Human beings are resistant to change, but education liberates them from life's fallacies according to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave."
Contemporary life entails usual routines and phenomenon. The Sun always rises in the East and sets in the West and never the vice versa. The sky is blue, while the clouds vary from dark white to cotton white. It is common knowledge that darkness falls after sunset, and it lifts after sunrise.
That being the apparent look of things, science comes in to question what we perceive as reality. For instance, from a clear view of things, a day begins after dawn, but according to science and mathematics, a day begins after midnight (Peterson, 275).
However, it is common for anyone to make a phone call after midnight and make a promise to meet the other party the following day while referring to that very day that has just begun. Another clear idea is the setting and rising of the Sun (Peterson, 275).
What Does Science Say?
Science affirms that the Sun neither rises nor sets. Instead, it is the Earth that rotates on its axis, thus exposing one part to the Sun at a time while at the same time hiding one phase from the Sun. This causes the globe to experience darkness on one part of it while experiencing daylight on the other. In "Allegory of the Cave," Plato takes a bold stance in questioning the appearance of things and happenings in life.
Moreover, objects or beings pass in front of the fire burning behind them, thus casting shadows to the wall in front of these people. Since they have never seen or encountered such things before, the chained people give names to these shadows. In reality, people pass in front of the fire carrying objects or puppets that obscure them (Snooks, 26). The inference is that the shadows cast on the wall in front of the prisoners are objects and other living things and not the people themselves.
According to these captives, the shadows are a reality, but the readers, know that the shadows are not the actual world's exact resemblances.
More interestingly, the prisoners are chained in a manner that they cannot look at themselves, each other, or sideways around the cave. The interpretation is that first, they do not know what else is in the cave.
Moreover, they do not know what their bodies look like since they cannot look at each other. Second, the only thing known to them is the bare wall, and whatever images appear on the wall.
Plato assumes that at one point, one prisoner is freed from the inner part of the cave and, while moving out, encounters the fire that is casting light into the cave. The fire's light hurts his eyes, and he cannot see the people and objects that cast shadows to the wall he has been seeing (Friesen, 2020).
Being the first encounter with reality, the prisoner does not believe that whatever he sees is real. Unable to withstand the fire's light, he runs back to what he is accustomed to since he believes that what he has been seeing is clearer and real. In this context, Plato presents a form of resistance to education or a higher understanding of things and phenomena. He reveals the contrast between what human beings believe to be true and what truth is in real sense. He asserts that a person prefers to remain in ignorance rather than change their initial position to an "uncomfortable" position.
In contemporary life, Plato was essentially presenting a person's state before encountering the truth or reality about an event, something, or phenomena. He portrays the delusion that exists before a person encounters the three higher levels of understanding things, which he describes as the theory of forms; deductive logic, mathematics, and geometry; and the natural sciences (Amenu-El, 2019).
These 'higher levels of understanding' constitute education. In this context, the theory of forms asserts that the contemporary world is not as actual or real as timeless, absolute, immutable ideas. On the other hand, natural science describes, predicts, and gives a comprehension of natural phenomena, basing on quantifiable facts from observation and experimentation.
Suppose a person coerced the prisoner who was initially freed to move out of the cave. The prisoner would get the shock of life to see how much light there is outside the cave. Plato uses light as a symbol of wisdom. Compared to the inner parts of the cave, which are dark and only rely on light reflections from the fire and little light from the Sun's rays that penetrate the cave, the prisoner encounters so much light/wisdom in the outer parts of the cave.
In the contemporary world, the freed prisoner represents a bold philosopher who chooses a different school of thought, unlike common people. However, he encounters so much light in the cave's outer part that hits his eyes, and they hurt, blinding him. In essence, when a person encounters a new phenomenon, a new skill or development, it is confusing or 'blinding,' especially if it is contrary to what he/she is used to (Morehouse, 44).
Gradually, the prisoner gets used to the light, the people, objects, other living things, and finally encounters the Sun's direct light, 'utmost level of understanding.' In the contemporary world, learning is gradual. It often entails hardships in understanding various principles and lessons, but eventually, one gets a glimpse of the lesson's not the whole idea.
In the 'Allegory of the Cave,' the freed prisoner learns so much about life outside the cave that he sees a big difference between the latter and the former. He gradually appreciates that life outside the cave is real and that life and perceptions in the inner part of the cave are only a shadow of reality. This is the point of liberation from the fallacies of life in the contemporary world. Appreciating that one has been living in darkness, otherwise referred to as ignorance, is a great stride towards understanding reality.
The funny bit comes when the 'liberated' prisoner realizes that the cave's outer part reveals much about reality and decides to tell the fellow prisoners remaining in the cave about the real world's superiority. Since his eyes are already accustomed to the Sun's light, his eyes get blinded by the cave's darkness as he returns to his fellow prisoners. The chained men realize that the freedman has come back 'blind' and cannot see well in the cave. As a result of this, they resolve to remain in the cave to tamper with their vision (Morehouse, 44).
Paradox of life and Real Life
Plato presents a paradox between what is happening in reality and fallacy itself. The liberated prisoner is 'blind' in the cave since he has been exposed to light outside the cave while, on the other hand, the chained men see in the cave since their eyes are accustomed to the darkness of the cave. According to Plato, if anyone tries to pull the chained men out of the cave, they would even try to kill him.
Human beings always find reason in whatever they do, however wrong or misguided it is. Whenever one becomes enlightened concerning the matter in question, it is always a hard task to convince the rest that, indeed, he/she is right. Encountering education and allowing it to affect you liberates you from life's misconceptions, otherwise referred to as fallacies.
Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" has various inconsistencies though it is among the most recognized literary works of philosophy worldwide. First, it is not clear who frees the first prisoner from the cave. The cave's captivity description is clear that they are all chained against one side of the cave walls. However, it lacks clarity on who frees the prisoner from the chains and coerces him to rise (Morehouse, 44). Moreover, Plato fails to explain why the person who frees the first prisoner does not free the rest of them. In a natural setting, a prisoner would not leave their fellow prisoners in a cave without unchaining them, if he/she got the chance to do so. In the 'Allegory of the Cave,' the freed prisoner only comes back to his fellow prisoners later after exploring the outside world.
The other flaw in Plato's work is that the liberation of the first prisoner comprised coercion. In the contemporary world, bringing people out of ignorance would entail more of negotiation and persuasion rather than coercion. Plato states that "if he were compelled to look at the light itself," asserting that compulsion would expose one to understanding/wisdom (Snooks, 26). Moreover, he suggests that a person should 'drag' the prisoner out of the cave in the second time, which would be painful, and once outside the cave, he would not see real things at first due to exposure to so much light.
In a nutshell, while Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave' speaks much about what reality is, those who have beheld it may not be sure to hold the sum of true knowledge and then be prudent enough to release it to the rest through the use of authority. In essence, the prisoners have spent all their entire life in the cave. Why would they be so sure that the life outside reveals much more real than the one they are accustomed to? Second, with this lack of surety, why would any of them, after getting exposed to the outer part of the cave, have the confidence to spread the news to the rest.
Education is primarily fundamental in delivering people from their ignorant states to a state of understanding the world and different phenomena. As for the contemporary world, education begins at childhood, both the formal programs and the society's informal education structures. It is that orientation throughout the life of a person that defines what he/she believes in and what they do not. As for the captives in Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave,' the prisoners have spent there.
Therefore, it becomes difficult to re-orient them to a different kind of life, that id unlike that of the cave, which they are accustomed to. However, if one person, among a group of ignorant people, became enlightened, it would take the time to convince the rest of the group that he/she is right.
In a world where the majority 'rules,' it would be a tedious task trying to change the norms and practices of different people in various settings, especially if using an autocratic model of education. If education works in removing people from their comfort zones, then it is a gradual process that calls for endurance against all the odds. Similarly, it calls for patience from the educator's side, who allows the learner to take in knowledge in solvable amounts.
Peterson, Valerie V. "Plato's Allegory of the Cave: literacy and "the good." Review of Communication 17.4 (2017): 273-287.
Snooks, Graeme Donald. "Plato's cave of shadows and the Chinese political system." Institute of Global Dynamic Systems, Working Papers 26 (2020).
Friesen, Helen I. Lepp. "In search of "We the People" in Light of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." Education 2010 (2010).
Menu-El, Rhonda A. Exploring Transformational Learning Using Plato's Allegory of the Cave with Community College Students: A Qualitative Study. Diss. Capella University, 2019.
Morehouse, Richard. "Review of "Academic Philosophy: An Uncommonly Creative, Imaginative and Challenging Curriculum." Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis 37.2 (2017): 41-45.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Ian Muiruri
Ian Muiruri (author) from Machakos on September 19, 2020:
Thanks for pointing out this. It is really interesting, it seems to be a dilemma about life.
Patty Florence from Illinois on September 19, 2020:
It was a good article. I often wonder why after facing a reality check about something you thought possible as truth, realize there is always another reality.