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The Allegory of The Cave in Western Philosophy

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The allegory of the cave, section VII of Plato’s The Republic, is one of the most referenced passages of Western philosophy. The story is a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon. Plato relays the allegory in the context of societies attitudes toward philosophical enrichment and expresses his own views regarding the desire to achieve deeper understandings. Overall, the allegory of the cave is about the importance of the pursuit of enlightenment and remains relevant more than 2400 years after it was originally written. Just as Socrates and Plato observed in their societies, we see resistance to the pursuit of knowledge and greater awareness. However, today, we face much higher stakes for the wellbeing of ourselves and the planet when it comes down to choosing ignorance over truth. We cannot transcend our problems if we passively chose to remain ignorant; therefore, regardless of inevitable discomfort, we must seek enlightenment voraciously and think critically for ourselves. Through the story of slaves confined to a cave for all their lives, he presents this timeless dilemma of the human condition which beckons us to contemplate it as individuals and as a global society.

The greatest advancements of human society are due to those throughout history who voraciously sought deeper understandings of reality. Albert Einstein challenged the consensus understanding of gravity which had been accepted for more than two hundred years before he presented a possible alternative theory (‘History of general relativity.’ 1). His work eventually replaced Newton’s law of universal gravitation and his relativity theory is now one of the central dogma in modern physics. The greatest victories of justice from the dismantling of the Nazi regime, to women’s suffrage have also occurred due to the convictions of truth and wisdom. The Indeed it is to the voracious pursuit of truth and wisdom that we owe all the progress of humanity. The effects of exposure to truth and the acceptance of it positively influence how we interact with each other, Plato accounts such an experience :

“S. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

G. Certainly, he would.

S. And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? (514a–521d).”

Could this freed prisoner now lead others to the enlightenment he achieved? If we ourselves chose the path to enlightenment over the comfort of ignorance would we be capable of doing the same? The research of Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso of the Social Science Division at Pepperdine University has established direct and mediated links between prosocial outcomes and intellectual humility as shown here; “… intellectual humility was associated with higher levels of empathy, gratitude, altruism, benevolence, and universalism, and lower levels of power seeking. Analyses supported empathy and gratitude as mediators between intellectual humility and prosocial values” (1). This further reinforces the argument that the pursuit of knowledge is paramount to human progress.

One could argue that it is only logical for citizens to neglect their intellectual pursuits when the demands of modern life require so much investment. The point of having government officials in place is to lead and inform the populace so that the responsibility doesn’t fall to the individual. One might ask, why forfeit leisure for the added challenge of lofty philosophizing when we have instant access to information through the media at the touch of a button? In the cave allegory, the shadows that were projected from behind resembled that of a puppet show. Because the prisoners had only been exposed to this source of input their whole lives, they believed what they were seeing to be the true state of the world. Plato describes:

“S. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

G. I see.

S. And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

G. You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

S. Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

G. True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

S. And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

G. Yes, he said.

S. And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? (514a–521d).”

This scenario is very similar to our current relationship with the media. Recent research reveals that the average citizen will spend nearly seven years and eight months watching television in a lifetime and a total of five years and four months on social media platforms (Asano). What is the source of information that we consume in the proverbial puppet show? In the cave allegory, the people crossing behind the fire who were responsible for creating the shadow puppet show represent authority figures in society. These authorities such as governments, media networks, corporations, religious and educational institutions influence the opinions of society and have a direct effect on the attitudes and beliefs of individuals. Many rely on these sources of authority for information and assume that what they are being told is correct and true. The issue of climate change today is an example of how our leaders and the mainstream media may not be the most honest source of information, evidence of this is shown in N.A.S.A. data:

The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. (1)

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and the ninety-seven percent or more consensus of actively publishing climate scientists who agree that “climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” (“Scientific consensus:” 2). Major efforts to combat climate change seem to be stunted by bureaucracy. On June 1st, 2017, the American president, Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate change agreement (‘United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.’ 2). President Trump has previously referred to climate change as a “hoax” and currently refuses to address the American public to comment on the situation (Milman 3). Coincidentally, only 13 percent of American citizens are unaware of the scientific consensus on climate change (Arrieta-Kenna 2). Incidence such as this are the very reasons why we must seek to educate ourselves and not solely rely on what we are told by those who may value their own motivations over the truth.

Imagine an exciting future full of discovery and innovation by members of a society who value the pursuit of the fullest forms of enlightenment. Imagine a more just society whose quest for truth and social sophistication is never ending; this quest could lead us to replications of past atrocities, the squelching of current global oppression, and the consciousness to recognize new forms of elitist or discriminatory thinking as it manifests, enabling the foresight for early resolution of conflict and injustice. We can elect to begin the journey to this future by exercising intellectual humility, by refusing to passively accept a manufactured version of reality presented to us by the media and corrupt institutions, and by thinking for ourselves. The voracious pursuit of enlightenment in all areas of our lives is critical for the progress of humanity. We must bravely go into the fear of the unknown and question our beliefs and assumptions about our reality. In this choice, we can overcome ignorance, oppression, and build a future that works for everyone.

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