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Plato's cave
We are used to virtual reality, things which can have the appearance of truth but are not real.
Computer games, cyber space, videos and television programmes mean that it is easy to spend your
time in an imaginary world. An obsession with celebrities lives also make it easy to get caught up
watching someone else's lives and loves, to the exclusion of enjoying your own.
In the cave
The enclosed world Plato chose was a cave. A group of people are sitting deep in the cave facing
the back wall. They have been here since childhood and are chained to prevent them ever looking
round to see anything.
Because of the position of the fire, the shadows of passers-by appear on the back wall of the cave.
The prisoners who sit facing this wall have spent their lives watching this shadow play. For them the
appearance seems real because they have never seen anything else.
Eventually one prisoner, who has spent a lifetime chained to the floor, breaks free and makes the
slow painful journey out of the cave to the outside world. The first thing he encounters is the sun.
After the dim cave, the sun's strength is blinding and his eyes hurt but gradually he gets used to it
and can see a colourful world around him. Later he looks up into the sky and sees the sun itself which
he realises is the source of life. He begins to work out that the objects of the upper world represent
the Forms and the cave was merely a pale shadow form of the reality. In other words, the material
world of appearances is a poor copy of the realm of the Forms.
What is the big idea?
Plato used the cave story to explain the importance of questioning everything like a philosopher
does in order to distinguish between the unreal physical world (where firelight casts flickering
shadows on a cave wall) and the real spiritual world lit by the sun. The prisoners in the cave are
people who just accept everything at face value and never ask questions or try to understand. Their
lives are empty and meaningless. The shadows aren't real objects. The one who breaks away and
makes the journey out of the caves is the philosopher who wants to know what is really going on. In
the outside world he discovers the sun, which he realises is giving life to everything: the sun
represents the Form of the good. When the person returns to the cave, he knows life inside is just a
sham. The images on the cave wall lack colour. Nothing is clear or sharp. The sounds they hear are
muffled and echo. The other prisoners, lacking the philosophers enquiring mind, continue to live in a
dark and dismal world.
What is real?
Everyone in the story is convinced that what they are seeing is real. The prisoners' knowledge is
based exclusively on their sense of sight and sound and they accept it without question. Plato's story
is showing us that their empirical knowledge, (which is gained from the senses) is flawed. It is not
showing them reality. Appearances are deceptive. By contrast the prisoner has discovered reality.
After emerging into the real world outside the cave, his power of reasoning leads him to a
philosophical understanding of the truth. This a priori knowledge of the reality is based totally on
reasoning and not on the experience of his senses. Plato is pointing out the need to distinguish
between the two realms of appearance and reality, although it is important to note that the simile of
the upper world is a metaphor for the Forms and does not represent objects in the material senses.
How is truth known?
The only person who succeeds in discovering the truth is the prisoner who escapes from the cave.
He is prepared to make the long, difficult journey up to the mouth of the cave to reach the real
world. It is no accident that the journey is uphill. What Plato is saying is that only those escaping the
artificial world of the senses, containing shadows, echoes and guesswork, can know the truth.

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Outside the cave, the prisoner discovers the real objects whose shadows and echoes had formerly
entertained him; these are the truth. This leads us on to the forms.
How should society be organised?
The cave represents a world where everyone is held back because they rely on sensory experiences.
Our senses are like the flickering shadows on the wall, they are always changing. Although, like the
prisoners, we try to understand what our senses tell us, it is futile.…read more


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