The parable of the cave by Plato was an attempt to highlight the importance of education to the achievement of wisdom. Plato compared the parable to the processes that a person goes through as a philosopher.
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He argues that once a person has been enlightened to the level of a philosopher, he should go back to the mundane world (the cave) and try to educate his fellow men. The cave or ordinary world is characterized by greed, self-interest, and struggle for political power. The parable is a criticism of people who are enslaved by their senses.
A key theme of the parable is how people are shackled to warped perceptions, unaware of the reality. It is composed of five components namely; the shadow, the ordinary man, the fire, the ascending and the descending men.
The shadow is perhaps the most complex concept to understand in this allegory. It relates to the concept of ‘‘forms’’ one of Plato’s many concepts which have withstood the test of time. He believed that most concepts formed by people through the five common senses do not represent real objects but they are only images or shadows created from distorted perceptions.
The same case applies to the ethics of decision-making and acting in real life, as well as our ideas regarding the truth. What people believe to be right or wrong or true in life is based on limited knowledge and experiences as opposed to complete knowledge.
The ordinary man symbolizes all persons before they have attained complete education. This man perceives nothing apart from the images on the cave’s wall. The images stand for all the things that we have observed in our lives. As the shadows form the set of all the things we have ever observed, they represent the reality to us.
Attaining education entails gaining the capacity to discern everything both in and outside the cave. The purpose of the third component, the fire, is to shine light on the real objects, casting off shadows on the cave’s wall. In this way, the fire contributes to the creation of the realities as perceived by the ordinary man.
Yet another component is that of the ascending man. This is a person who is lucky enough to be liberated from the fetters of the cave in which the ordinary man resides. After his escape, the ascending man ultimately gains a grasp of the real objects and he attains complete knowledge or education.
He realizes that the shadows were only a glimpse of the reality but not the reality itself. The fire gives us a blurred notion of what the real forms look like but, until you emerge from the cave, the only notion that you will have is an ‘‘image’’ of the reality. The last component of the parable is that of the descending man.
This is a person who has escaped from the cave and achieved full education. He then returns to the cave to enlighten his fellow men on what he learned outside the cave. His objective is to show them that what they believe to be real is just a shadow of the reality but the reality itself is different.
This narration is essentially about how Socrates was persecuted by his contemporaries because of his wisdom. The reason why the descending man went back to the cave after having been liberated was to inform his unenlightened colleagues about the beauty of the world outside the cave.
As a result of his bid to educate his fellow men he was put to death. The allegory corresponds very much to our lives today. Despite having very many civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, we have failed to use these freedoms to think positively, basically confining ourselves to a cave.
The sole way of becoming emancipated from this confinement is by being open-minded and by looking at things from all perspectives. We should also heed the counsel of philosophers and take an honest assessment of their views instead of banishing them off-hand.
The philosophers possess knowledge of the world outside the cave. However, the cave dwellers think that the descending man (the philosopher) is insane when he gives them an account of the world as it exists outside. The situation is the same today in the political arena where ordinary people accustomed to the ways of dishonest politicians, often persecute those who seek to change the status quo.
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The real mad men, however, are the ordinary men who are ready to discriminate the enlightened people based on warped beliefs. In spite of the persecution, those who are fully educated still feel that it is their moral responsibility to liberate the ordinary people from their ignorance which the politicians use to take advantage of them.
There are many enlightened people in the modern world who become political prisoners because of their attempts to educate the masses about their political and civil rights and liberties.
Why Plato Finds Ascent to the Truth Confusing and Painful
According to Plato, the journey towards enlightenment is long and winding and it involves a lot of painstaking. The inhabitants of the cave have to struggle in order to free themselves and attain full education. The ascending man had to pass through the phase of the ‘‘shadow’’ of reality before entering the phase of intellectual reasoning and comprehension.
He had to be transformed from an ordinary person to an enlightened one and this transformation called for a lot of courage to go against the orthodox, and to withstand the truth as truth sometimes is intimidating. As Socrates says concerning the ascending man, he is likely to experience pain from the glare of light (enlightenment).
The reason for this distress lies in the fact that knowing the truth may at times be disturbing. Other virtues required to obtain full wisdom are curiosity and scrupulousness. For a person to become liberated from the shackles of ignorance, one has to reason beyond the limits of the ordinary world.
This would ordinarily need one to give up some leisure and withstand the criticism of cynics and skeptics who do not see the value of pursuing wisdom. The journey to attaining enlightenment is confusing since there are a lot of false and ill-conceived ideas on what should be the truth. Therefore, it requires a keen intellect to separate the truth from the half-truths and the outright false notions.
My Personal Experience that Illustrates Plato’s Allegory
Many uneducated voters in the developing countries usually elect mediocre politicians who come from their tribes instead of voting for those candidates who are likely to bring the most needed economic development.
When educated persons try to run for political posts, they always lose because politics in these countries are tribal-based as opposed to issue-based. The uneducated voters in developing countries can be equated to Plato’s ordinary men living in a cave as far as political enlightenment is concerned.
The educated persons who attempt to vie for political positions, on the other hand, are like Plato’s descending men who feel that it is their moral responsibility to free their colleagues from ignorance.