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Parable of the cave by Plato
The Republic is a philosophical form of Socratic conversation written by Plato around 380 BC and touches on the issues of justice and knowledge. It is a debate based on whether either the just or unjust man is happy. In this section Plato narrates of a prisoner who has spent his childhood and early adulthood chained in a cave.
Plato uses puppets and fire to signify reality and the vague appearances of reality. He states that the worldview of the prisoner who ideally represents a philosopher is centered on the cave, the fire and the silhouettes that are formed when the fire illuminates passing objects (White, p. 194).
The prisoner assigns figures to the passing shadows as his reality since he lacks any other experience. Once the prisoner is released he realizes the real forms of the shadows. Plato uses these forms to signify our illusion of the real world that would not hinder a philosopher from seeking reality. The decision to return to the cave to enlighten the rest of the prisoners is viewed by Plato as the work of philosophers in enlightening the rest of the population to know the truth (Plato, p. 67).
Plato’s assertion that the forms appear less real than shadows implies that the shadows do not reflect the reality but signify the existence of reality in them. Plato uses the fire symbol to connote the source of knowledge. Being the source of truth or the form of the good the fire intensity frightens because of the reality it reveals. Plato successfully explores the use of metaphors as used in novels and poems to represent certain realities in the world. Metaphorically Plato uses fire, cave and shadows to represent lack of knowledge, philosophers and illusions that cloud our quest for knowledge (White, p. 201).
Augustine’s work shows his drift away from Neo-Platonism and the increasing knowledge he had amassed about God as the Supreme incorruptible being. He bases his argument on the biblical writings of Apostle Paul. Augustine’s work portrays him as seeing an immutable light that was not earthly and visible to anybody. Like Plato in the Republic Augustine uses the immutable light to represent God who is the creator and the source of truth. Whoever sees the light knows the truth (Plato, p. 46). The light was only visible if one had a helper. Augustine implies that provided an individual knows the truth by seeing and receiving the light then God’s mind has touched his.
Before one sees the light he is like the prisoner referred to by Plato but upon seeing it he receives the truth. Light in this sense represents God who is the source of truth. Light cannot be changed or silenced and so is God. The light referred to by Augustine is not visible to all eyes. It is only seen above the eyes of the soul with the guidance of a helper. Plato also refers to light as the just source of truth (Watt xiv).
Augustine states that the light he saw was higher and it made him. He also asserts that all who know the truth know this light which represents God. The light referred to is not the normal light. It is the source of all beings. This light represents God who is unchangeable. Chastity is the virtue of being pure as well as clean and this is a prerequisite to seeing the light. Chastity therefore knows the light since it has truth which emanates from the light. Augustine equates chastity to love as virtues that are present in beings that have seen the light.
Meditations by Descartes
Descartes Meditations I is based on his past experience with the notion of truth from people who passed it to him. He casts doubts on the notions of truth passed to him and terms them as misleading. Basing his argument on the Deity who is God Descartes states that God is so good that he could not have created him to be deceived. He refrains from arguing about the existence of God and cites that his current form has been attained due to the presence of an overseer who is God. Descartes suggests that God can lead him to the truth and that he will refrain from doubting the existence of truth of the opinions that has been in him for long (Watt xvi).
Like Plato who uses the prisoner to represent lack of knowledge Descartes uses his early age to connote the lack of truth in him. After he matures enough he sets forth in search of truth but using the wrong means that leads him to conclude that he might be his own deceiver. Descartes lack of knowledge in his early age only serves to bring him to know the truth in his later life (Plato, p. 29). Plato uses the illusion of shadows as seen by the prisoner to represent his search for truth and later endurance of hardships to stay in the light.
Unlike Plato who uses the prisoner to represent the philosopher as the ideal person in the society, Descartes states that knowing God makes one the perfect being in the world. Descartes also highlights that seeing the light is not only an individual’s initiative but one must have a helper to guide him. Plato on the other hand suggests that only selected individuals and philosophers can see the light. Light according to him means good while according to Descartes the light represents God (White, p. 210).
- Plato, Crito. Plato in Twelve Volumes, trans. Harold North Fowler, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.
- Watt, Stephen. Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5-7). Plato Republic, London: Wordsworth Editions, 1997.
- White, Frederick, C. “Plato’s Middle Dialogues and the Independence of Particulars.” The Philosophical Quarterly 27.108 (1977): 193-213.