Plato's "Allegory of the Cave": A Literary Criticism

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Well Socrates, I understand what you are attempting to convey. However, I am afraid you are sorely mistaken. I fear you too are a prisoner within the cave.



I cannot possibly fathom what you mean.



Imagine this: Prisoners within an enormous cavern, like you said. And as you painted for me before, these prisoners have been there all their lives -- chained to the floor and only able to look forward. Fires glow behind them, providing the only illumination within the space. Figures parade past the fires, carrying various objects and talking amongst themselves. These objects are projected upon the rock wall in front of the prisoners.


Glaucon, what you are describing to me is precisely what I depicted for you.


In good time you will understand the differences between our stories and the fallacy that has befallen you. Now, the shadows on the walls are the only sights the prisoners have ever known. The voices of the figures who carry the objects are the only sounds ever to have touched the prisoners’ ears. The shadows -- and the voices given to them -- are the prisoners world. They believe them to be the absolute truth.


This is what I have told you!


No. As I have said, the prisoners believe these shadows to be the absolute truth. You have argued that their reality is tainted and spoiled. Once they are brought into the light of the outside, and they are presented with the truth and goodness of the world, you say. Unfortunately, my dear friend, this is where your knowledge turns sour.


But it does not!


Your adamance and obstinacy are that of a madman, desperately holding onto what he believes as fact. Please, let me explain. Reality only exists within the mind. Outside our skulls, nothing truly subsists. Our perceptions -- that is reality. Without our perceptions the world outside is nothing, merely objects. It is the humans that give those objects meaning and life.


You cannot possibly believe that. Is a book not a book, regardless of whether a human is in its presence?


With this point I am in agreement. But then let me ask you this, what is a book without the interpretation and meaning given through the humans who read it? Without humans, the book is merely a collection of paper and scrawl. Thus humans are the ones that make a book truly a book, with the importance and weight that we so give it.


What are you implying?


The shadows inside the cave that the prisoners see are, in fact, real. They exist because the prisoners think they exist. Because they believe them to be reality, that is what they are. The prisoners construct worlds, conversations, and relationships from those nebulous images.


But that is the folly of the prisoners! Their uneducated minds feel comforted by the lies and think them to be real. With this we are advocating the same point. Glaucon, can you not see that no amount of wholehearted belief in those shadows can make them actually true? Faith does not physically alter reality.


This is your crucial error. I now ask you to look deep within yourself, Socrates. In this moment of introspection, search for a time when you have received indication -- of any form -- about the structure or meaning to the world outside. Can you recall a time when you have been given a sign, other than ones your own mind has interpreted or analyzed?


I cannot.


Then, is it not true that the only rational explanation for this is that reality -- as I have said before -- is only a construction of the human conscious? And therefore, because the prisoners within the cave perceive the shadows to be the world -- they are indeed the world. If released from their chains and taken outside, the brilliant Sun would blind them. It does this, contrasting with your opinion, because that outside world is a false perception of reality. The prisoners cannot discard everything they have ever known and welcome the knew sights in. Doing so would be abandoning the comfort of their realized worlds and entering one of lies and fantasy.


I do not agree. This position for which you advocate is that exactly of the prisoners I have discussed, Glaucon. You are wrong.


My dear Socrates, I admire you. You are a brilliant man and a wonderful teacher. Yet I fear that it is actually you who sits chained to the cave floor. Your feeble refutations are those befitting a madman. Your sharp mind has deteriorated and you have fallen ill. Your dreams are too big for the cave, it seems. You thought yourself superior, and this has caused you great harm. You have created a world for yourself in which the world given to you is false, and the outside is reality.


This cannot be!


I mean to say that these situations you conjure, or alternate worlds were the cave is lies and the outside is truth, are merely the daydreams of the deranged. Viewing only the shadows all your life, your large imagination produced fantastical situations to better enhance your own life experiences. You thought yourself original, to view your world as thought it were fake -- to regard yourself as the only keeper of true secrets. Unfortunately my friend, you are mistaken. You are perhaps the most naïve of all the prisoners. You resist the shadows, you search for greater meaning. Yet as I have told you before -- meaning is only a matter of the human mind. It is what we make it to be. To live in peace you must accept this; you must be rescued.


It is the other prisoners that are incorrect, not I! Education, freedom, light! That will save them.


But Socrates, the sun only serves to blind you from accepting the truth, it cannot possibly help them. With its blinding brilliance it obstructs your vision and does not allow any sight. How can you accept this world of sightlessness as your own? Only by being taken deeper within the cave will you be rescued. Completely removed from any shafts of sunlight, your mind will adopt -- no, welcome -- the world you are given within the rocky chamber. Like the other prisoners, your perception of reality will be correct -- and from the shadows on the walls, you will see truth.





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