How Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is Still Relevant to Today’s Society

Today, I had an enlightening epiphany…

In the midst of the era of Trumpian politics, I am reminded of my political science studies and my reading of Plato’s book, The Republic.

Book seven of that work is his Allegory of the Cave whose central premise highlights how human nature is often twisted by the sly and the shrewd to manipulate society.

President Trump is hardly the first, or even the shrewdest, political figure to convince a large enough swath of society to support a false narrative to gain power, while simultaneously alienating non-supporters into a blind opposition of him that further serves the same tacit agenda. This enables Mr. Trump to keep his base loyal to him, to a fault, which preserves his political power.

The Allegory of the Cave puts education into the context of the nature of philosophy while offering an insight into Plato’s view of the same. According to Anam Lodhi’s essay on the Allegory posted on his blog on Medium (source below), Socrates is the main character in The Republic, and he tells the allegory of the cave to Glaucon, who is one of Plato’s brothers.

A key excerpt from Lodhi’s essay:

Socrates tells Glaucon, who is his interlocutor, to imagine a group of prisoners who have been chained since they were children in an underground cave. Their hands, feet, and necks are chained so that they are unable to move. All they can see in front of them, for their entire lives, is the back wall of the cave. Socrates says:

Some way off, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners above them runs a road, in front of which a curtain wall has been built, like a screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets.

So, there are men, who pass by the walkway and carry objects made of stone behind the curtain-wall, and they make sounds to go along with the objects. These objects are projected onto the back wall of the cave for the prisoners to see. The prisoners come up with names for the objects; they are interpreting their world intelligible to them. Hence, it is almost as though the prisoners are watching a puppet show for their entire lives. This is what the prisoners think is real because this is all they have ever experienced; reality for them is a puppet show on the wall of a cave, created by shadows of objects and figures.

Socrates goes on to say that one of the prisoners somehow breaks free of those chains. Then he is forced to turn around and look at the fire, which represents enlightenment; recognising your ignorance. The light of the fire hurts his eyes and makes him immediately want to turn back around and “retreat to the things which he could see properly, which he would think really clearer than the things being shown him.

In other words, Socrates is stating that the prisoner does not want to progress in the way he sees things, and his understanding of reality. However, after his eyes adjust to the firelight, reluctantly and with great difficulty he is forced to progress out of the cave and into the sunlight, which is a painful process; this represents a different state of understanding. Plato uses light as a metaphor for our understanding, and our ability to conceive of the truth. So the prisoner progressed past the realm of the firelight, and now into the realm of sunlight. The first thing he would find easiest to look at is the shadows, and then reflections of men and objects in the water, and then finally the prisoner is able to look at the sun itself which he realises is the source of the reflections. When he finally looks at the sun he sees the truth of everything and begins to feel sorry for his fellow prisoner’s who are still stuck in the cave. So, he goes back into the cave and tries to tell his fellow prisoners the truth about reality, but the prisoners think that he is dangerous because he has come back and upset everyone’s conformist opinion about things. The prisoners do not want to be free because they are comfortable in their own ignorance, and they are hostile to people who want to give them more information. Therefore, Plato is suggesting that “your philosophical journey sometimes may lead your thinking in directions that society may not support”.

In short, the Allegory is a metaphor in which the cave represents society at large and what is presented to us in the media (television, social media) and from the words of shrewd politicians (who are often consummate opportunists) are the shadows being cast on the cave walls that through our sincere ignorance (or conscientious stupidity) we take as reality.

This is how we as a society can be convinced to support people and ideas that run counter to our own best interests.

The immigrants who come into our country are not responsible for the coal mines closing in West Virginia or the auto plants closing in Lordstown, Ohio. Main Street’s concerns aren’t being ignored to give “undeserving others” welfare, unless we are talking about the banks and corporations that got bailouts that funded multimillion dollar bonuses to executives who managed to squander more money in a year than 300 million common thieves could pickpocket in 100 lifetimes.

Thinking is much harder than emoting and shrewd men and women in $5000 suits count on a plurality of us to emote rather than think.

Therein lies the problem…

-The Rational Ram

Source: Education and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Anam Lodhi

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