Plato – Forms, Reality, and the Allegory of the Cave

How do you know that what you see around you is really real? How would you know reality when you saw it? What if we all were in some artificial simulation (or simulacra) that is a mere reflection of the actual world? What came first, the thing, or the idea of that thing?

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Outside of The Matrix (which I am not sure people really watch anymore) or Inception, one of the core questions of philosophy over the millennia has been related to the nature of reality and how we would even know if we were living in such a world. Plato (428-348 BC) was a philosopher and Athenian who wrote about the life of his mental master and mentor, Socrates (470-399 BC). While I am not going to give these two their due, because it would simply take way too long, I do want to mention that these two were some of Classical Greece’s Golden Age Philosophers, another being Plato’s student and later, Alexander the Great’s teacher, Aristotle.

In short, given the other lessons we have talked about, what Plato and Socrates talked about relating to today’s ideas was that everything had multiple forms. The Greeks were very interested in finding some universal law that dictated everything. Much like Einstein much later wanted to find a grand unifying theory in physics and mathematics, Plato and Socrates wanted to explain the solution where the idea of something is perfect. We see that in our own minds often. We can envision a project in its perfect outcome. Our paintings have perfect brush strokes with brilliant paint and are instantly masterpieces, our papers are lauded for their brilliance. We see the Form of them, the Ideal of them. We also know that when we create something, it rarely if ever conforms to our idea of it. When I set out to write blog posts for your enjoyment I see many people following them and publishers clamoring for me to write a philosophy book for students. This, in an imperfect nutshell, is what Plato thought of as the perfect Form of something. In fact, even in our minds, we cannot compare to the Form of it in perfection. What we can create, no matter how hard we try or how beautiful it is, is merely a shadow of what the Form of it really is in the world of Ideas.

Part of what makes an Idea so perfect is the fact that it is unchanging. We and those things in our world are ever changing and aging and decomposing from the moment they are born, and because of that, they cannot be perfect nor can they live up to the ideal of the Idea. Babies are so beautiful to us because they are just new and seem to not be changing when we see the baby, we see the ideal of the baby that we want, that is stuck in our memories from that first photo or social media post right after birth.

To explain this, Socrates walks us through a story that is related to us in Plato’s Dialogues. This is what came to be known as the Allegory of the Cave. The Allegory of the Cave is perhaps the most famous story in Western Philosophy. It is just a short excerpt from Plato’s book, The Republic. In The Republic, Plato tries to convince his interlocutors (those he is debating with) of many things including the perfect forms of government (philosopher kings are in charge, shocker!), the Theory of Forms, and the Socratic Method, among other things.

Imagine you are chained to a wall inside a cave. You have been so all your life, and have had no experiences outside the cave ever. I am sure you can imagine that you would not have seen mountains, clouds, rain, elephants, or other wonders and would have no frame of reference for them. Chances are, these prisoners would not even be able to imagine the possibility of these things. Some way off behind the prisoners, at the mouth of the cave, is a fire that constantly burns and throws light against the wall at the opposite end of the cave that the prisoners face. There are people who walk in front of the fire carrying objects and their shadows are projected by the fire so the prisoners see the shades of them and create names and stories for these shadows. In fact, the shadows are all they know. I am sure you can see where this is going both as a story, and an allegory for the Theory of Forms.

Eventually, one of the prisoners look down to see that his manacles are off, and he is free. He gets up and looks around, sees the fire and the world beyond. The light of the fire is more than he has ever seen, and as his ignorance is burned away, it acts as a physical wound and hurts him. The memory of that enlightenment stays, More than that, he sees the people creating shadows, and naturally, his mind is blown. He has no reference point for these new things and as he takes them in, he is seeing beyond the shade or the fake world that he was raised knowing. The question is, can he go back into the cave after experiencing these new and wild things that are the actual reality, or has he been separated from them for eternity? Personally, I would suggest that he could not go back in and try to tell tales of his experiences. It would be too fantastical for his former prisoner friends.

Freedom

His mind has been unleashed and he cannot ignore what he has seen. It is the same with knowledge or ideas. Once we have had ideas and moved outside ignorance, we cannot go back to being ignorant, at least not easily. This is one reason why adults advocate travel (among other things) for new graduates. Back in the day, when someone graduated from college, they would embark on a long tour of the world called the Grand Tour. The aim was to experience the real world outside of what they saw in their sheltered college or university life. Next time we will talk more about the perfect ideals or Idea of things, for now, I want you to consider the allegory. Which is more powerful, the idea, or the thing itself?

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