Coming to Knowledge

In book VII of The Republic Plato devises what has since become one of the most famous metaphors in the history of western philosophy; his allegory of the cave. Plato uses the allegory to illustrate the process of coming to knowledge of the true forms by comparing the process to escaping a bizarre prison cave. He starts the metaphorical exploration of coming to knowledge by describing a cave in which group of prisoners have been chained from birth with their heads facing toward a wall, whereupon shadows are dancing. The prisoners know only the shadows and echoes of the shadow makers, who move objects in front of a fire all behind the prisoners. Plato says that if one of these prisoners were freed from their bonds and could turn to see the objects and the fire behind him, he would at first believe these things to be less real than the shadows on the wall. Now suppose, Plato says, this man were to be brought up out of the cave to see the outside world. The light of the sun would burn his eyes and he could only look at shadows and reflections of things at first. Before long, he would be able to look at the world around him and eventually he would be well adjusted enough to look at that which is most beautiful and good, the sun. Plato’s allegory suggests that the steps of the journey to knowledge, and out of the cave, are difficult, painful, and socially alienating. To come to have knowledge one must break the shackles of ignorance; face the painful brightness of the outside realm and adjust to it; accept that past impressions of reality were flawed or incomplete; and finally readjust the angle of ones view toward the light. Plato believed this was the way toward knowledge of the true forms of reality.

– Originally written for Dr. William Pamerleau’s Introduction to Ancient Philosophy course

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