Plato (428-347 BC)
Pupil of Socrates in Athens (Ancient Greece). Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BC for challenging the accepted view of the world and the most basic assumptions.
Theory of knowledge
The world that we see around us is just an illusion created by our senses. The senses are deceived by appearances and are therefore unreliable, they enable us to form opinions about the world but never give us true knowledge.
True knowledge can be gained through the use of our minds. By rational thought. This enables us to access the realm of true reality, which lies beyond our senses; at the heart of this is Plato’s “Forms”. He believed the most important task of the philosopher was to seek knowledge by searching beyond the appearances of the world.
The Analogy of the Cave
Plato’s analogy emphasizes the difference between the appearances of the world (represented by the scene of the cave) and the reality (represented by the outside world).
Plato describes a group of prisoners who have spent their live chained up underground near the back of the cave. They are facing the rear wall and are unable to turn around. The prisoners represent ordinary people who have not yet discovered true knowledge. They have been deceived by what they see into believing there is nothing beyond the shadow play, which for them is the full extent of reality. In the same way, our senses convince us that there is nothing beyond what they experience. However, our mistake is the same as the prisoners, and just as obvious to those that have true knowledge and know true reality.
All the prisoners can see on the wall is a series of shadows, which are cast on this wall by a fire that burns some way behind them, providing the only light in the cave. Immediately behind the prisoners, between them and the fire, is a low wall, behind which a group of people are moving and talking, whilst holding up various puppets above the wall. It is these puppets that form the shadows on the back of the cave. To the prisoners, the shadows seem real because they do not know what is happening behind them and it’s all their senses have ever experienced. The shadow play represents the illusion created by our senses. Just as the shadows seemed real to the prisoners, exhibiting order and structure, so the sights and sounds that we experience seem genuine. They are both, however, equally mistaken because the senses do not access reality. Plato emphasises the falsehood of the illusion by depicting shadows of artificial objects cast by flickering firelight; nothing could be further removed from reality.
If one of the prisoners was set free, he would feel pain and confusion. Blinded by the fire, he would be unable to see the puppets clearly; the familiar shadows would seem much more comforting and real. If he were then dragged out of the cave into the sunlight, he would be even…