The Allegory of the Cave
Imagine a cave. Inside that cave are prisoners who are chained up in such a way that they can only look straight forward. In front of the prisoners is a cave wall. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and in between the fire and the prisoners is a raised ledge. Behind this ledge is a roadway where men walk back and forth casting shadow puppets on the wall in front of the prisoners.
If these prisoners had been raised in this environment since birth, the shadows would be the only reality they know to be true. If they were allowed to speak to each other, they might come up with names for the various shadows on the wall. They may even hold a contest to see who can guess what the next shadow will be and award each other with praise for the correct guess.
Now, imagine what would happen if one prisoner were set free. Having lived in the dark his whole life, his first view of the fire would result in pain and temporary blindness. But after his eyes became accustomed to the light, he would be able to see the cave for what it really is. From here he would be able to leave the cave. Walking out into full sunlight, his eyes would hurt and temporary blindness would again ensue. But after his eyes grew accustomed to the sunlight, he would be able to see the world for what it truly is. It would take time for him to fully understand what he was seeing, but after a while he would know the world and the things in it.
Then the liberated prisoner would remember his past and his old home in the cave. He would remember what he thought of as real, and those still imprisoned there. He would hold in his heart a certain amount of contempt for the praise awarded for their silly competitions.
If he returned to the cave, and to the prisoners, what would they think of him? Most probably they would lash out violently against him and perhaps even kill him because he revealed a truth that was beyond their comprehension.
The Allegory of the Divided Line
To understand the context of the Allegory of the Cave, we also have to look at the Allegory of the Divided Line.
Imagine a line that has been unequally divided. On one side of the divide are all things that can be seen. On the other side are all things that exist in the mind. Breaking this down even further, imagine that there is a subdivision of each side. On the side of the world of sight there are shadows and reflections of objects, and there are the actual objects themselves. On the side of the world of thought there are mental pictures of objects in the world of sight, and there are ideas and ideals. (See Picture Above) The allegory of the cave is a metaphor for the progression from one side of this line to the other. From the world of conjecture to the world of wisdom.
Put another way, Plato believed that there were four levels of reality: images, sensible objects, lower forms and higher forms. Additionally, he believed that there were four methods of comprehending these forms: imagination, perception, reason, and understanding. People on a lower level cannot understand the concepts expressed by those on a higher level.
Combined, these allegories stress the importance of real education. We can view the cave as a metaphor for ignorance. An ignorant person is only capable of conjecture (guessing shadows on the wall). Once the prisoner is set free he is able to move from a world of mere conjecture to belief (seeing the fire and the cave). As the prisoner moves out of the cave, he moves into the realm of understanding. And finally, when he understands all that there is around him and learns to exercise reason, he attains wisdom.
Plato addresses the fact that acquiring this education can be a painful and arduous journey. When moving from one point of the divided line to another, our eyes may hurt, and we may be temporarily blinded. But once we adjust to the new concepts, we are able to move forward again.
The "Ideal Republic"
Plato's Republic is really a conversation that attempts to define justice. Plato's thinking was that if one could define an ideal and just system of government, then the same equation could be used to define a just man living an ideal life. He applies the macro to the micro, and vice-versa, in analogous terms.
Plato divided his thinking into a just state or an unjust state. He considered his aristocracy the only just state. Those that were unjust to him were: Timocracy, military rule; Oligarchy, rule by the wealthy; Democracy, mob rule; and Tyranny, rule by an individual. Plato did not consider the excluded middle, however. Something exists outside of a just state and an unjust state: no state. He based the premises of his argument on the opinion that no man can be self sufficient, that there must be a structured and well ordered society so that an individual can acquire the basic necessities, and that excessive liberty leads to a lack of self control. This is the basis for all collectivist thought.
Ethics (Back to the Cave)
Plato's idea was to raise an aristocratic class of philosopher-kings outside of the cave. They would be the only ones allowed to reside and be educated in the light. The other classes would be left inside staring at shadows on the wall. Plato's miserable attempt at ethics comes when Socrates tells Glaucon that the ethical thing to do is to descend into the cave and live there. This does not, however, mean that Glaucon was to go into the cave and chain himself up. The intention was for Glaucon to go into the cave and rule. Plato was basically advocating intellectual slavery as right and just.
The ethical thing to do would be to free ALL of the slaves, even if they were hostile toward you for doing it.
We Are All In The Cave
"It is not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, that is the death of knowledge." ~ Alfred North Whitehead
"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." ~ Confucius
What Plato describes in the Republic is eerily similar to our current condition. What we have today is an amalgamation of an aristocracy combined with an oligarchy and disguised as representative democracy.
We have a ruling class. They are educated differently than most of the population. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, let it be noted that formal logic and true liberal arts have been completely removed from our public education system. (See further reading section below) Our military and police act as an auxiliary, keeping the producers in line both at home and overseas. And the productive class watches hours of television daily. Like slaves watching shadows on a cave wall, people dumb themselves down on a daily basis and call it reality. Everyone seems to passively accept their station in life. The noble lie seems to be working.
Our noble lie is different than Plato's. Instead of uniting the collective for some perceived greater good, it works against us all. The only similarity is that it restricts the liberty of those of us who would fall under Plato's lower two castes. I should know, I have been a member of both.
But there is hope. In his wildest dreams and deepest thoughts, Plato could not have imagined the world we live in today. We have something that has the potential to set us all free. With this tool, every man has the potential to be a philosopher. We have the potential to climb up out of the cave.
A look at history shows that certain technological innovations have the potential to spark massive shifts in consciousness through education of the masses. In the mid-1400s the Gutenburg Printing Press was invented. This was a contributing factor to the Renaissance (around 1400-1700) which was a precursor to the Age of Enlightenment (around 1700-1800). For the first time, people had access to information that had previously been held back from them.
Then came radio and television. Both of these technological innovations had the potential to unite us once and for all. They could have been used as a means to educate the masses. Unfortunately they were corrupted, and now serve to enslave rather than liberate.
Then something really big happened. The internet! For the first time in history, any information you can possibly think of is available at a moment's notice. As long as a person has cell phone coverage, he or she can access anything. The library of Alexandria cannot hold a candle next to what we have at our fingertips today. This is an amazing tool. Sadly, this medium is slowly being corrupted as well.
Summary (How I See It)
I enjoy reading the dialogues of Plato. The rhetoric employed by Socrates is priceless. His questions force a state of cognitive dissonance on his opponent, and a lot can be learned from the tactics of argumentation he employed.
The allegory of the cave and the divided line ring as true today as they did two thousand years ago. But today, seeing the shadows for what they really are is a simple process. Seeing the cave, and finally walking out into the light of day is as easy as connecting to the internet and searching for a proper education. This information is readily available, and most of it is completely free! Plato's Republic cost me nothing. It was downloaded wirelessly to my Kindle and I did not pay one cent for it.
Plato believed that only a class of philosopher-kings were capable of ruling themselves and ruling others. In times past, a system of government may have been required. Not everyone had the ability to gain understanding and wisdom. But the technological advancements that we live with today make complete autonomy possible for every single one of us. Plato's Republic is not a template for a free society. It is a blueprint for enslavement. We do not need philosopher-kings. We can learn to rule ourselves. We just have to stop playing Farmville on facebook and wake up!
Every time I think I have made it out of the cave, I realize that there is so much more out there that I need to know. I have accepted my own ignorance. I may not be outside in full daylight, but I can at least see the cave and the fire. And I am climbing my way out of the cave one little bit of information at a time.
To see the cave is the first step in leaving it, and that step is a very easy one to take.
See you at Galt's Gulch!
Anthem by Ayn Rand (Amazon)
The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins (Full Text Available Online)
The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (Amazon)
The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto (Amazon)
Why People Fail To Recognize Their Own Incompetence (Full Text Available Online)
The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America (Full Text Available Online)