Plato, “The Allegory,” and Ideal Forms

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is my favorite allegory. I love how it can be interpreted for political means, as Plato himself does later in Book VII of The Republic, or for more metaphysical means, as Plato does with his Theory of Forms. All of my favorite stories (e.g., The Matrix or Ender’s Game) and favorite people (e.g., Alex Jones and David Icke) use the “Allegory of the Cave” to some extent. I like how this week’s Announcement from the professor says “we are all struggling to make our way to enlightenment and truth”. In my opinion, realizing that nothing is as it seems and thinking about these abstract concepts are the key.

The “Allegory of the Cave” is presented as a dialectic between Plato’s teacher Socrates and Plato’s older brother Glaucon. Socrates gives the scenario: there are some people that have been living in a cave since childhood, chained so that all they can see and have ever seen is the wall in front of them, upon which they see shadows of people and things that are in reality walking behind the prisoners, with a fire in between. Then one of the prisoners is suddenly released, and it is painful at first, but eventually the released prisoner makes his way up and out of the cave to see the real world. If the released prisoner then went back into the cave with this new take on reality, his fellow prisoners would think he must have gone somewhere terrible, since now he cannot see in the dimness of the cave until his eyes readjust. The other prisoners would punish or even kill the new enlightened person out of fear.

My favorite version of this allegory is given by the late comedian Bill Hicks:

“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people.” (Goodreads)

Socrates says to “interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world,” and he then takes the argument in a political direction, believing that these wise philosophers who had escaped the cave should be the leaders of the people. This idea of philosopher-kings is a very elitist/Orwellian take on this allegory and presupposes that people are not able to rule themselves. I prefer the more Eastern take on it—that once the Buddha has achieved enlightenment, it is his duty to wander the earth and spread the message of truth to all who would hear it. Plato and Socrates would rather keep the knowledge secret among the philosophers and treat the rest of society as useless eaters in need of an enlightened ruler.

This “intellectual world” that the soul ascends to from out of the cave ties into Plato’s theory of ideal Forms. The Forms, Plato argues throughout The Republic and his other dialogues, are the base Ideas behind everything. They are non-material stuff that make up everything in our world. He comes at this theory from different directions; one way to think about it is through geometry—you can draw a circle or triangle on a blackboard, but you will never get the perfect shape itself, for that exists outside of space-time. Math itself is a very abstract thing, and numbers themselves are just representative of a Form. Another way to come at the problem is through attributes such as beauty or intelligence, which can be applied to things that all appear very different, but all have this one non-material thing in common. You could also think about a physical object, such as an apple. You can have red apples or green apples, all in various stages of decay, but they all have that inherent Form of apple-ness.



Works Cited

Socrates. The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Hicks, Bill. “Quotes.” Goodreads. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Plato, “The Allegory,” and Ideal Forms

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