The Philosophy of Religion - Plato

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The Analogy of the Cave - The story of the cave
Plato describes an underground cave, with a long entrance up to the daylight. In this cave are men who have been prisoners since they were children, their legs and necks fastened so that they could only look straight ahead and cannot turn their heads. Behind them a fire is burning, and between the prisoners and the fire runs a raised walkway where men carry differently shaped objects. The prisoners cannot see this walkway or the object-carriers except the shadows cast on the cave wall in front of them. When one of the object-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows, ad so they could believe that the shadows of the objects were in all respects real.

Then suppose one of the prisoners was released and suddenly compelled to turn and look directly towards the fire and the real objects and people - he would be too dazzled to see properly the objects of which he used to see only the shadows. If he were told that what he used to see was mere illusion and that he was now nearer reality and seeing correctly because he was turned toward objects that were more real, he would be at a loss, and think that what he used to see was more real than the objects now being pointed out to him.

The prisoner is then dragged up the steep ascent into broad daylight to see things in the world outside the cave. First he would find it easier to look at shadows, next at the objects themselves - it would be easier to observe the heavenly bodies and the sky at night rather than by day: to look at the light of the moon and stars rather than at the sun and its light. Now if the prisoner was returned to his old seat in the cave his eyes would become temporarily blinded: he would be unable to distinguish between the shadows, and be likely to make a fool of himself - and they would say that his visit to the upper world had ruined his sight and that the ascent was not worth even attempting. And if anyone tried to release them to lead them up, they would kill him if they could lay hands on him.

The interpretation of the cave story
The story of the cave is seen as an allegory - a story with two meanings, one literal and the other symbolic. Plato explains that the story represents the upward progress of the minnd from illusion, represented by the tied prisoner in the cave, to finally looking at the sun, the vision of what is responsible for all that is good and valuable.

The story suggests that people are philosophically ignorant and are like prisoners. They can only see the shadows playing on the back of the cave. They think the shadows are real. The world outside represents…


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