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Knowledge and the Cave

At the beginning of Book seven Socrates turns to the topic of education and proposes a scenario where humans are taken into a cave and restrained from childhood. The only light they know is what comes from a fire behind their heads and the only truths they understand are the ones presented to them by the passing shadows they can see on the wall in front of them. These shadows become truths to them, so much so that they accept them and become comfortable with them. Socrates then asks Glaucon to consider what would happen if the people were released and allowed to face the outside world. According to Socrates these people would be unable to immediately face the outside world because of the bright sunlight they would face. However, what he appears to be hinting at is that if you are raised with a set of certain ideas that you believe to be true and then suddenly your whole world changes and suddenly those truths have changed, you will have a hard time adjusting.  By deconstructing his conversation with Glaucon further we can get to the bottom of this.

Socrates begins this discussion by setting up a scenario where humans, taken from childhood, are chained and forced to look at a wall in a cave in which the only source of light is from a fire burning behind them. The only things they can see are the shadows that pass along which are displayed by puppeteers (7.514B). These puppeteers hold up various “articles” that look like men and women and various animals. The humans will only see the shadow that these articles cast, so that whatever kind of shadow a dog casts, that is what they think a dog look like (7.515A).  This is just like when we are children and our parents point to a round object and say, “ball,” we now know this object as a ball. This is just something we were told; if we are not told what to call it we will make up our own identification for it. That is what would happen to the people in the cave, they would create identifications for various things based off the shadows they cast on the wall. Socrates even goes as far as to point this out, he says that if they heard a sound, would they associate it with the shadow. Glaucon says no, so Socrates points out that, “such people wouldn’t consider anything to be the truth other than the shadows of artificial things” (7.515C). This sets up the next stage to his scenario in which he proposes releasing the people from the cave.

The trauma involved in being released from the restraints comes from the sudden introduction of light. This is what we would think of as a blatant reference to being blinded by the truth. The person who was just released has been relying on mere shadows of objects their entire life and now they have been exposed to a whole new world. Socrates points out that the person who was released would need a period of adjustment to get accustomed to his new surroundings (7.516A). The idea that he would want to return to his old home is brought up and Glaucon states that, “ I imagine, he’d submit to enduring everything rather than live in that way,” (7.516D). Glaucon is bringing up the point that as human beings we would rather know than not know, we crave the truth even if it is painful and must be endured.  Even though the exposer to the sunlight and the new truths would be painful for this person it is better than sitting, restrained in a cave being influenced by a bunch of shadows on a wall; at least that is what Glaucon is proposing.

In the end what the cave represents is the idea that we seek out truth, and that how we are conditioned shapes what we see as true. If those truths are challenged or changed then we will endure them because we slowly accept them as the new set of truths. If this is true than what can we really determine to be true? If we are constantly seeking new knowledge then how will we ever know where we stand? These are the basic questions that come out of the discussion of the cave between Socrates and Glaucon. The answer seems to be that as humans we will constantly seek out more knowledge and new truths no matter how painful the experience.

            

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