Regarding the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, please give a summary and meaning of the allegory itself. What is this story trying to convey?
- I have read the allegory but the passage is confusing and I need a better explanation.
Translations differ, but here is one version of the opening line:
"Next," I said, "here's a situation which you can use as an analogy for the human condition--for our education or lack thereof.
For the sake of visualizing this analogy, think of the structure of the cave from left to right. The outside light shines into the mouth of the cave on the left. Moving into the cave, to the right, the floor slopes down. There are people carrying artifacts. There is a free-standing wall to the right, so only part of these people can be seen from the right. Further down the slope, there is a fire. And further in are people who are chained in such a way that they can only see straight ahead to the right. They only see the right wall of the cave. They can't see the mouth, the people carrying figures, nor the fire behind them. All they see is shadows of those things. If they hear anything from those people, or the crackling of the fire (anything at all), they will attribute that noise to the shadows. Thus, for those chained people, the shadows (not the people carrying the artifacts, nor the fire) are reality.
Plato presents this as an analogy for the human condition. This applies to Plato's philosophy of Ideal Forms. He believed that these abstract Ideal Truths were like the sunlight outside the cave. We are analogous to the prisoners in the cave; if we are to become enlightened, we must find a way to break our chains (limited ways of thinking) and turn around to see the greater truth of the people with artifacts and the greatest Ideal Truth of the Light outside the cave.
In the text, Socrates asks Glaucon to suppose that one prisoner gets free and discovers the fire, the people carrying artifacts, and the sun outside: the real meaning and Truth of things. At first, that prisoner would be bewildered. Once the prisoner became used to this new, enlightened truth, he would no longer be able to revert to a state of merely perceiving the shadows of reality. And if he tried to get his fellow prisoners to also become free and "see the light," they might be hostile toward him or simply not understand him.
For Plato, the role of the philosopher is to become enlightened, to think beyond the physical world and get to the truth of things. This realm of truth he called the realm of Ideal Forms. Once a philosopher has gained this kind of insight (gotten out of the cave), he would feel sorry for his fellow prisoners and would want them to be free to do the same. But, Socrates warns, he will be met with opposition because those prisoners, having no knowledge at all of the world outside the cave (a higher reality of truth), will not understand him or will stubbornly refuse to try to understand him.
In his own time, Socrates was admired by many thinkers but he had enemies. These enemies are analogous to the prisoners in the cave who would be too ignorant and/or refuse to listen to an enlightened philosopher. Socrates himself was tried and sentenced to death for sharing his enlightened ideas. He was like a prisoner who became free and went in to free others. In the end, he enlightened some and angered others.