This is part one of a two part discussions. The first aims to help those struggling with Plato’s ideas. The second will suggest how some of Plato’s ideas keep resurfacing in other literature.
For people coming to philosophy for the first time Plato’s allegory of the cave seems quite a jolly story, that is until you learn that there is more to the narrative than meets the eye.
“Plato’s not an empiricist” they say “he’s a rationalist.” Jeepers, more long words!
Never worry – empiricists gain knowledge by seeing, touching and experimenting, like you do in Physics and Chemistry.
Rationalists gain knowledge through thought, like you do in Maths.
Then your teacher hits you with Plato’s idea of “Forms”. Plato considered the things around us were not real; they were copies, copies of the Forms, which incidentally we cannot see!
It is at this point that many A level candidates wish they had done another subject, such as astro-physics on the grounds that it must be easier.
Never despair old fruit, let’s go back to the beginning and look at the issue another way.
BACK TO THE CAVE
Plato’s allegory of the cave is a bit like people who are in the cinema.
When you are in the cinema you sit in the dark and you watch the screen. Sometimes the film is a weepy and people cry. Sometimes it makes the audience laugh. Sometimes it gets so frightening that you close your eyes.
WHY? It’s not real.
For one thing you are simply watching light and darkness on a wall of the cinema. It is a copy of the real thing. Even if you give it any value at all it is just entertainment. These are actors who adopt a character.
Plato’s cave is a bit like a cinema. The men chained up are watching shadows, just as you do in the cinema.
Real life, for them is outside the cave. Real life for you returns when you leave the cinema and go back to whatever you should have been doing that evening when you went to the movies.
Plato took all of this one stage further and said that ordinary life is a bit like being in a perpetual cinema. The objects around us have no more reality than the props on a cinema set. Beyond all this paraphernalia with which we surround ourselves in life, says Plato is a real world which we will only find if we approach it with the mind and not with sight.
This all works pretty well when we consider abstract realities like beauty, truth and justice. We all know a beautiful person when we see one. But then along may come a more beautiful person. Ah ha says Plato, that is because we all have in our minds a concept of beauty and what we see in other people is a partial copy of that.
That’s why Plato says Forms are perceived with the mind.
You can do the same sort of thing with truth. Politicians debate in parliament and make truthful statements about the state of the economy. Members of the opposition disagree and they make truthful statements about the state of the economy. Despite all of this few of us would doubt that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Again Plato would see this as one of the Forms.
Where perhaps you and I would differ from Plato is that it’s not just the abstract principles that have ultimate Forms. He believed that everyday objects such as tables, chairs, houses, buses, animals were not real but were copies of the Form of the table or the Form of the chair etc etc.