Interpretations of the Allegory of the Cave

“1) The Allegory of the Cave may be viewed as a devastating criticism of our everyday lives as being in bondage to superficialities, to shadow rather than to substance. Truth is taken to be whatever is known by the senses. A good life is taken to be one in which we satisfy our desires. We are unaware that we are living with illusion, superficial knowledge, and false and conflicting ideals. Our lives are dominated by the shadow-play on the walls of our cave made by newspaper headlines, by radio broadcasts, by the endlessly moving shadows on the television screen, by the echoing voices of opinion makers.

2) The Allegory of the Cave may be taken as an equally devastating criticism of much of the science of our time, with its emphasis upon that which is known by the senses. Science too, is chained so that it can see only shadows. Its basis is in sensory observation, its conclusions are only in the form of correlations of observations. It does not venture into true causes or into long-range consequences. The empirical scientists is not so different from the winner on TV quiz shows who know the dates of all the Humphrey Bogart films, or from the prisoners in the cave who excel in identifying the sequence of shadows on the wall. It is a criticism also of our scientific technology and industry, developing and producing to meet superficial needs, without regard for our true needs or for moral or environmental considerations.

3) It is of course a political allegory. The life in the cave is the life of politics. Both the leaders and the public are ignorant and corrupt, without true knowledge of themselves or of the world, motivated by greed, power, and sel-gratification. They are chained in bondage to ignorance and passions, to mob hysteria for or against fleeting issues, believing in current ideologies which are the illusions, the shadows of the moment on the walls of the cave.

4) It is an allegory of the philosopher-king. The liberated one, having made the ascent to know the truth and the good, has a mission: to return to the cave, to bring enlightenment, to bring the good news, even though he may be killed for his services. Plato was thinking of Socrates; we think of Jesus.

For Plato, those who have completed the ascent out of the cave into the light of the sun are thereby alone fitted to govern, to be the philosopher-kings of society, to be its guardians. But here suddenly the Allegory of the Cave comes into conflict with contemporary views of ourselves, the world, and politics. Two questions are at issue: First, is there, as Plato believes, a single, absolutely true, immutable and eternal concept of justice, of virtue, of the ideal society, of the ideal human being? And are these concepts such that only a few persons of superior intelligence can be educated to know them? Second, would this knowledge justify an authoritarian government by this elite of intelligence and virtue who would rule with absolute, unchecked power? This would be in total opposition to modern democracy, which is governed by the many through their elected representatives.

Plato answered yes to both questions. This was Plato’s solution to the intelectual and moral decay of his time– an absolutist, authoritarian government by a small elite, educated to true knowledge and virtue, which are fixed in their essence for all time. After Plato’s time, the history of Western philosophy struggles with these two questions. The modern world for the most part answers no.

5) Finally, for us as for Plato, the Allegory of the Cave is an allegory of despair and hope. Like Plato, we live in a time of loss of meaning and commitment, of crumbling standards of truth and morality, of corruption in political life and decline in personal integrity. This is our despair. But there is a hope that we share with Plato’s allegory, the hope of ascending to truth and values which are the best we can know as guides to the good life. For us, as for the prisoner freed from his chains, the first step is to recognizie current illusions for what they are, the current flickering shadows on the wall of our cave.”

(Lavine, From Socrates to Sartre, 28-30)

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