You Don’t Get Plato’s Cave

Artwork: Das Gastmahl Nach Platon | Anselm Feuerbach

The vast majority of people who talk about Plato’s Cave allegory have no idea what it was actually meant to convey. In case you haven’t heard of it before here is how it’s first introduced:

Imagine a number of people living in an underground cave, which has an entrance that opens towards the daylight. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck, such that they cannot move nor turn their heads to look around. There is a fire behind them, and between these prisoners and the fire, there is a low wall.

Rather like a shadow puppet play, objects are carried before the fire, from behind the low wall, casting shadows on the wall of the cave for the prisoners to see. Those carrying the objects may be talking, or making noises, or they may be silent. What might the prisoners make of these shadows, of the noises, when they can never turn their heads to see the objects or what is behind them?

The Republic, Plato

Nearly everyone who’s gone to college has heard of it. It also makes the rounds in a lot of YouTube videos. But like almost anything on the internet, the actual meaning of Plato’s allegory has devolved into an argument saying basically that I am right and you just don’t realize you’re wrong.

My Quick Summary of The Story

The main character in the story lives in an underground society that bases all meaning on shadows that are mysteriously cast on the walls of their cave. They cannot see the people who make the shadows or the fire that they’re using to do it.

But despite how strange this all seems they argue and believe and live just like everyone else always has. They believe that their form of life is the way life is.

But then one nameless cave dweller escapes and makes it to the surface. He sees forests and animals and comes to understand that everything he has ever known is just some elaborate trick.

When he returns, rather than being able to help his friends, he is ignored by all of them. The things he’s saying sound crazy. He’s trying to describe things that they can’t grasp.

Worse yet his eyes have adjusted to the light and now he seems completely inept at judging the shadows that life in the cave are based on.

So What Does This Weird Little Story Mean?

The meaning of the story is not just that people are stupid or that society is based on shallow things. Plato actually had a very specific meaning for the story.

The point is that people’s feeling that they understand what is going on is just a feeling. It can be hard to seriously believe that you’re mistaken when your gut feels like you’re correct strongly enough.

But that feeling is just a chemical reaction in the brain. It is not directly tied to the truth in any way.

And true knowledge doesn’t just automatically convince people of anything. In fact, the more different a truth is from what people believe the more likely it is to strike them as ridiculous.

Plato then went on to describe what he thought to be the truth. But I think that his mentor Socrates actually had a more interesting take on all of this. Socrates believed that the first step and perhaps the most important one was to fight against that instinct at knowledge.

Socrates spent his time going from guru to guru in his society and arguing them into a stupor. His point was not to simply tear down everything but to place people’s belief systems in the proper context.

We are all slaves to our own senses and cognition. How would we know if they were simply wrong? When one person is consistently confused about reality we call them stupid or crazy. But if all of us were we’d never know.

The only way to progress further and further towards the truth then is to be open to the idea that we may be mistaken. Even when we feel very certain about something.

To take this analogy and use it to argue that our own sense of certainty is justified while everyone else is an ignorant cave person is precisely to be like the shadow watchers in Plato’s story.

This isn’t an argument for simply shrugging our shoulders and admitting defeat. In fact Plato went on to describe a very specific theory of truth based on all of this. The point is simply to never allow yourself to feel like you’re done being ignorant.

There is always more to the truth than you understand.

Your beliefs are never safe from scrutiny.

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