Greg Heil | 8:27 AM
|Creative commons photo credit: matthewvenn|
Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” is a pivotal philosophic text for many reasons. One of the primary reasons that it is so monumental is that Plato addresses so many different areas of philosophy in this one piece: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and more. Despite the fact that this piece has had a massive impact down to our present day, it is by no means free from weaknesses. In this short essay I will discuss the many strengths and some of the serious weakness of “The Cave.”
One of the primary strengths is Plato’s language and logic. He layers his arguments one on top of the other to create a mighty tower of argumentation that is tough to crack. At times it seems obvious that Glaucon just has to agree with Socrates.
While this is an allegory, all of Plato’s assumptions and examples seem at least plausible. As far as the allegory itself is concerned, Plato has considered all of the angles and the possible objections. For instance, the prisoners have always been in the cave, they have always been shackled, and they have never been able to look around. In this hypothetical situation, all of what Plato says will bear out.
However, there are some serious issues. Plato takes his allegory to be more than an allegory, but a fact of how we live our lives. On page 454 of the text, he writes, “our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already. . . .”
I believe that Plato is mistaken. This piece is not a hard-and-fast philosophical argument. It is an allegory, a hypothetical situation, an illustration at best. While this illustration might give evidence for what he is talking about, it is by no means a solid argument that an entire metaphysical and epistemological view of the world should be based off of.
While at times Glaucon must agree with Socrates’s reasoning, he does not need to bend over and take a beating at every juncture. Glaucon should stand up to Socrates at many points in the text, particularly the one highlighted above.
While Plato builds a strong hypothetical situation, the jump to real life application is like a leap across the Grand Canyon. How does he know that most people are like the chained prisoners in the cave? I can think of reasons why he might think that, arguments he could give, but the fact is that Plato does not provide any reasons. He simply assumes that we, like Glaucon, agree that most people are simply looking at shadows, and that philosophers need to show them the light.
Let us disregard the people and take on the topic of the whole world: how can Plato just assume that we will agree with him that this world is like the cave, and there is another above it with grander things? He might be playing on the Greek conception of the afterlife and the gods, but it is unclear.
In conclusion, this is an important text that still has the potential to stimulate introspection about our nation and the world even in the year 2012. However, it is far from a conclusive argument for “the world of forms.”