallis The Cave seems to be the center point around which the whole work revolves and through which it is funneled back on itself, a circle that appears to symbolize a seemingly infinite loop or eternal recurrence of death and rebirth.

    There are other indications that the Cave is meant to mirror in special ways the opening scenes of The Republic and to make us recollect them in the course of reflecting about the prisoner's drama.

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    I already mentioned the contrast it establishes between Thrasymachus's pedagogical preferences and those favored by the released prisoner i. But Thrasymachus's quarrel with Socrates in Book i has other elements that anticipate the description of the prisoner's situation. In his initial intervention Thrasymachus accuses Socrates and Polemarchus of simply asking questions and refuting answers only to satisfy their own competitiveness and love of honor cf c. Yet he himself seems to be preoccupied with these things, for, as the argument advances, he demands that Socrates pay a fine in order to hear his answer about justice cf d , a gesture that could be interpreted as a demand for the sort of prize Socrates says the prisoners might give each other for being better at deciphering the shadows on the wall cf c.

    After suggesting that Thrasymachus wants to win the admiration of the others i. We should also notice that among the people present at the conversation in Book i and thereafter there are some who remain silent throughout the whole dialogue. In this they resemble the puppeteers some of whom, we are explicitly told, are speaking while others are quiet cf ca. Thus, the opinions Socrates and his interlocutors voice at the beginning of the dialogue are grounded in and produced by the cultural heritage of the Greeks.

    Socrates applies the scalpel to these cultural opinions regarding justice and the good life that have been preserved in the work of artists like Sophocles and Homer, or in the memory of other authoritative figures, and that are taken at face value by those present at the conversation, since they have been indoctrinated from childhood to believe what those authorities say. This early exchange, then, anticipates again the setup of the Cave, in which the prisoners are examining culturally sanctioned opinions of justice, symbolized by the drama of shadows produced by puppeteers with the help of puppets and other artifacts, and projected onto the back wall of the cave with the help of the burning fire that stands behind them i.

    These links between the Cave and Book i that I have been discussing are important for my argument because, as has been observed, the action in Book I is also teeming with veiled and ironic allusions to the very political theme of Socrates's trial and execution cf Bloom ; Sallis ff. The city of Athens compelled Socrates to defend himself and win his acquittal against charges of impiety and of corrupting the youth. In the same way, at the beginning of The Republic, Socrates is thwarted from returning to Athens by Polemarchus and his men, who jokingly "compel" him to stay through threat of force, and it is Socrates himself who proposes that he win his own release through persuasion cf.

    We are also told that Socrates has descended into the Piraeus to pray to the new Thracian moon goddess, Bendis, whose cult had been recently introduced into Athens's harbor partly in order to sediment the alliance with Thrace, thereby ensuring a steady supply of timber for the city's war fleet cf. Since the charge of impiety included the accusation that Socrates had introduced new deities into the city, this is Plato's ironic way of suggesting that it is Athens itself that is really guilty of introducing new gods, and of doing so for venal reasons.

    The parody of Socrates's trial in Book i culminates in the exchange with Thrasymachus, who in his initial intervention accuses Socrates of shielding himself behind his "usual irony" cf.

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