Plato was an early Greek philosopher who instituted the Academy and is most well-known for his writings of unparalleled influence. Throughout his life, Plato had written many dialogues over numerous subjects, some being justice, epistemology, political philosophy, and even theology.
One of Plato’s most successful and widely read dialogues was the Republic. Before the Republic, many of Plato’s dialogues consisted of a speaker, Socrates, refuting the positions of his interlocutors, and many of the dialogues do not end with an adequate answer. However, the Republic delivers a position in which Socrates takes on justice and its relation to happiness. Plato also gives his own idea of justice, which individually, is a human virtue that makes a person moral and political justice is harmony in a structured political body. Even though the Republic is a dialogue spoken from Socrates, it’s essentially Plato writing his views of a utopian society through Socrates. Plato’s ideas are evidently expressed when Socrates is given the job of making the perfect society.
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Plato, speaking through Socrates, views the perfect society as consisting of three classes that are not viewed more important than the other. However, he believes that philosopher-kings should rule the perfect city. Plato expresses that these rulers should have a passion and love for learning. In Book VII of the Republic, Plato introduces the most renowned metaphor in Western thought, the allegory of the cave. The allegory of the cave illustrates Plato’s views on the nature of knowledge, truth, and the effects of education on the human soul. Plato unfolds the allegory of the cave within the context of education and by creating a scene in which Socrates tells Glaucon, one of Socrates’ interlocutors, to envision prisoners who have been bound by chains since childhood. Their necks and feet are restrained in a way that renders them incapable of moving or looking around them. For their entire lives all these prisoners saw was what was in front of them, which is the wall of a cave (Plato, 2012).
In the theory that Plato presents, the cave signifies individuals who accept that knowledge comes from their physical senses interpreting the world around them, also known as empirical evidence. The cave displays that the individuals who accept empirical knowledge to be true are imprisoned in a cave of confusion. The allegory then goes on to describe a burning fire behind the prisoners. Between the fire and the prisoners is a walk-way that men use to transport objects made of stone. The fire, burning behind the walkway, emits shadows as the men walk by with these objects (Plato, 2012). The shadows signify the observations of those who believe empirical evidence confirms knowledge.
These prisoners believe what they see, and they perceive it as true, except they are simply observing a shadow of the truth. Plato does not identify the men that walk on the walkway, but these men influence the ideas and beliefs of the prisoners. These men represent the individuals that possess authority, the prisoners only believe in what the overseer’s show them. Plato is writing about the government, teachers, and religious leaders that impact the thoughts and control the views of society.
Plato argues that philosophers should rule as kings in the government because all philosophers seek and possess knowledge. In Plato’s utopian society, political rule depends on knowledge not power. The great difference between individuals who seek and possess power and the individuals who seek and possess knowledge is evident in the allegory of the cave. Socrates goes on to explain how the prisoners begin to create names for the shadows; some of the prisoners then guess which shadows will appear next. The prisoners who can guess the next shadow correctly are given the title of expert or master by the other prisoners (Plato, 2012).
The guessing game represents how individuals believe that one can become an expert when they have knowledge of the empirical world. Plato indicates that this expert doesn’t really know what is true, and it’s absurd for individuals to glorify someone like this. Plato continues to write how one of the prisoners is set free and he turns around to see the fire.
The light emitting from the fire hurts his eyes and instantly makes him turn back around to where he is comfortable and can see. Eventually, the prisoner adapts to the brightness of the fire but is uncomfortable in the process. The prisoner is then forced out of the cave into the sunlight, where he is immediately blinded. The prisoner then finds it easiest to look at the shadows around him, the reflections of objects in the water, and then he is finally able to look at the sun itself in which he realizes is the source of the shadows and reflections (Plato, 2012) The released prisoner represents the philosopher, in which he first encounters the fire and although painful to look at he eventually adapts to its brightness; this represents enlightenment as the philosopher recognizes his own ignorance. However, many prisoners would rather turn back around to where they were most comfortable and reject enlightenment. When the prisoner exits the cave and meets the sunlight, he undergoes an extremely painful process.
The prisoner is willing to accept the sunlight and adapt accordingly. The prisoner then realizes the sun is the source of all, the sun represents philosophical wisdom and truth. The prisoner’s journey signifies a philosopher’s expedition when discovering knowledge and truth. The allegory does not end there; the prisoner then feels sorrow toward his fellow prisoners who are stuck in the cave. So, the prisoner returns to the cave where he is unable to see clearly because he has adjusted to the sunlight.
Once the returned prisoner begins to tell his fellow prisoners about what is truth, reality, and knowledge they are immediately reluctant. Not only are the prisoners reluctant towards the returned prisoner but they become hostile towards him, threatening to kill him if he attempts to free one of them (Plato, 2012).