The writings of Plato, particularly the account of the “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic, are arguably the most influential early philosophy texts in the so-called Western canon. The primary idea of this allegory, that sensory realities are only shadows or copies of Ideal Forms existing in the Intellectual World, has been revered, relived, pilloried, parodied, paraded, imitated, and excoriated by philosophers, poets, and artists ever since. You can read a translation of the Allegory here.
The basic idea is that everything you have ever seen with your eyes, touched with your hands, tasted with your tongue, heard with your ears, and smelled with your nose (or, to be more correct, sensed via those organs by the brain)—everything you have ever experienced via your physical body doesn’t really exist. Or at least not as you think it does. Everything is just a vague, dim, shoddy, cheap copy or shadow of its “real” original out there somewhere. The original itself, counter intuitively, isn’t more physical—i.e., doesn’t strictly compare to 3-dimensions objects the way 3-dimensional objects compare to 2-dimenstional ones—the way you might imagine. Nope. These Forms or Ideas are just that—Ideas. Whose ideas? Good question. But hang on to that question for a bit. So “reality” turns out to be far more like what we typically think of as unreality (you tend to think of an apple as being “more real” than an idea of, say, “I have an idea for a new story”). Things without physical existence are more real than those with physical existence. Hum.
So I’m going to have three assignments for my students in this post and subsequent posts on this topic, and I beg all other readers to join in and contribute their thoughts as well!
Assignment One: Identify or explain a problem with the allegory of the cave. Here are some problems I have pondered, or others have pointed out to me. You may use these problems to fulfill this assignment if you rephrase the problem or develop it further than I do.
1. Whose ideas are these? It is easy for a Christian, or any Monotheist, to say that these Ideas are God’s ideas; that the World of Pure Forms exists in the mind of God. But for an atheist, or polytheist, or agnostic, such an explanation might not serve—and it might not be philosophically satisfactory, even if it is religiously satisfying. At the very least, it creates an apparently impossible problem of transcendence: if God is Pure Form, Pure Intellect, completely separate from the physical, is it possible for human beings to enjoy any union with Him? Total and complete Platonism seems to rule out the Incarnation.
2. Why aren’t shadows “real”? hmm and I have been having an ontological debate about the necessary characteristics of being: about whether or not a unicorn is “real.” Is a picture of a unicorn real? Well, the picture has physical existence on the page; real ink/paints/pixels were used to convey that image to our eyes. The imaginary idea of “unicorn” exists; does that prove that there must be a Pure Form of Unicorn in Plato’s World of Forms, otherwise human minds could not conceive of it? A unicorn is a legendary animal; is it therefore a “real” legend, because it fulfills all the qualifications for being legendary? So then, why aren’t shadows “real”? They are real shadows, aren’t they? They have all the attributes required to make a real shadow: darkness, a discernable shape, two dimensions, motion relative to the object casting the shadow, size proportional to the object and to the source of light, etc. So why don’t they count as “real”? Maybe a shadow isn’t as good, or valuable, or useful, as the object which casts it, but isn’t a judgment of utility in an entirely different category from judgments of existence or being?
3. In the allegory, the firelight (symbolizing the physical sun) is falling on objects, which cast shadows (symbolizing all physical objects you have ever seen) on the wall of the cave. What do the objects symbolize? If they symbolize manifestations of the forms, that messes up the allegory. If the symbolize some kind of secondary form of the form, that doesn’t work. And the problem appears to me to be more fundamental than a mere semantic or literary glitch. It goes back to problem one. How can there be any commerce between the World of Forms and this material, sublunary realm? There needs to be some mediator through which the forms are translated from immutable immateriality into mutable materiality.
4. Historically, Platonism has been condemned because it tends to denigrate physicality. “Platonic love” in common parlance means love that is never physically consummated: a mixture of Platonism and Christianity (or at least Catholicism) may have contributed to negative attitudes towards sex specifically or physical pleasures more generally, leading from asceticism into full-blown mortification of the flesh.
5. The other side of problem #4 is the simple postponement of full existence into some afterlife. Christians are accused of this, too: we’re just waiting for Heaven so we don’t live fully now.
6. In the broader context of The Republic and Plato’s other writings, the Allegory of the Cave had a classist, sexist, and racist application. In the story, one prisoner gets free and eventually gets out of the cave, where he stares at light and more light until he is able to stare up directly into the sun itself, contemplating the highest truth, the Form of the Good. Yes, he. He is the philosopher-king, the guardian of the utopia in which women will be common property and only highly educated, privileged, and presumably Greek men are granted the leisure to live a life of contemplation and thus to rise to the highest level of existence. One wonders if they will be the only inhabitants of the “heavenly” world of Pure Forms?
In my next metaphysical posting, there will be an “assignment” related to solving these problems, or suggesting ways that Platonism has been either misunderstood or reinterpreted to answer those, and other objections. So stay tuned and put your thinking caps on for a defense of the World of Pure Forms.
Then in the final Platonic post, I plan to ask you for alternatives to the allegory of the cave: for other understandings of the universe and meta-universe, if any; for other models of conceptualizing supernatural realities; for works of art or literature or other media that present an alternative worldview or a new way of visualizing Plato’s controlling concept. That’s the plan!