Exiting The Cave, The Podcast Edition

Introduction

Welcome to the first episode of “Exiting The Cave”. My name is Greg. I am an amateur philosopher, studying philosophy part-time at the University of London, in their International Program. My “day job” is in tech, but my passion is philosophy. In case you’re not familiar with it, I have been writing a philosophy blog for about 5 years, now. You can find it at https://exitingthecave.com

This podcast is an attempt to extend that work, to challenge myself to do more, and to give readers of my blog more philosophy content. The blog has been, more or less, a running record of my attempt at a properly formal philosophy education. I’m hoping to take the podcast a bit further. Here, I want to explore ideas more freely, and delve a bit into subject areas I’ve studiously avoided on the blog. I’ll be venturing into the philosophy of aesthetics and music (as one of my keen hobby interests), and cracking open the Pandora’s Box of political philosophy and practical ethics. This way, I can sharpen the focus of the blog even further, creating a self-made resource for evidence, arguments, and other artifacts supporting the podcast.

To get things started, I want to use this podcast to benchmark the inspiration for the blog – Plato’s allegory of the cave – and talk a bit about why I have found myself sticking to the allegory, in spite of its cliché reputation these days. I’ll begin by telling the story, as portrayed in The Republic itself, and afterward, I’ll offer a few remarks about the many layers of meaning built into it, and why it resonates with me.


The Allegory of the Cave

Let’s get started. We’ll be entering Plato’s Republic, at Stephanos number 514a1, for those who want to follow along. Socrates’ dialectic partner throughout, is Glaucon, but the dialog is entirely in Socrates’ voice. I’ll be speaking in the first-person from this point on, as Socrates, then.


I said [to Glaucon], “make an image [in your mind] of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cavelike dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. 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. 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.” 514ab

“I see,” he said.

“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.” c515a

“It’s a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.”

“They’re like us,” I said. “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?”

“How could they,” he said, “if they had been compelled to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”b

“And what about the things that are carried by? Isn’t it the same with them?”

“Of course.”

“If they were able to discuss things with one another, don’t you believe they would hold that these things that they see, are the actual beings, to which they give names?

“Necessarily.”

“And what if the prison also had an echo from the side facing them? Whenever one of the men passing by happens to utter a sound, do you suppose they would believe that anything other than the passing shadow was uttering the sound?”

“No, by Zeus,” he said. “I don’t.”

“Then most certainly,” I said, “such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”c

“Most necessarily,” he said.

“Now consider,” I said, “what their release and healing from bonds and folly would be like if something of this sort were by nature to happen to them. Take a man who is released and suddenly compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light; and who, moreover, in doing all this is in pain and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before. What do you suppose he’d say if someone were to tell him that before he saw silly nothings, while now, because he is somewhat nearer to what is and more turned toward being, he sees more correctly; and, in particular, showing him each of the things that pass by, were to compel the man to answer his questions about what they are? Don’t you suppose he’d be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown?”d

“Yes,” he said, “by far.”

“And, if he compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt and would he flee, turning away to those things that he is able to make out and hold them to be really clearer than what is being shown?”e

“So he would,” he said.

“And if,” I said, “someone dragged him away from there by force along the rough, steep, upward way and didn’t let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged? And when he came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes full of its beam and be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true?”516a

“No, he wouldn’t,” he said, “at least not right away.”

“Then I suppose he’d have to get accustomed, if he were going to see what’s up above. At first he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the reflections of the human beings and the other things in water; and, later, the things themselves. And from there he could turn to beholding the things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night—looking at the light of the stars and the moon—than by day—looking at the sun and sunlight.”516b

“Of course.”

Then, finally, he would be able to make out the sun—not its mere appearances in water or some alien place, but the sun itself by itself in its own proper place — and contemplate it as it truly is.

“Necessarily,” Glaucon said.

“And after that he would already be in a position to conclude about it that this is the source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing all along.”516c

“It’s plain,” he said, “that this would be his next step.”

“What then? When he recalled his first home and the wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners in that time, don’t you suppose he would consider himself happy for the change and have pity for the others?”

“Quite so.”

“And if in that time there were among them any honors, praises, and prizes for the man who is sharpest at making out the things that go by, and most remembers which of them are accustomed to pass before, which after, and which at the same time as others, and who is thereby most able to divine what is going to come, in your opinion would he be desirous of them and envy those who are honored and hold power among these men? Or, rather, would he be affected as Homer says and want very much ‘to be on the soil, a serf to another man, to a portionless man,’ and to undergo anything whatsoever rather than to opine those things and live that way?”d

“Yes,” Glaucon said, “I suppose he would prefer to undergo everything rather than live in that way.”e

“Now reflect on this too,” I said. “If such a man were to come down again and sit in the same seat, on coming suddenly from the sun wouldn’t his eyes get infected with darkness?”

“Very much so,” he said.

“And if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about those shadows while his vision was still dim, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not at all short, wouldn’t he be the source of laughter, and 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 them and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?” 517a

“No doubt about it,” he said.

“Well, then, my dear Glaucon,” I said, “this image as a whole must be connected with what was said before. Liken the domain revealed through sight to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the sun’s power; and, in applying the going up and the seeing of what’s above to the soul’s journey up to the intelligible place, you’ll not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. In any event, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything—in the visible it gave birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence—and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it.”bc


My Analysis of The Allegory

The Republic is itself a dialogue so layered and so subtle that one could spend an entire philosophical career on it (indeed, several have). The allegory of the cave embedded within the dialogue is one of several gems dotting the whole narrative, and is arguably the most brilliant of them. It is not hard to see why this dialogue has inspired so many philosophers throughout history. Notice, for example, the use of physical direction, and motion. At the opening of the the Republic, for example, Socrates’ first words are, “I went down to the Pireaus…”. In the allegory of the cave, we are following him down into the cave. By the time we get to the end of the allegory of the cave, we have risen not only out of the cave, but up to a plane of existence beyond mortal imagining — only to descend down into the cave again. In other words, the allegory becomes a meta-narrative describing the reader’s journey through the dialogue of the Republic, itself.

Many other examples of this sort of symbolism and allusion are present (such as, for example, the fact that Adiemantus, Glaucon, and Socrates are themselves representatives at times, of the three kinds of citizen populating in the ideal republic; or, for example that the cave and its escapee are a metaphor for childbirth, in the transition from womb to independent organism). But, for the purposes of this podcast, I want to focus on three insights of my own.

The Problem of the Forms

First, there is the role of Plato’s Forms in the allegory of the cave. It’s not clear whether and how much of Plato’s dialogues are Plato talking, or Socrates. But many agree that the Theory of Forms was entirely a creation of Plato, and his use of Socrates to elucidate it was purely dramatic. One problem with this, is how it confounds the Allegory of the Cave (which may have originally been Socrates’).

To briefly summarize the theory here, Plato’s Forms are transcendental universals out of which all particulars in the material changing universe derive their genuine, or ultimate, reality. They are not simply conceptual generalizations in the mind, encapsulating, say, the “idea of chair” or the “idea of justice”. They are permanent, unchanging casting dies, from which the demiurge presses the material instances of chairs, or acts of justice, or even particular properties like size, color, shape, and nature. This is what Plato is referring to, when he puts into Socrates’ mouth, the words “… the idea of the good …” 2

But, this raises a serious problem with the allegory. For, as Parmenides3 pointed out in his dialogue with Socrates, there is no method by which men could obtain knowledge of the Forms, while remaining in the mortal realm. The implication for the Allegory, is simply this, then: nobody ever, really, leaves the cave. But Socrates (or perhaps Plato?) seems to think we can. The allegory is explicit about this. The philosopher king dwells in the realm of the Forms, and then faces the choice of whether or not to return to the cave to rescue his comrades. If it were a one-way trip, no such choice would confront him. But, it could only be a one-way trip, if the Forms are as Plato insists they are. So, either the Forms are not eternal, or we cannot return to the cave.

Epistemology and Motivation

Second, there is a problem with why any particular person in the cave would actually undergo such an ordeal as being extricated from his shackles. This is not just a practical question. I’m not simply saying that because nobody sane would bother, then neither should we as philosophers. Rather, I’m saying that the allegory skirts the question of motivation by putting us already in the “deus ex machina” position of having extracted the captive — and, that motive is key, because it calls into question the whole project. What, exactly, are we seeking? How did it come about that we knew to seek it? How will we know when we’ve found it?

So, in addition to the ontological problem that the Forms present us with, we’re now saddled with an epistemological one as well. Not having access to the Forms (assuming they do exist), and having no awareness of anything but the cave shackles into which we’ve been born, how could we possibly have any awareness to even ask the question of what is “beyond the cave”, or any motivation to question our experience of the cave itself? Socrates admits as much in the retelling of the allegory itself. We are cave dwellers ourselves, and would have no means of unshackling ourselves or the object of the allegory. Were we to tell him we could unshackle ourselves and him, he would surely tell us that we were lunatics for suggesting such a project — and he would be justified in doing so, without some rational standard for believing that such a thing is not only possible, but likely to yield what we claim, if attempted.

The Forced Rescue

There is an addendum to the traditional allegory story, that is often not included in its retelling. Recall that the largest part of The Republic, is Plato’s argument for what a just polis would look like, and by analogy, what a just soul would be. Socrates imagines three classes of men in The Republic: the men of everyday appetitive concerns (the craftsmen), the men of honour (the warriors), and the men of wisdom (the “Guardians”). For Plato, the “Guardian” is the man who has ascended from the cave, and dwelt in the realm of the Forms. Having both the capacity for, and the acheivement of, this enlightenment, he is the class of man who is best equipped to rule the rest of us, because he can see things that we cannot. But there is a problem with this part of the theory. Plato hinted at it already, in the reading above4, but later gets more explicit about the implications of this. Let’s have a look at that, here, beginning at 517d:

“Come, then,” I said, “and join me in supposing this, too, and don’t be surprised that the men who get to that point aren’t willing to mind the business of human beings, but rather that their souls are always eager to spend their time above. Surely that’s likely, if indeed this, too, follows the image of which I told before.”

“Of course it’s likely,” he said.

“And what about this? Do you suppose it is anything surprising,” I said, “if a man, come from acts of divine contemplation to the human evils, is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when—with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness—he is compelled in courts or elsewhere to contest about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?”

“It’s not at all surprising,” he said.

And, further on, at 519c, Plato explains what would happen to such men:

…Isn’t it likely,” I said, “and necessary, as a consequence of what was said before, that those who are without education and experience of truth would never be adequate stewards of a city, nor would those who have been allowed to spend their time in education continuously to the end—the former because they don’t have any single goal in life at which they must aim in doing everything they do in private or in public, the latter because they won’t be willing to act, believing they have emigrated to a colony on the Isles of the Blessed while they are still alive?”

“True,” he said.

“Then our job as founders,” I said, “is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”

“What’s that?”, Glaucon asked.

“To remain there,” I said, “and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious.”

“What?” he said. “Are we to do them an injustice, and make them live a worse life when a better is possible for them?”

“My friend, you have again forgotten,” I said, “that it’s not the concern of law that any one class in the city fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring this about in the city as a whole, harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one another the benefit that each is able to bring to the commonwealth. And it produces such men in the city not in order to let them turn whichever way each wants, but in order that it may use them in binding the city together.”

“That’s true,” he said. “I did forget.”

So, Plato’s philosophers would not naturally wish to return to the cave on a voluntary basis. They would, rather, wish to “remain and not be willing to go down again“. Glaucon rightly supposes forcing them to go down would be an injustice against them as individuals, since this sort of compulsion would be imposing a form of evil on the enlightened man. But, Plato reminds us, the goal here is not to maximize the individual’s own happiness. It is to harmonization the polis as a whole. To put it in modern parlance, they would be forced to return for the greater good. They would not return because they had any sort of love for their former cave mates. Plato understood the difference between love and pity, and the difference between love and duty.

But, the point here, is not to take issue with Plato’s totalitarianism, or to argue the efficacy of an idea like a tripartite polis (I will do this, in a later podcast). Rather, it is to say that the allegory of the cave is clear evidence of a problem with Plato’s theory. As a thought experiment, it has exposed an irrationality in his design. The moment one must resort to compulsion, and to apologetics for the use of force, one has abandoned reason. But Plato cannot see this, because he has so fallen in love with his own idea, that its flaws are invisible to him. Two of those flaws have been outlined here already. But there are dozens of other problems as well; not only within the confines of Plato’s own logical structure, but also across the span of three thousand years of hind-sight. Analysis of those additional mistakes will have to wait for another discussion.

Conclusion

Given my criticisms of the allegory of the cave, why would I adopt it as a defining feature of my philosophical “brand”, as it were? Clearly, I recognize how deeply flawed it is, in spite of how inspiring it is. So, why venerate it with a permanent reference built into the podcast? Good question.

One feature of Plato’s dialogues that I find compelling, and in many ways preferable, to the writings of, say, Aristotle, is precisely the fact that they are dialogues. Aristotle goes to great lengths in the Nicomachean Ethics to explain and to argue the necessity of practice in the formation of a virtuous character. He is right, of course. But, ironically, by engaging in didactics, rather than dialectics, Aristotle does not practice what he preaches. Plato, again ironically, is doing precisely this. Rather than explaining to us how and why we ought to prefer reason to appetite, Plato shows us the art of reason in the form of a drama, expecting us to take that example and employ it ourselves, in our own dialectics in the present. He is encouraging us to think and introspect by way of example, not simply enjoining us to do so.

Reasoning well is not something that can be imparted as a complete package, and by explanation alone. It must be done, repeatedly, and with expert guidance, in order for mastery of the art to be achieved. Aristotle provides us with a useful toolset in the form of the syllogism, and the model of generalizations from particulars. But he does not give us sufficient examples of these tools actually in use. Plato’s dialogues are the kinds of examples that are needed. We can see this here, in both the example of the Republic, and the Parmenides. Learning to reason is like learning to swim, or learning to sing. You must feel what it’s like to have a moment of rational clarity, must remember the state you are in when that happens, and must learn how to repeat that state. The dialogues are the meditations needed to facilitate that work.

When you take your first steps in philosophy, at least traditionally, you are confronted with dialogues like the Euthyphro or the Meno. Dialogues that are not simple or superficial, by any stretch. But dialogues that are narrowly focused on one particular idea. The apprentice philosopher learns to examine one idea, and explore all of its facets, before he is tasked with looking at two or three in relation to each other. The Republic (and arguably, The Parmenides), represent the culmination of that effort. These works demand that the thinker examine numerous inter-related ideas, all in relation to each other, and on several levels of analysis. The allegory of the cave embedded in The Republic, then, is as I have said before, the metaphor for the intellectual and emotional journey of the philosopher.

As I have shown in this critique, Plato must have understood that the attainment of full communion with the Form of The Good is not something that is possible for finite, incomplete beings such as ourselves. And yet, he did think that glimpses were possible. The allegory of the cave, then, represents not the attainment of enlightenment, but the striving for it. The pursuit of truth is a sort of “Zeno’s Paradox” for the problem of enlightenment. Through study, introspection, and the practice of dialectic, we slowly learn that we are shackled, we gradually gain the knowledge to unshackle ourselves, and we slowly stumble our way in the dark cave, toward the dim light high above, coming from the cave mouth. Yet, we can never quite achieve the threshold, as it always seems just that much further away. We are always exiting the cave, and this is why my blog and my podcast are so named.


  1. Republic, 514a 
  2. “Idea” is often a substitute for the word “Form” in translations of the dialogues. I generally prefer not to use it, because of the confusion it causes as a result of our modern notion of “idea”. But this translation used it. So, I’m sticking with it in this quote. 
  3. Parmenides, beginning at 133c, “…when ideas are what they are in relation to one another, their essence is determined by a relation among themselves, and has nothing to do with the resemblances, or whatever they are to betermed, which are in our sphere, and from which we receive this or that name when we partake of them. And the things which are within our sphere and have the same names with them, are likewise only relative to one another, and not to the ideas which have the same names with them, but belong to themselves and not to them… if God has this perfect authority, and perfect knowledge, his authority cannot rule us, nor his knowledge know us, or any human thing; just as our authority does not extend to the gods, nor our knowledge know anythingwhich is divine, so by parity of reason they, being gods, are not our masters, neither do they know the things of men. Yet, surely, said Socrates, to deprive God of knowledge is monstrous.…” 
  4. Republic, 516d-e 

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