Friday, May 20, 2011

Allegory of the cave

Imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood and their arms and legs are held in place as well as their heads are fixed so they are compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them.
Behind those people is a wall, and behind this wall, is a gigantic fire, being the only source of light for those people. day in and day out. Between the fire and the wall is a walkway, where people are coming by, carrying things on their head, "including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials". The wall is just high enough to show those objects, but no head or anything else 

The prisoners watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway. Since the prisoners haven't seen anything else their whole life, they will take those shadows and the sounds of the echoes as the reality, and couldnt imagine the relity being any different than what they have been seeing all their lifes.

Schematics of the Cave describes by Socrates.

So far the starting scenario of the "allegory of the cave", a story (or allegory) told by Socrates, described by Plato in his "Republica". He was using this scenario in many of his debates with Plato's older brother Glaucon.
For Socrates, it was a base to describe "our nature in its education and want of education".

Those prisoners werent able to move since their limbs are chained, and since they only see the shadows, nothing but the shadows exist for them. Since there is a fire burning all the time, and since it never extinguishes, they wont even have an idea of even simple constructs as light and darkness. 

Socrates' scholar Plato added a new dimension to this allegory. He supposed, that somehow one of the prisoners is able to get free. And once he sees the original objects, who cast those shadows, he wouldnt recognize them, also he couldnt name them, since the only reality he knows, are the shadows he has seen all his life.
"Suppose further," Socrates says, "that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn't he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real? What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave: wouldn't the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn't he be distressed and unable to see "even one of the things now said to be true," viz. the shadows on the wall" [1]
Well something like this, you may find often with people who try to close their eyes, when being confronted with ideologies other than their own. Complete denial, anger, sometimes distress.
"Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man. "Wouldn't he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn't he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn't he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn't it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it's not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn't they kill him?"[2] 
This last, rather drastic ending of the killing, was added by Plato. But considering his devotion for his "teacher" Socrates, and the trial and imprisonment, resulting in Socrates' suicide, it is at least comprehensible, that many of Platos story have a drastic and extreme ending.

Although, older than the stories of the bible, at least 2050 years, this story has yet so many truth in it. you still can relate many  situations nowadays to this allegory, many reactions of people, many situations.
For example when i heard first of this story, some years ago, i was not picturing a "society in a cave" bout  more or less families in front of the TV, watching what the stations are broadcasting as the truth, and finally believing it. But as i found out, the TV is not the truth, nor is anything presented to someone as the truth. But who  is never willing to open his eyes, to go out of the cave and make his own experiences, instead of believing what is presented to him, will always believe what is told to him by others. 

By the way: this story is also the basic thought, which inspired Rosa Luxemburg to her (in certain antifascist/anarchist circles) famous aphorism: "Who is not moving, does not notice his chains" (Loosely translated from "Wer sich nicht bewegt, spürt seine Fesseln nicht!")

 [1], [2]: Watt, Stephen (1997), "Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5–7)", Plato: Republic

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