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In my paper I explain reasons that the phrase “ignorance is bliss” is true. I also explain how “knowledge is power,” and why this is also true. I elaborate why I believe the second part of my paradox is the truest and how other philosophers might agree and disagree with me.
Isn’t it strange that we say “ignorance is bliss” and “what we don’t know won’t hurt us”, but at the same time ignorance is looked at as being a bad thing and “knowledge is power?” The men in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” were tied up in a cave for their entire lives. They were not upset or angry that they were tied up because they were ignorant of the world outside of that cave. This wasn’t torture to them; it was life as they knew it. What was in front of them was all that existed. But once one of them saw the real world and learned more of the truth, he realized how bad it was before. This scenario can be related to today using the aforementioned phrases.
The men in Plato’s fictional cave were happy with their lives before learning the truth of the outside world. Bound up since childhood, their arms and legs had grown accustomed to the restraints and were not sore and their eyes were well adjusted to the dark environment of the cave. To other people these men in the cave were prisoners but in the minds of the men they were not. These men are similar to infants in that they also do not have the ability to move well and their eyes are not fully developed. Infants have similar perceptions of the world: dark, shadowy figures, and unclear, echoed sounds. Their idea of the world would have been monistic. According to Palmer (2011), “Monism [is] the view that there is only one reality or only one kind of thing that is real” (p. 113). What you see is what you get, so in their case ignorance really was bliss.
These men that spent their lives in the cave had been seeing what Plato refers to as images. What they were seeing wasn’t the real object, but having only seen these shadow figures, in their minds they were the real object making the movements and noises they were experiencing. “Shadows and reflections are the examples Plato offers us of images. They are dependent on the sensible objects of which they are images. The shadow of a tree is for Plato less real than the tree because the tree lasts longer than the shadow and because the tree can exist without the shadow, but the shadow can’t exist without the tree” (Palmer, 2011, p. 44). Clearly, Plato felt that shadows were only images.
In another part of “Allegory of the Cave” Socrates tells Glaucon that maybe the men in the cave have a game to which the players tried to most accurately guess which shadow would appear on the wall next. “Do you think [the freed man] would want what they have, and envy them their honors and positions of power?” (Republic, Book VII, 516d). The chained men in the cave would have been very proud of their shadow guessing abilities, but the freed man after returning to the cave would not have cared after knowing what the shadows really were. The status of the prisoners to themselves would have been high and to the freed man would be lower than before his release. The opposite is true from the perspective of the freed man. He would have thought that the men in the cave were lower than him. The ignorance of the prisoners would have brought them bliss. The very same goes for the freed man. Even though he has moved up a level, he is still ignorant of many things that he does not know.
This brings up another question: Would the prisoners even be able to comprehend what the freed man was trying to tell them about the outside world? If the freed man had the chance to share his experiences with the prisoners, I don’t think the men would even recognize the freed man’s voice. His dialogue would have changed so drastically that he might as well have been speaking another language.
On the other hand, ignorance is not a good thing. This is what I believe Plato is trying to communicate to the reader. As we grow and age, we also become educated through our own perceptions of the world or through revelations. It helps me to think that everyone has a certain level of ignorance, and the higher the level a person achieves (higher level for less ignorance), the better life seems as it is now and the worse it seems as it was before. The freed man from the cave saw the outside world and realized how empty his life was before. . He moved up a level of knowledge and was no longer happy with his life before the freedom. From that point on he can never go back to his original blissful state chained down inside the cave. He then started to wonder what else is out there and his need for knowledge compounded “Suppose he were to recall his first dwelling place, and the wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners then. Wouldn’t he think himself happy in the change, and pity them?” (Republic, Book VII, 516c). This is why I believe the saying, “knowledge is power,” is true.
In my opinion, without being able to see the truth of the real world, the men are unable to think beyond what is directly in front of them. Their world is not only literally, but also figuratively, two dimensional. “Allegory of the Cave” never states clearly whether or not the men can see each other, but I believe that Plato meant for them to not be able to see anything but the shadows cast upon the wall. I believe that if the men were to see a three dimensional object (a person, a tree, etc.) they would have obtained enough knowledge through reason to deduce that the shadows aren’t objects, but merely images of objects they cannot see. Eventually, they would be able to presume that there are more real objects to experience, and from that they would move up a level and become prisoners in their own minds.
“Allegory of the Cave” reminds me of Descartes’s evil genius hypothesis. The hypothesis states that the evil genius is the person or people casting the shadows on the wall of the cave and never revealing the truth about the world to the prisoners. The prisoners only see what the evil genius shadow makers want them to see. I feel like the only thing keeping the men in the cave from thinking like Descartes and creating a scenario about an evil genius is that they cannot see each other. The very minimum these men need to start rationalizing is to have a glimpse of something three dimensional.
After much debate in my own mind, I believe that the second part of my paradox is truer than the first part, especially in the case of the prisoners in “Allegory of the Cave.” I would think that in life it would be better to know as much as possible and to continue to strive to gain more knowledge than it would be to always believe that there is nothing more in existence than myself, the wall in front of me, and the shadows moving on the wall. I believe Plato would agree with me here. “Do you think [the freed man] would want what [the prisoners] have, and envy them their honors and positions of power? Or would he feel, as Homer has it, that he would much prefer to be the slave of a landless man and suffer anything at all, rather than believe those things and live that life? Yes, [Glaucon] said, I think he would suffer anything rather than accept that life” (Republic, Book VII, 516d). In this passage, I believe that Plato is really inferring the importance of knowledge.
Is ignorance really bliss or is ignorance a bad thing? In a way, it is good to live a life believing everything in front of you is all that exists. You have all you need and nothing more to bother your mind with, like wild thoughts of truth and existence. However, I think to truly have a blissful life, one needs to be able to see some truth and strive for more knowledge. Obviously, Plato believes that knowledge is the essence of life. But what do I know? Maybe we are all tied down with our heads restrained watching a wall of shadows and we are not even aware of what is going on around us. Would that be such a bad thing? According to Plato, yes, it would be. I also think it would be a bad thing, and I do believe that “knowledge is power.” Who wants to spend their existence chained to a wall, seeing only what someone wants you to see? The prisoners, however, did not know that these were the circumstances they were living in, and I would imagine they knew there was nothing more and maybe even enjoyed their life. Perhaps this is why ignorance truly is bliss.
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