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The cave image in Book Seven of Plato’s “Republic” is that of looking forward from the beginning of a life. This complicated image conveys many things that express the teachings of man, life and human nature. What brings a person to live life and fulfill the soul is a question that has been pursued by many and deciphered by few, but Plato makes an attempt to explain his notions of the cave and why he feels it is a parallel to man and life. This image begs the question of one’s ability to be compelled and a human’s ability to handle life. This image is a gateway for many theories, including those that classify a philosopher. I believe that this image best describes the roots behind the thought of human nature and the influences of convention.
In the first description of the cave image, the human beings are born with a series of “bonds” or factors that prevent them from doing whatever they may please, one can say. “They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them (7.514a).” The key word in the sentence is “fixed.” This can be symbolism for the nature of children. I believe that the past is present in this image, acting as the light behind and above the humans, but Plato sees that it does not matter, or he would have the humans unbound as so they can see and face behind them. The real motive of Plato with this image is the emphasis on the future and of growth in human nature and the soul.
“Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets (7.514b).” These puppets and handlers can be seen as the teachers of the past. They are showing the way for the young children in the cave, by giving them an interpretation that they can see and learn from. This interpretation can be good or bad, depending on what the puppet-handler’s intentions are. This can be an example of good and bad education. If these puppet-handlers teach the bound children a bad action, which is all they will be able to see, since they are forced to look forward and are not able to willfully turn their heads what they see in front of them is what they will follow, whether it be good or bad.
“Then also see along this wall human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts, which project above the wall, and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood, and every kind of material; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent (7.514b).” This is a perfect image of a life that can be interpreted and learned from. Each of these “artifacts” are symbolic of the past and of life. These artifacts are foreshadowing life and giving the children an opportunity to see what will come before them outside of the cave. These children are only seeing the lives of others, they have yet to experience the life that they will live. The question is whether or not these actions that happen in the cave are enough to compel the humans to leave the cave. If there was nothing to show the children, then they would just stay in the cave, bound by the legs and neck and not leave. This is a representation that education is important to the well being and nature of life. If there is nothing to show and learn from there will be no progress.
The sights and the sounds that are present in this cave can be misleading, but I feel that they must be present for the children to see something other than themselves. “For in the first place, do you suppose such men would have seen anything of themselves and one another other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them? (7.515a).” This is an implication that the children in the cave need the puppet-handlers and the shadows to guide them, to compel them. They are the teachers to the children. Now since these are humans teaching other humans with human artifacts, this must mean that convention is intertwined within the shadows on the cave walls. Since these artifacts are man-made, they may only teach what man has learned. So maybe in the end these “binds” in the cave are only there to teach about human convention, and not actually teach about human nature. Human nature might already be in place. I feel that human nature is not something that can be taught, but rather it is born with each human being. So is it convention that compels the children to be drawn from the cave, or is it human nature? Which is stronger and which is more likely to keep fear from entering the minds of the children when they come forth from the cave?
I believe that convention and the “artifacts” prepare the children inside the cave to accept “the sun” or life. But it is human nature that allows it to happen. “Then finally I suppose he would be able to make out the sun- not its appearances in water or some alien place, but the sun itself by itself in its own region- and see what it’s like (7.516b).” Convention allows humans to distinguish what is the truth and what is not, by giving sort of a “template” for life. But living rightly is only determined by human nature and the soul. That cannot be taught, for it is already present in humans and is what compels them to live.

20 Responses to “Nature, Convention and “The Cave””

  1. khoneycutt says:

    I like the image of the cave as the “beginning” of something. At least one commentator sees the cave as a womb-image, which is not quite the beginning you meant but is intriguing, nonetheless. I think you are right to suggest that the Cave is somehow crucial to that whole series of images in 5-7. To call this the beginning of some new life puts an interesting light on things and surely is not too far off from what Plato means by the art of turning around.

    Your comment about the puppeteers being teachers of the past is interesting. I agree that it’s a plausible way to view them. We need not impute any malice to them, perhaps; after all, if all human life begins in an artificial (that is, conventional) world, then teachers of any traditions will be something like what you are saying. However, I think there is a wrinkle in that the teachers are apparently not bound like the other people are. This suggests something more than mere transmission of information, it seems to me. Somehow they are free and know that there is more than the shadows on the walls–because they are the ones creating the shadows on the walls. So who are they? This starts to make them sound a bit more sinister.

    I am not sure about your claim that the world of the cave (that is, the world of artifacts) prepare people to accept the sun. You suggest that convention allows humans “to distinguish what is the truth and what is not” but it seems that this is precisely what the convention of the cave does not do; we need to get outside the world of convention (to nature) to be able to do that. But maybe I am misunderstanding you.

    KH

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