Plato’s allegory of the cave appears in Book VII of Plato’s most famous and longest dialog, The Republic. Plato’s dialogs frequently star Plato’s teacher Socrates as a character. The dialogs involved discussions and philosophical arguments between various characters, some of whom were based on real people. Plato particularly disliked the sophists who were professional rhetoricians and who seemed to care more about money and social success than truth. In fact, Plato accused them of teaching their students how to make the worse argument appear better – enabling their students to convict the innocent and set free the guilty.
The Republic is ostensibly about a polis, a Greek word meaning city-state. Nation states did not exist at the time, just walled cities called poleis that were self-governing, and empires like Persia. Commentators and philosophers who should know better sometimes refer to passages in The Republic as though The Republic represents Plato’s conception of an ideal polis. In fact, there are two things to bear in mind. One is that Plato explicitly says that he is only discussing the polis as a way of talking about the human soul. Thus, he is not really interested in discussing the city-state. He is only referring to the polis as a metaphor for the soul; a large version of an invisible and small thing.
Secondly, the polis that Plato described is one devoted almost exclusively to the pursuit of justice. In the name of justice, poets would have to be banished from the city and all children would have to be separated from their parents at birth and put into giant anonymous nurseries. This is because parents have a tendency to favor their own children regardless of the children’s actual merits, contravening the principles of justice. Powerful and rich parents will tend to make sure their children get ahead socially and financially at the expense of much smarter, nicer and more qualified people. Thus parental love must be banished in the name of justice. Likewise, romantic love takes a hammering. There will be a kind of breeding program with successful warriors who have demonstrated strength, cunning and bravery getting to have sex with beautiful, smart, athletic women of their choosing as a reward with the progeny being sent off to those horrible nurseries.
Plato is not actually advocating such behavior because in other dialogs like The Phaedrus and particularly The Symposium, Plato describes love and romantic love as the most important aspect of human existence. In The Republic Plato is just showing what the single-minded pursuit of justice alone would entail. Prioritizing justice above all other goods would mean condoning behaviors that contradict the pursuit of other things we believe to be good. Thus The Republic embodies a reductio ad absurdum argument. These kinds of arguments try to show that accepting one proposition will contradict another proposition a person believes to be true, forcing him to reject the proposed notion. The consequences of pursuing justice alone would mean abandoning the pursuit of other very important things: familial love; the love of parents for children and the love between the parents. Therefore, The Republic is actually an argument against the single-minded and exclusive pursuit of justice. There are other good things that should also be promoted; love in particular. The bizarre features of this republic are what would happen if we abandoned all other good things in life in the name of justice alone. Those bizarre features are enumerated precisely so that the reader will reject them and in rejecting those features he is rejecting the single-minded pursuit of justice.
Plato’s cave is a description of ultimate reality and of the human interior. It was Plato’s belief that via an inward journey, human consciousness could uncover all the levels that make up existence.
Plato’s cave is thus about the structure of reality and this reality is ultimately spiritual in nature. Plato thought that as humans we want to be happy. In order to be happy we have to figure out what is good. We consider something to be good if it contributes to human happiness. But we can be wrong about what is good. To get it right, we need to be wise. So the pursuit of happiness will necessarily entail the pursuit of wisdom. The fool gets “the good” wrong. The philosopher is the lover of wisdom – philosophy being a combination of “philia,” love and friendship, and “sophia,” meaning wisdom.
Plato’s cave is a story about human development; about a hierarchy of reality that we progressively become aware of as we develop and become wiser. The story is a story about the education of the soul, the pursuit of happiness and the nature of reality. Plato will argue that being morally good will make you happy. The story is also about two kinds of love, Eros and Agape, that must be balanced if we are to live well. What follows draws on, among other things, the writings of Ken Wilber, a living American philosopher, and Plotinus, a Neo-Platonist living in the third century AD.
Plato’s Cave: the story
Plato describes a group of prisoners chained by the neck looking at the shadows on the back wall of a cave. Because they are chained, the prisoners cannot look around to see what is generating the shadows. As far as the prisoners are concerned, the shadows just ARE reality since they have never experienced anything other than shadows. The shadows represent physical reality.
One day, one of the prisoners gets free; namely, the philosopher, the lover of wisdom. He turns around and the first thing he sees is a wall. Behind the wall figures are carrying objects of stone and wood made to resemble the shapes of real things such as a tree. Further along, generating the light that hits these objects that then produce shadows on the back wall of the cave, is a fire. Beyond the fire is the entrance/exit of the cave. The philosopher exits the cave and is temporarily blinded by the light. The first thing he sees is a real tree of which the stone and wood objects were merely copies. This real tree represents the Forms or Ideas; Eidos in Greek. Finally, the philosopher sees the sun which Plato called The Form of the Good.
The Form of the Good is the most beautiful thing the philosopher has ever seen. If he were exclusively concerned about his own happiness, he would just stop and contemplate the sun. However, out of compassion for his fellow humans still stuck as prisoners in the cave, he returns to his original position to try to explain to them the nature of reality and what they are missing out on. It is in the interests of the prisoners to listen because it concerns their happiness. If they remain exclusively concerned with the shadows, mere physical reality, then they will have the wrong idea about human happiness. They will think that their bodies are the most real aspect of them. If this were true, then physical pleasure would represent the height of human happiness. We would then be exclusively devoted to pleasure and money, since money provides access to a lot of pleasurable things.
The prisoners laugh at the philosopher and say he is crazy. Then they get annoyed. They want to enjoy their pleasures with a good conscience. They do not want to hear that they have it all wrong. The philosopher is a party-pooper. Finally, they get so annoyed they kill the philosopher – mirroring the fate of Socrates who was condemned to death by Athens in 399 BC, and also of Jesus.
If we employ the terminology of Plotinus, then the shadows represent physical reality. The wall and its objects represent the level of “psyche,” which we might translate here as “mind.” The Forms outside the cave would seem to be the level of “nous,” which could be called “soul.” And the Form of the Good Plotinus called “The One.” This would represent the level of Spirit.
Thus we have a hierarchy of being; Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit. This division corresponds to what mystics in many different religious traditions describe.
In Zen Buddhism, one starts by counting one’s breaths. The mind focuses on the body. The body is the object, the mind the subject. Then, after a while, the meditator learns to focus on his mind and feelings. The mind is the object, the soul the subject. Finally, the meditator experiences the One, consciousness itself; pure awareness. The distinction between soul, mind and body ceases; all is one. Out of the One; pure consciousness; all other experiences arise. The One gives birth to them; to all other things.
If all is one, then it makes no sense to imagine that it is possible to be happy by harming others, or even while ignoring their misery.
Plato’s Form of the Good
Plato describes The Form of the Good, the One, as generating all the other Forms and the rest of reality. Thus, the One is similar to what Christians might call the Godhead. It means that the levels of soul, mind and body are being generated from a spiritual dimension and are ultimately divine. As Plotinus puts it, the children of a supremely good Father are also to be considered good. Again, this is similar to Judaism and Christianity where God creates the world and declares it to be good. Both Plato and Aristotle were adopted by the Church fathers as proto-Christians.
The Forms Plato describes as the templates or models for things in the physical realm. The Forms include the Form of Justice, of Beauty and of Truth. The Forms are perfect and eternal. They exist on a nonphysical plane that can be described as a Platonic heaven. Many professional mathematicians consider mathematical truths to exist in such a heaven, despite oftentimes being atheists, and despite being are aware of the contradiction.
The Forms can be considered as ideas in the mind of God. The level of the wall in the cave is the level of mind or “psyche.” Plotinus suggests that becoming wiser entails the ideas in our minds coming closer to the Ideas or Forms at the level of “nous.” Plotinus writes that each level looks to the level above it for its perfection. As a person gets older his idea about what love is, for instance, will get closer to the Form of love. It will approximate Love itself more and more.
For Plato, beauty in the physical plane is an imperfect copy of real Beauty, A.K.A. Beauty itself. Physical beauty is transitory and, as Plotinus says, is largely the result of poor eyesight. If it were possible to see human pores up close or were to peel away the covering of the stomach to reveal the slimy intestines inside, beauty disappears.
Earthly justice is also a poor imitation of perfect justice. The punishment for murder might be death. But the original harm is not corrected. The murdered person remains dead. The parents of slain children really want their child back and witnessing the torture of the murderer will never provide that. Somehow, despite never having seen perfect justice on Earth, people know that Earthly justice is imperfect. We seem to have some implicit knowledge of what real justice would look like which we then compare Earthly justice to unfavorably.
The Forms and reincarnation
Plato postulates the existence of reincarnation. He thinks that everyone has seen the Forms in the afterlife. When they are reborn they go through the River of Lethe. Lethe means “forgetfulness.” They forget their spiritual nature and they forget the Forms, but they can be reminded of what they once knew. People can recognize Beauty, Truth and Justice because they are remembering what their souls have seen.
The Greek word for truth and reality is “aletheia.” Embedded in the word is the shorter word “lethe.” Putting the letter “a” in front converts words into their opposites, e.g., typical becomes atypical. So as it happens, aletheia means etymologically “to remember.” Presumably the Ancient Greeks were not all philosophers who believed in reincarnation and did not constantly think about the etymology (word origin) of aletheia. But, nonetheless, the word does fit nicely with Plato’s beliefs.
Plato says beautiful things “participate” in the Form of Beauty. When asked exactly what that meant, he admitted that he did not know. The notion of the Forms also raises the problem of infinite regression. If Forms on Earth are recognized by comparing them to the heavenly Forms, how does our soul recognize the heavenly Forms? To what are they comparing those? Yet other Forms?
Quite frequently, people who have had near death experiences report experiencing omniscience – acquired spontaneously and without effort. This omniscience is not compatible with the limits of the human brain, so cannot be retained upon recovery. One NDE survivor claimed that he knew what everyone who had ever lived experienced and also the experiences of all those who would ever live. Perhaps the Forms are recognized by merging with the Universal Mind, Consciousness Itself in which all is rendered intelligible and known. The normal finite mind, by necessity and definition, cannot encompass the infinite.
Is Plato’s Cave a theory?
The description of reality in Plato’s Cave is often thought of as a theory. However, if Plato is read sympathetically and without materialistic prejudice, it is clear that Plato is describing his own experience, not a theory. Plato is the philosopher who left the cave. He has experienced Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit. He has experienced the Form of the Good. He has trouble describing the Form of the Good because language works when someone’s interlocutor has experienced the things to which words refer. But there are no words shared in common for things only a few people have experienced. Or if they create those words, they only make real sense to those who have experienced the reality to which they refer. On a prosaic level, there is the taste of pineapple and no words can fully capture it. Without actually tasting pineapple, a person’s understanding of that concept is very limited.
If Plato is right, then people have some buried experience of Psyche, Nous and the One. This information is in their souls. When these things are described, the descriptions resonate with some deep half-forgotten part of ourselves. We have an intuition that something like this might be true; even must be true. This kind of truth involves what the Greeks called “anamnesis;” remembering.
Sometimes religious truths sound like they are indeed true. We cannot prove them and yet they seem true anyway. We can call this sense, intuition. Some such faith is necessary to avoid nihilism – the notion that life is a sad, pointless waste of time and that nothing has any real value. Scientists too need to think that the pursuit of truth is meaningful and that the universe is intelligible; that there is some order to physical reality that can be uncovered even though there is no proof in advance that such an order will in fact be discovered. Scientists are still unable to make quantum physics and relativity consistent. No grand unifying theory (G.U.T.) has been found.
Plato and Ethics
Plato made a major contribution to the understanding of ethics in Western civilization. Before Plato, the Greeks thought that to help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies was the right thing to do. To us, this represents total corruption. A politician who behaves in this way is indicted, imprisoned and thrown in jail.
Plato changed this to “harm no one.” He did not rule out punishment. Criminals may still need to be punished, but punishment is not the same as harming someone. Punishment means that the criminal may repent and renounce his evildoing. If not, punishing wrongdoing is appropriate and just. Even the death penalty may actually help someone. If Hitler had been killed before he had a chance to commit all the evil he did, Hitler would have been helped. He would never have been able to be as evil as he in fact was. It is one thing to have evil intentions. It is far worse to act on them.
The only other individual who has made as major an impact on our moral understanding in the West is Jesus. He suggested that we should love our enemies and love our neighbor as ourselves. Both Jesus and Plato claimed to have had profound mystical experiences of the divine and pointed to these experiences as the basis of their moral insights.
Plato’s Cave as a circuit
Ken Wilber points out that Plato’s Cave represents a circuit – a journey out of the cave and then the return to the cave once again. What is nice about this is that the philosopher does not escape from and reject physical reality. He accepts the physical as good and divine – it is just not all that is.
This is similar to Mahayana Buddhism of which Zen and Tibetan are two schools. Mahayana Buddhism has the ox-herding pictures. The ox-herding pictures start with a man in the marketplace with an out-of-control ox. He leaves the marketplace with the ox and then returns riding the ox and smiling. The ox represents his own mind. The withdrawal from the marketplace is temporary and symbolizes the man’s learning to control his mind so that when he returns to normal life, including everyday interaction with people, represented by the marketplace, he is calm and happy. He is in control of his thoughts and feelings.
Likewise, Plato’s philosopher goes through several developmental stages, first identifying himself and reality with his body, then his mind, then his soul and finally spirit. Having got to this point he does not hate and despise the body, nor does he just leave the other prisoners to their fates. The growth in wisdom coincides with a growth in compassion.
This can be contrasted with Gnosticism. There are various manifestations of this philosophy/religion. Gnosticism was always in competition with Christianity and Christianity sometimes includes Gnostic elements.
Gnosticism also has four main levels – the physical, Demiurge, Sophia, and the One. In Gnosticism, Sophia, the word meaning wisdom, and thought of as a female goddess, is jealous of the creative abilities of the One and gives birth to her evil son, the Demiurge. The physical universe is then created by the Demiurge. Thus, physical reality is evil and not the product of the One which is still considered good.
Gnosticism therefore embodies a hatred of our human bodies and the physical universe. The goal is then to escape from reality as we know it. The ultimate goal of Gnosticism is to reunite with the One and to have one’s individual identity obliterated. It is nihilistic and life-hating in the extreme. Instead of saying that food and sex are nice but there is more to life than that, Gnostics reject them as categorically evil.
Eros and Agape
Ken Wilber describes the journey out of the cave as being the product of Eros and the return to the cave as being generated by Agape. Eros describes the upward path. Agape the downward.
Eros is the search of the Many for the One. Agape is the One’s embrace of the Many. Eros is the search for God, salvation and happiness. It represents conditional love. Agape represents unconditional love and acceptance of all aspects of reality. Eros involves struggle, striving and development. Agape includes resting in nondual awareness, feeling at one with the universe with no higher or lower.
Suffering drives growth and change. Having children involves these things. Being a successful parent will force someone to become more patient and patience is affiliated with the nurturing, caring compassionate Agape.
If someone is perfectly content, he would never change and thus grow. In many ways problems are solved by learning new skills and developing new abilities. Wishing someone well means wishing the person to continue to grow and develop.
This kind of push to develop is associated with a more fatherly love represented by Eros. It is a conditional love. The good thing about conditional love is that it can be earned and it is earned by achievement. It is tough love. Agape is a more feminine style of love that requires nothing, but loves you just as you are.
Eros and Agape are ideally embodied in each person so that there is the drive to improve and a sense of self-acceptance. This should make someone a good friend and parent. He is interested and friendly towards the continued growth of the people around him, while being accepting of their failures and limitations.
In a traditional family, the father might be expected to see that the kids do their homework and their music practice and to punish them when they are bad. The mother might exude unfaltering, unwavering unconditional love; a kind of love that cannot be earned, but cannot be lost; the mother who would love her child no matter what; visiting him in prison after he became a meth-addled ax murderer if necessary.
Too much Agape and a child does not grow and develop; or at least their development is retarded. Too much Eros and an overly strict attitude may arise leading to self-hatred – overly harsh and puritanical.
Plato’s cave represents the perfect combination of Eros and Agape embodied in one wise individual.