- Explain Plato’s analogy of the cave.
Plato believed in absolute morality, meaning he believes in things that are inherently right or wrong, which do not depend on the circumstances of the situation. He believed that the reason people know what is right and wrong is because of an alternate realm of the universe where ‘Forms’ exist. This idea is known as dualism. He believes that in the World of the Forms things are unchanging and eternal, and are perfect. We live in the World of Appearances which is the exact opposite. This explains why we all can recognise when things are beautiful, for example. He believed that humans had an immortal soul that had in a past life experienced “The Form of the Beautiful” and therefore we recognise this in nature and in other people. Because we were born with this knowledge it is innate in all of us. He believed in a “Form of the Good” which is where our sense of morality comes from.
To explain his beliefs to people, Plato used analogies. The analogy that explains the idea of the Forms is The Analogy of the Cave. In the cave there are some prisoners who cannot see anything but the wall in front of them. There are people walking in front of a fire behind the prisoners, casting shadows on the wall. These shadows represent the world of appearances, as although the prisoners (the majority of society) believe them to be real, they are not, as our senses deceive us. Plato believed we couldn’t trust our senses and we had to use our reason instead. This belief is known as empiricism. A prisoner escapes and begins to understand what has been happening to him, he understands that the shadows were not real and exits the cave. This prisoner’s escape represents the idea of knowledge and philosophy, that if you learn things you will escape the World of Appearances. Outside the cave is the World of the Forms, the Sun representing the Form of the Good. At first the man is blinded by the Sun and finds it painful (perhaps representing the idea that the truth hurts and is not always easy to digest) but becomes accustomed to it and is grateful that he was able to see the Sun and understand it. Now he thinks back to his former life and feels sorry for his fellow prisoners still trapped, and wants to educate them so they can discover the truth. He enters back into the cave. His eyesight has been affected by the light and he can no longer see the shadows on the wall. The other prisoners mock him for this and say that the outside world has made him stupid (perhaps reflecting how some people felt about philosophers) and say they would rather kill him than join him outside. The idea that people may murder those who try to show them the truth may reflect Plato’s views about the death of Socrates, who was his mentor. Socrates was killed by the Greek government for expressing his opinions and it is clear through this story that Plato disagrees with this and believes Socrates was noble for trying to educate those who didn’t want to be educated.