Plato is deservedly known as one of the greatest and most influential Ancient Greek philosophers – in no small measure due to his “theory of forms.” In The Republic, which is probably Plato’s best-known work, the author uses his mentor Socrates as a mouthpiece to outline the essence of this theory for the audience. Perhaps one of the most famous and often quoted passages in the text is the so-called “allegory of the cave” in Book 7. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Plato’s allegory of the cave only makes perfect sense if one views it in the light of the theory of forms. After examining the allegory itself, the theory, and how the former illustrates the latter, one can clearly see that the two are interlinked and essential for each other’s understanding.
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For the purpose of this essay, it is still necessary to briefly retell the allegory. Book 7 of The Republic offers the audience to imagine a group of people living in an underground cave. These people have never left the cave and seen the surface, as they are chained “so that they cannot move” or even turn their heads (Plato). Behind them, there is a small wall and a fire, and others people move between the two, carrying all sorts of images just above the wall’s edge. The prisoners cannot see the objects themselves, as the chains prevent them from turning their heads, but they can see “the shadows that fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave” (Plato). According to Plato, the prisoners would be convinced that the shadows they see are the world’s contents as they are. Should they be released and allowed to move upward to see not the shadows and not even images, but the actual objects that inspired the images in the light if the sun rather than a fire, they would likely be confused and even angered.
Allegory relates directly to the central part of Plato’s philosophical teachings – the theory of forms. According to Plato, every object in the world has a true form – a collection of essential qualities that define it. Forms – or ideas, as they are also called – transcend individual objects, as any given thing is merely a manifestation of the corresponding idea. As the philosopher himself notes in Book 10, there are untold multitudes of tables or beds in the world, “but there are only two ideas or forms of them” (Plato). These are, correspondingly, an idea of a table and an idea of a bed, and it is their existence that allows people to recognize all beds as beds and all tables as tables. As far as Plato was concerned, forms that defined the nature of all objects were the actual reality, and the physical manifestations of these forms were only a reflection of the actual state of things. Therefore, the main task for an aspiring philosopher was to train him- or herself to see the reality of the world – the actual forms that permeate everything in existence – rather than their manifestations.
In this light, it should be clear why the theory of forms is essential to understand Plato’s allegory of the cave. In this case, the underground prison house represents the world of material things, which people perceive with their basic senses and nothing else. They can interact with physical objects, but these are nothing more than crude manifestations of the true form – the mere shadows on the wall. Plato also states that developing one’s intellect and philosophical understanding of actual forms is a long and tedious process. Philosophical education to see forms is not easy, and one will likely be frustrated in the process, just like a prisoner seeing the sun for the first time will feel pain, confusion, and even anger. Finally, Plato also reflects on how people cling to their usual perceptions and can distrust and even ridicule the philosophers who can see the true forms of things. He likens such people to the underground prisoners who praise those most skilled in observing shadows and mock the one who came back from the surface to tell them about the real world.
As demonstrated above, the allegory of the cave is an important thought experiment in Plato’s The Republic, imagining a community of underground prisoners who can only see shadows of things rather than the actual objects. It relates directly to Plato’s central philosophical concept – the theory of forms that states that all kinds of objects have intangible actual forms behind them, and all things were mere reflections of the corresponding ideas. The allegory of the cave is, therefore, an illustration of Plato’s theory of forms, where shadows on the cave’s wall represent physical objects that only bear some similarity to the actual forms behind them. Hence, after examining the allegory, the theory, and the interrelation between them, one may safely conclude that the theory of forms inextricably linked to the allegory of the cave and vice versa.
Plato. “The Republic.” Project Gutenberg, 2016, Web.