The Allegory Of The Cave Essays

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave highlights his belief that true knowledge lies under superficial appearances and uneducated people can see only shadows of real objects, which they wrongly perceive as an undeniably true representation of reality. Plato argues that the ultimate purpose of education is not to transfer knowledge from a teacher to a student but to direct students’ minds so that they discover for themselves what is good, real, true, and important. Education should lead humans out of the cave of ignorance and turn their souls towards the Truth and the Good. From this standpoint, Socrates condemns “certain professors of education who say that they can put knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes”. For Plato, “the power and capacity of learning exist in the soul already,” that is why all one’s soul (mind) needs is correct guiding towards the Truth.

Describing his allegory, Plato depicts a cave, in which prisoners live. These prisoners stand for people who are unaware of the Theory of Forms. They are chained and cannot turn and move their heads. That is why they can see exclusively the wall of their cave, with a fire burning behind their backs. Between the prisoners and the fire, there is “a raised way,” along which people (puppeteers) walk. Standing behind the prisoners so that the latter cannot see them, the puppeteers play with marionettes that throw shadows on one of the walls of the cave. The chained prisoners cannot see the real objects passing behind them; they see and hear nothing but shadows and echoes thrown by objects that are indiscernible for them.

Therefore, the prisoners will falsely believe that appearance is reality. They will be sure that the shadows they see are real and will not know what really causes them. That is why, when they start talking, they are likely to apply the name of a real object to its shadow. As Plato puts it, “And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?” From Plato’s standpoint, the prisoners will be wrong since they will apply the terms of their language not to the real objects that produce a shadow but the shadows. The prisoners cannot discern the real referent of the terms they use because they cannot turn their heads.

In this respect, Plato’s standpoint is clear. General terms of a language cannot serve as a means of nomination of physical objects that people can see. As a matter of fact, general terms stand for the things that are indiscernible for a human eye but can be grasped with the mind. The prisoners realize their mistake only when they are released from the cave and can discern real objects by turning their heads. In Plato’s terms, turning one’s head in order to see the real cause of something is equal to grasping the Forms with the mind. The role of the Forms in the formation of the human ability to speak and think is highly significant since terms of a language become meaningful only by “naming” the Forms that are composed of the objects that people perceive. Plato himself views the allegory of the cave as “the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world,” and his core argument runs as follows:

In the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual.     

Plato’s idea about the obscure representation of reality is consistent with Putnam’s “brain-in-a-vat theory,” asserting that people are deceived about their sensual experiences by an evil scientist. Putnam proceeds from the statement that human brains are separated from the body and put in vats with “brain-nourishing chemicals.” Electrical impulses that are sent by a powerful   computer give rise to various illusions, like playing tennis, reading books, sitting in chairs, etc. Thus, a person may believe that he or she is playing tennis although his or her disembodied brains are merely stimulated by the evil machine.

Furthermore, Putnam suggests “that the computer program is sophisticated enough to generate proper feedback for the actions our brains attempt to initiate” (Smith & Erion 4). To illustrate, if one’s brain tries to rouse one’s body from a chair to find something to eat, the computer may send the appropriate impulses a person needs to convince him or her that he or she has really stood up and gone to the kitchen. Like in the previous example, a person may believe that he or she is eating although this would be an artificial deception of brains conducted by a wise evil scientist.

Drawing a parallel between Plato’s and Putnam’s theories, it can be reasonably mentioned that the prisoners in the cave, who are deceived by the puppeteers and mistake shadows of the objects (appearance) for real objects, are equal to those people, whose disembodied brains are deceived (stimulated) by the evil scientist. Nonetheless, while Plato argues that people can be led out from deception by means of enlightment, Putnam rather entangles the situation by posing the typical skeptical question: “How do you know you aren’t in this predicament?” Both theories perfectly fit into the frames of Thomas Anderson’s, as well as Cypher’s, lives. Both men prefer artificial but rich and fascinating life based on a deliberate deception of their brain “by a system of intellectual computers that grows, cultivates, and harvests humans as a renewable energy source”.    

Like the prisoners in the cave, Neo and Cypher are the prisoners of the illusory world of the matrix. Likewise, it is painful both for the Plato’s prisoners and Neo to realize their former misconceptions about the real state of things. Like the shadows from the objects hide the truth from the prisoners, so does the matrix blinds those who are in it. Similarly, The Matrix underpins Putnam’s theory since Neo and Cypher are intentionally deceived by computers about their sensual experiences:

It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes, to blind you from the truth…that you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for you mind.           

Cypher’s betrayal in the Matrix can also be explained by the above mentioned theories. Being tired of the miserable real world, Cypher decides to betray Morpheus and become a wealthy and famous actor in the artificial world of the matrix. Therefore, he deliberately mistakes appearance for reality and seems to be pleased with it. Nonetheless, there exist substantial differences between Cypher’s choice and two theories.

The point is that Cypher knows that the matrix is nothing but illusion, but he accepts this fact, or rather ignores it and intentionally chooses to enjoy the fake pleasure of the illusory world. The same cannot be said about the prisoners in the cave, who, according to Plato, are forced into deception since they are chained and cannot turn their heads. Moreover, they would not turn to the cave again, after they have seen the sun and grasped the truth. Thus, Cypher voluntarily ignores the truth and prefers to enjoy the illusion, whereas Plato’s prisoners accept the truth and are unlikely to indulge in former illusions. Furthermore, Cypher’s brain is not disembodied, as Putnam claims, but still it is governed by computers and deceived about sensual experiences.    

Nevertheless, Cypher’s choice to enter the Matrix can be viewed as not necessarily wrong for a number of reasons. First of all, it is common knowledge that humans are innately biological creatures seeking for pleasure. That is why Cypher should not be condemned for his choice to dedicate his life to pleasure only. Although it may seem that hedonism is immoral, one cannot object to the fact that the need of pleasure is biologically predetermined. According to Nozick, Cypher places himself at the disposal of the “experience machine” that neurophysiologists use to produce experiences of illusive but pleasant things people are doing. He “plugs into this machine for life” and enjoys merely the appearance of meaningful, genuine actions, not real actions.  

No matter how unappealing this may seem, Cypher’s choice to lead passive life that is nothing but a result of stimulation by electrodes can be justified. The point is that all humans inherently strive for simplicity and are innately lazy. Therefore, why should Cypher burden himself with painful actions in the real world if he can enjoy life without additional efforts, regardless of the fact that such life is nothing but an illusion? What matters here is satisfaction of human inherent desire for a simplified form of pleasure, i.e. the pleasure that can be derived effortlessly. In the second place, it is typical of all human beings to escape from reality, admiring lives of others, who are happier, richer, and more beautiful. This argument also justifies Cypher, for whom the matrix substitutes for an ideal dimension.  

In this connection, it is not hard to understand why Cypher claims that ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is bliss because it keeps humans’ air castles safe and hides the truth, which is predominantly painful. Proceeding from the standpoint mentioned above, ignorance simplifies human lives and teaches people to be satisfied with what they have and not complicate their lives with various quests for far-fetched arguments about better existence. This is particularly true of Plato’s prisoners, who became accustomed to their situation and were completely satisfied with what they saw and heard. They enjoyed ignorance since they believed that the shadows of the objects were all a human could grasp about the outer world. Ignorance protected them from painful feelings that their eyes had after seeing the sun, and ignorance created a special world for them (artificial but safe). Quite often ignorance is more acceptable than truth since it is more typical of humans to look for the simplest solutions that spare them many consequent problems than face relentless truth that may ruin all the illusions at once. What makes ignorance exclusively appealing is that it allows people to create their own dimensions, without considering any hindrances along this way. Ignorance goes together with illusion, and illusion is the best way to escape from harsh realities.

Taking into consideration the above mentioned arguments, it can be reasonably argued that The Matrix is the practical embodiment of Putnam’s brain-in-a-vat theory, Nozick’s notion of “the experience machine,” and Plato’s allegory of the cave. As well as the prisoners in the cave, Anderson (Neo) and his contemporaries falsely believe that they are leading real lives, with the only difference lying in the way they react to the truth.

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Plato’s “The allegory of the Cave” addresses so many different areas of philosophy including, epistemology, metaphysics, asceticism, ethics, etc. In his allegory it is important to seek what Plato is trying to accomplish through locating his rhetorical devices, his tone, his position and arguments, in order to develop meaning to his allegory. Plato’s philosophies include education, interaction, individuality, and human nature to make his statement of what the correct path to “enlightenment” should be, being expressed through symbolism, imagery, themes, and metaphors to convey his message. Plato’s allegory however is actually represents an extended metaphor that is to contrast the way in which we perceive and believe in what is reality.

“The allegory of the Cave” plays multiple roles, all depending how we interpret it, either being used as a metaphor for the process of intellectual understandings on the quest for sense and knowledge, or a way to portray parts of his political philosophy, involving the correct the path to “the good” and ‘reality’. Plato’s allegory of the cave is a parable to understand the process of how a person becomes enlightened; including the positives and negatives influences it can have on a person in their natural environment, in other words our responses and reaction to being freed from their chains and being forced to experience life outside the cave.

Plato’s allegory of the cave presupposes a group of prisoners who have lived chained and uneducated in a cave “since childhood”. To the back of the prisoners, people cast the shadows on the wall in which the prisoners perceive as reality, questioning “is it reasonable for the prisoners to…In every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of these artifacts” Although if one were “released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance” the prisoner would now be confused as to what is real. The thesis behind is the basic tenets that all we perceive are imperfect “reflections, which subsequently represent truth and reality. This is an important development to the story because it shows us that what we perceive as real from birth is completely false based on our imperfect interpretations of reality and goodness. The importance of the allegory lies in the belief that there are invisible truths lying under the apparent surface, which can only be obtained through being enlightened, being “dragged” out of the darkness and seeing the light.

Plato’s allegory of the cave shows that society is in a state of ignorance. Though they might be bounded in one position, they accept that it is their natural ‘place in society’. However when one is exposed to the ‘dazzling light’ they begin to see truth through a long, tortuous intellectual journey, discovering a higher realm, true reality and having awareness of goodness. A person who has gained such insight, according to Plato is best equipped to govern in society, having knowledge what is ultimately good, however, will frequently be misunderstood by ‘the other prisoners’ who haven’t obtained intellectual insights. Plato remains convinced that the best rulers, the philosopher-kings, are suited not only because of their education, experience, and wisdom, but also because they would prefer not to rule. More emphatically, nonetheless Plato finds that because of their enlightened minds, the philosopher-king has a duty to rule that transcends their personal preference for anonymity.

Plato’s ideal society contains the correct functions of politics and motive. He argues that the philosophers, or individuals who have acquired knowledge of virtue and truth, should lead society. Another example is that in his allegory there are malicious individuals who stand in front of a fire as to be able to create shadows which the prisoners perceive as incorrectly reality. They are both aware of a slightly higher level of truth and capable of manipulation of average people’s perception but still unaware of the nature of the forms and of the form of the good. Philosophers should be the ones to lead rather than those who simply have the ability to manipulate the masses. This is because the philosopher is knowledgeable about the forms of the virtues and the good and is more likely to apply them to society.

‘The allegory of the Cave’ is a theory, concerning human perception that can be altered by what is seen and hidden. Plato claimed that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion and in order to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical reasoning. In ‘the allegory of the Cave’, Plato distinguishes between people who mistake sensory knowledge for the truth and compare them to people who actually see. Plato’s allegory revolves around truth and the reflection of truth, as devastating criticism of our everyday lives as being in bondage to superficialities, to shadows rather than to substance.

Both the leaders and the public are ignorant and corrupt, without true knowledge of themselves or the world, motivated by self-gratification. They are chained in slavery to ignorance and passions, to mob hysteria for or against fleeting issues, believing in the illusions, the shadows. We live in a time of loss of meaning, of crumbling values of truth and morality, of corruption in political life and decline in personal integrity. This is our despair. But there is a hope with Plato’s allegory, the hope of ascending to truth and values, even though we might be shunned, we have a grasp of the light.

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