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The Cave of Ruin

The image of the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic is one of the most important in all of philosophy. Though the meaning of this image is debated, in context it seems to have a least something to do with education.  Being inside of the cave seems to symbolize life without education, while being out of it seems to symbolize being educated, perhaps to the point of enlightenment.

The image begins with this, “ picture human beings in a cavelike dwelling underground having a long open pathway open to the light all across the cave” (514A).  From this, we get the sense that there may be some base level of knowledge that is inherent in people from birth, as the cave isn’t in complete darkness. It is also suggested that this kind of knowledge is acceptable, given that people are only in the cave “from childhood on” (514B).  We do not know what from what age childhood is constituted, but there are several key things that are learned or developed very early on in life, such as thinking, speaking, and walking.  The last is taken away from you as soon as you are put in the cave, “ with their legs and necks in restraints,so that they’re held in place and look only to the front, restricted by the neck-restraint from twisting their heads around” (514B).  Looking back, in the literal sense, is something one would, more than likely, learn in the period prior to childhood that is take away upon entering the cave. Clearly, this action hinders people, perhaps keeping them from being focused on forward progress, though it seems the hindrance would come from the figurative sense of looking back rather than the literal sense.  This would be particularly important for creating a city that is entirely new, as the goal would be to keep the citizens always looking forward, never back.

Next, we learn, “ for them, the light is from a fire burning up above and a long way behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners there’s a upper road” (514B).  So some of the light that we read about in 514A is from an unnatural source, which means that not all of what we learn in the period between birth and childhood is inherent and natural.  This is important because it shows that from birth, humans are impressionable, and must be put in the cave to cleanse themselves of this false,man made knowledge. However, the idea that there may be some kind of pure,innate knowledge still stands, as it seems that there is a small amount of natural light coming in from the upper road that runs through the cave.  This small amount of light gets smaller, as we are told to “ picture a little wall built along this road, like the low partitions puppeteers use to screen the humans who display the puppets above them” (514B).  At this point the amount of natural light would be miniscule, if it existed at all. Therefore, any knowledge that those in the cave would be entirely false, or would at least be controlled by someone else. This lowers humans significantly, as they are completely impressionable and able to be molded.

We get an explanation of the puppet/puppeteer image from 514B here, “ Then see the humans going along this little wall carrying all sorts of articles that jut out over the wall,figurines of men and other animals fashioned out of stone and wood and materials of all kinds, with some of the people carrying them past making appropriate sounds and others silent” (514C-515A). As we saw before, humans have been lowered significantly, but it seems they are also being taught a valuable lesson here too.  The constant passing of different shapes accompanied by various sounds or no sound at all seems to wean humans from relying entirely on associations we have made. This seems to promote the idea of knowing something for what it is rather than by its traits.  By putting people in a dimly lit cave and having them restrained, the likelihood that they would know themselves or one another, as Socrates and Glaucon point out in 515A, is low.  That would keep people from being concerned with appearance, which would address the one of the issues with common women and children.  Though this seems to be beneficial, I feel as though it would promote a genuine disinterest in other people which might lead to problems later on. Socrates says, “such people wouldn’t consider anything to be the truth other than the shadows of artificial things” (515C).  This cements the fact that humans are entirely molded by experience. Not only that, but it would also be important for the city that wants to censor what its citizens know.

 Socrates goes on to relate this to when humans are forced to stand and see, “ whenever one of them would be released, and suddenly required to stand up, and turn his neck around, and walk, and look up to the light, he’d suffer pain from doing all these things” (515C).  The idea is that is painful to be forced out of conventional thought and see things for what they really are. This is important because true education seems to take place when one can think on his own, rather than just blindly follow the directions he is given.  Being able to think independently is perhaps one of the key lessons to be learned from the image of the cave.

He follows with this, “ and because of the blazes of light, he wouldn’t have the power to get a clear sight of the things whose shadows he’d seen before” (515D). It almost seems as though Socrates is critiquing the cave on some level because he admits that taking in the natural light will be painful. Sp painful, in fact, that the people won’t want to stand and bask in the light. Being exposed to pure knowledge, to the truth, would be exceedingly difficult, if one had been exposed to only false knowledge for the majority of his life.  It seems that Socrates agrees, “ what do you imagine he’d say if someone were to tell him that he;s been seeing rubbish then, but now somewhat nearer to what is and turned toward the things that have more being, he was seeing more accurately? And, especially if, pointing to each of the things passing by, one forced him to answer as he asked what they are, don’t you imagine he’d be at a loss and believe things he’d seen before were truer than the ones pointed out to him now?” (515D).  According to Socrates, people resist the purer knowledge at first because it calls into question everything they’ve ever known.

While this is not addressed in the allegory of the cave, there are surely people that never want to bask in the light because the change it causes in a person is too radical and sudden. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these people are happier living in ignorance, but they may have no desire to learn what things truly are; it could also be the case that those who appear suited for the light of knowledge are not.  The consequences of giving a person truth are monumental, and that it is reserved for only certain people. We see later on that once a person is adapted to the truth, and it becomes his reality, its very difficult to get him to willingly reenter the darkness and ignorance of the cave.   This leaves us with an interesting problem, we have a class of people who know the truth and they don’t want to share it; we have another class that knows only falsity and doesn’t care to know more;then we have this class of people that bring people out of the cave, but teach the falsities of the cave.  If we look at this through the perspective of building a city, it doesn’t work because the people that know the truth, also feed the ignorance of the people in the cave.

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