Through The Cave And Back Again

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Examing Plato’s famous allegory from another angle, fresh with modern references (from Batman to Occupy to Natalie Portman) and classic philosophical roots (Impartiality, Relativity, the role of Empathy).

Transcript of Through The Cave And Back Again




A Modern Critique ofPlato's Allegory ofThe Cave in Book VII ofThe Republic


This text is intended as supplementary reading f those or seeking f urther examination and discussion on the highly noted dialogue. It is f f download and reproduction with attribution ree or to the author f non-commercial purposes. or

Through The Cave and Back Again by A.L.R. Garlow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

CONTENTSINTRODUCTION Chapter I Being the Protagonist Chapter II Being the Collective Chapter III The Outsider's Dilemma2 4 13 20

INTRODUCTIONImagine mankind as dwelling in an underground cave...

Did you know that Glaucon was Platos older brother? If you didnt until now, do not worry this question is not to test your minute knowledge of Platos family tree or the small details of his Socratic dialogue. Instead, I bring up this point of Greek trivia to perhaps highlight how the famous Allegory of The Cave has come to ultimately dwarf other aspects of Platos narrative piece out of massive popularity, though for fair reason. It is common at least among those vaguely interested in philosophy and/or critical thinking to have some sort of knowledge on The Cave, even if one is not read in the entirety of The Republic (which is very much worth reading nonetheless). And while the storys universality of meaning (both relatively easy to understand and keen to generate discussion) is one of the many accounts for why it has become so popular a topic, it also creates a great deal of problems in the way we've structured our


perception of the tale. While rising in popularity it has also formed, for professors and students alike, the 'one true way' of summarizing the allegory. Unfortunately, this can hinder its use in philosophical debate. The common focal point of The Cave is often thought to be an examination of educations nature, and the need to continually seek further understanding. The meaning of the story obviously favours the philosophers life, the examined life, though few will have reason to counter-argue against the protagonists actions. For as the reader, we see the main characters enlightenment (both literal and figurative) and his attempt to share knowledge with his kind a worthy path. To argue against his actions, we would have to suggest that it is better for the characters of The Cave to be left in the dark, and even the connotation of that phrase allows us to see its negativity. Platos persuasion is effective in having the reader root for the home team of philosophy... when we are examining from the introspect of the protagonist. But what if we are to examine every aspect of the cave, not only as the protagonist, but as the collective and the omniscient? For a modern critique of Platos famous Allegory, we must acknowledge what it is like to be not only the philosopher, but the community. Over the course of this short reading, we will immerse ourselves in the lives of those left behind in the shadows of the cave, as well as re-examining the position of the reader as the omnipresent outsider.


CHAPTER I Being The Protagonist

The protagonist of The Caves story as related by Socrates to Glaucon, the individual that is released from his binds and allowed to venture, is where some readers often find themselves first and foremost. For when being the protagonist prisoner, we are encouraged to see ourselves as mere students, unaware of our full surroundings. This view of The Cave fits best with Socrates well-repeated statement of All I know is that I know nothing and is perhaps where Platos account ofthe tale intends to place us. Our protagonist has the same background as any other cave dweller: from childhood, he had his neck and legs restrained in order to stay in one place, facing one cave wall. The fire behind our protagonist allows him to see the same shadows of figures as all others, or so we are led to believe, though with this we might raise an issue. Note that the eyesight ofThe Cave dwellers is essential to their perception of the shadows. Plato is likely assuming in his recollection that all within have equal eye sight, but this is a skewed interpretation of perception if we are to be using this allegory to represent practical humanity. Even those raised in nearly identical environments have the chance to perceive reality differently. To solve this small dilemma for now, let us suggest that some of the dwellers indeed have fairly different or impaired eye sight. Yet their limited knowledge makes it difficult for an individual to explain these perceptive differences to other members, much in the same way we might have trouble


explaining what we see colour as to someone else who sees colour in a whole other way, such as colour-blindness or full blindness. In this way, we allow the realities of the community to differ in subtle ways while still noting that the protagonist is generally similar to his kin. Then, we have the puppeteers who must be addressed in order to add clarity to The Cave. These puppeteers are peculiar at best, but even though the omniscient reader (detailed in Chapter III) understands how the puppeteers work, we must make it very clear that to be in the position of the protagonist means to act as if unaware to them, just as any other in their community. Unfortunately, the puppeteers do not fit into an application of representing humanity and only exist to aid in the progression of The Cave for all intents and purposes, we could easily replace them with wild animals straying into this cave passing by the flames and exiting swiftly, or leaves floating in the breeze creating shadows. This would at least remove the idea that there are human figures which have somehow been able to hide their existence from the prisoners, making the tale more agreeable. I believe that these puppeteers have been more a source of confusion than of clarity, so it is best to not focus on them for great lengths if we seek a simple explanation ofThe Caves basic functions. Another detail of the protagonists upbringings, it is mentioned that the prisoners talk amongst each other,


give names and accounts of the shadows they see on the wall we must recognize that our protagonist prisoner accepts these names and the many other things accepted in his culture on the subject of these figures. It is key to see the protagonist as the everyman, not unlike his cave mates at the beginning of the allegory. Though some may try to see the individual as superior or more likely (by some inherent intelligence or wit) to learn the truths outside his world as his release from The Cave progresses, this is a mistake. In a real world application, this not only suggests that truths may reveal themselves at random or by chance, but that they will not often reveal themselves to the entirety of a group at the same time one may be separated from the rest with new information. This is to the misfortune of our individual, for he was not lucky enough to be given stronger numbers for his task. The instrumental purpose this serves to the philosophers persuasion is to show that the majority is not always correct, and that the unpopular philosopher with radical ideas is in the right. Perhaps this aggrandizes ones own sense of rightness, which is why more than a single outlook of the allegory is necessary, but it may also give hope to those facing a status quo. What can be derived from this particular outlook is the emotional stem ofThe Cave: facing the fear, curiosity, and revelation of new ideas or uncovered truths. Unlike the era in which The Republic was first written, we


now face a myriad of media bombardments, social movements, and community activism which rely on the very notion of unearthing (or concealing) a certain reality that has been obscured from the general public. Though neither Plato nor Socrates knew of what was to come in our time, their philosophies have a hard-hitting resonance with these modern critical issues. Through the individual we experience that knowledge of greater reality does not come suddenly nor does it come as something that is always pleasing or obvious. Our first reaction upon release from the cave is pain as we turn towards the fire casting shadows. The heat and overwhelming light, dangerous and strong in their nature, are enough to overwhelm the protagonist. His earlier pretentions are here being challenged for the first time in his entire existence. As he is further introduced to the shapes that create his shadows ofreality, he may be even prompted to insist what he saw before is true. Are we to expect any other reaction than this deep rejection of what he is seeing? This may be the very same individual who later moves on to a better understanding of his surroundings, but for the time being, he is just a man afraid and confused. We should not mock him for what seems to be a weakness, but neither should these new ideas back off or respect his beliefs. If they do, he will be left to mull in his fear, which could grow into hatred or mistrust. What is best for the individual may not be the most polite, and so our protagonist is dragged


by force further into that which he protests. As the allegory this tale is, these actions might prompt the activist or knowledge seeker to say aggression is the only true way to bring about realisation. And while the more revolutionary may have utilized aggression, whether just or unjust, for their cause, the force exerted in The Cave is not honest aggression in the least. What we are witnessing as this imprisoned man is ripped from his comforting reality is an act of persistence and an act of