PLATO ON The Allegory of the Cave – Free Ebook

The ancient Greeks were emphatic that philosophy was not just an elaborate abstract exercise. It was, they felt, a deeply useful skill that should be learned and practiced by all, in order to help us to live and die well. No one believed this more than Plato. Who was passionate in his defense of philosophy as a kind of therapy for the soul. One of the most forceful stories he told on behalf of the utility of philosophy Was what has become known as “The Allegory of the Cave”. It is perhaps the most famous allegory in philosophy. This was a story that was intended, as he wrote, to compare “[t]he effect of education and the lack of it on our nature.” At the start of Book 7 of his masterpiece, “The Republic”, Plato tells us about some people living imprisoned in a cave They’ve always lived there and don’t know anything of the outside world. There is no natural light in this cave, the walls are damp and dark All the inhabitants can see comes from the shadows of things thrown up on the wall by a light of a fire The cave dwellers get fascinated by these reflections of animals, plants and people Moreover, they assume that these shadows are real and that if you pay a lot of attention to them you’ll understand and succeed in life And they don’t, of course, realize that they are looking at mere phantoms They chat about shadowy things enthusiastically and take great pride in their sophistication and wisdom Then one day, quite by chance, someone discovers a way out of the cave out into the open air At first, it’s simply overwhelming. He is dazzled by the brilliant sunshine In which everything is, for the first time, properly illuminated Gradually his eyes adjust and he encounters the true forms of all those things which he had formerly know only as shadows He sees actual flowers, the colors of birds, the nuances in the bark of trees He observes stars and grasps the vastness and sublime nature of the universe As Plato puts it in solemn terms: Out of compassion, this newly enlightened man decides to leave the sunlit upper world and makes his way back into the cave to try to help out his companions who are still mired in confusion and error Because he’s become used to the bright upper world, he can hardly see anything underground He stumbles along the damp wet corridors and gets confused He seems to the others totally unimpressive When he in turn is unimpressed by them and insists on explaining what the sun is or what a real tree is like The cave dwellers get sarcastic, then very angry and eventually plot to kill him The story of the cave is an allegory of the life of all enlightened people The cave dwellers are humans before philosophy The sun is the light of reason The alienation of the returned philosopher is what all truth tellers can expect when they take their knowledge back to people who have not devoted themselves to thinking For Plato, we are all for much of our lives in shadow Many of the things we get excited about, like fame, the perfect partner, a high status job are infinetly less real than we suppose they are for the most part phantoms projected by our culture onto the walls of our fragile and flawed minds but because everyone around us is insisting that they are genuine we are taken in from a young age It’s not our fault individually No one chooses to be in the cave That’s just where we happen to begin We’re all starting from a very difficult place If, like the man in Plato’s story, you bluntly tell people they’re wrong You get nowhere, you cause deep offense and may endanger your own life Athens had, after all, recently put Socrates, Plato’s friend, to death Plato knew from close experience just what the cave dwellers might do to those who claim to know the sun The solution, Plato says, is a process of widespread carefully administered philosophical education By which he understood the method of inquiry pioneered by Socrates and known to us as the “Socratic Method” It’s a very gentle process. You don’t lecture or harang or force someone to read a particular book You just start with a general declaration of intellectual modesty no one knows very much It’s always good to insist: “wisdom starts with owning up to ignorance” Confess that you don’t know exactly what the government should do, what wars meant to achieve or how good relationships work You then get the other person to say what they think and gradually together you investigate the answers Most likely the other person will be confident or rather painfully overconfident They may tell you it’s all quite simple really and everyone knows the answer already You must be supremely patient with this kind of bravado If they go off topic, you must cheerfully double back You must take a lot of time and be ready to have chats over many days This method of talking is founded on a lovely confidence that with the right encouragement people can eventually work out things for themselves and detect errors in their own reasoning If you carefully and quietly draw their attention to tricky points and don’t cast blame or ever get annoyed You’ll never teach anyone anything by making them feel stupid Even if they are, at first We have all started in that cave but it is Plato’s deepest insight that we don’t have to stay there And the road out is called, quite simply, philosophy This is the sun whose light we can follow and by whose rays the proper nature of things can become clear If you enjoyed the films on this channel, you might want to hear about another smart insightful channel we love called Wisecrack Click here to visit their channel page and discover a succession of videos on world literature, philosophy, cinema, history and more All delivered with a playful beguiling sense of humor They’re in L.A., we’re here in London, but the School of Life and Wisecrack have become firm friends Based around shared values about making education compelling We’d love you to befriend us both in turn.

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