The 4th and 5th Centuries B.C.E was a fascinating time in the history of Western philosophy. It was during this period that the true giants of Greek philosophy made their appearance. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are considered to be the pinnacle of this period and laid the foundation for centuries to come. Socrates’ student, Plato, is often considered to be among the most the powerful thinkers to have ever existed in the ancient world. His influence is so great in fact that the influential 20th Century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
To get a little insight into Plato we must look at his powerful thought experiment described in The Republic known as the Allegory of the Cave. Plato asks us to imagine prisoners bound within a deep cave; all they can look at is the wall of the cave in front of them. Behind them are people walking with various objects with a fire burning behind them. The fire and the objects cast shadows on the cave wall in front of the prisoners. Plato argues that because these prisoners have only seen these shadows their entire life and nothing else, they must be convinced that these shadows are in fact all that is real. But what if a prisoner is freed from bondage?
If the prisoner turns around she sees the blinding light of the fire and she sees the people walking with objects in front of it. She realizes that the fire and the objects are the cause of the shadows she assumed was the true reality. As she moves behind the fire she sees a deep slope leading outside the cave. When she reaches the outside, she is blinded by the light of the outside world and must become used to it. First, she goes outside in the moonlight and later looks at the shadows of the trees, because the sunlight hurts her eyes. She realizes that this outside world is the origin of the fire in the cave as well as the objects which cast the shadows on the cave wall. Eventually, she beholds the sun and realizes that this is the foundation of all things that makes observing the outside world possible. If she were to return to the cave, she would be overwhelmed by the darkness, and if she were to tell the other prisoners what she has seen they will think she is mad, they might even kill her.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a story of the pursuit and attainment of wisdom. The cave represents the world of the senses. For Plato, this isn’t the true world but is rather a representation of a higher order of existence. The shadows on the cave wall represent illusion (eikasia) based on second-hand knowledge, rumors, opinions and unsubstantiated ‘truths’ that proliferate in the world. The prisoners are people who are held in bondage by these fake representations of truth.
The freed prisoner is the philosopher. The objects in front of the fire is a truer form of reality and the fire is that which enables us to have the senses in the first place. This order of reality is still not the true reality and a person who is situated at this level is operating on the basis of belief (pistis). The steep slope that leads outside the cave represents the hard work of becoming educated and cultivating wisdom. The shadows cast by the trees is the truths of mathematics and deeper rationality, where the philosopher is actually obtaining real knowledge through the use of reasoning (dianoia).
The trees and objects that are outside the cave are the true reality. This level of existence is governed by the eternal expressions of absolute reality that can never change or be destroyed. The ‘Forms’ as he called these eternal expressions are the very blueprints upon which reality is erected and can only be known through intelligence (noesis). By knowing the Forms, the philosopher can finally look at the sun, the Good itself, and attain true wisdom and know the Truth. However, the philosopher will have extreme difficulty persuading the prisoners that their world is false. They will see her as mad, and may even persecute her like his teacher Socrates. But the philosopher must nonetheless still try to reach the world outside the cave and try to free those still held in bondage.