Read Plato’s account of the Allegory of the Cave and say whether and why you think it is valid today. (1500 words)

platos cave 1

I will be looking at this discussion from a point of view that an Allegory is Symbolism and symbolic or metaphorical is always a dimension higher than where we find ourselves at, as an abstract idea is put in front of you.  I attempt to find the ‘higher kind of truth’ and elevate each stage in this scene. Plato used the characters, their actions and the setting as symbols in this allegory.   The Allegory of the Cave is a parable Socrates uses to teach Glaucon, his brother, the value of education. He teaches by asking his pupil to visualise as he tells the story, and above illustration pretty much “tell the story” of the cave dwellers being chained, watching shadows on the wall, the shadows are being casted behind them on another wall, by people walking by with puppets, which the chained cave dwellers cannot see, and a fire behind the puppeteers which causes the shadows.  At this moment I am already back in my study material with regards to forming a picture of what I am hearing.  I want to focus on the communication that follows between the ‘student’ and his ‘master’ and the fact that Plato’s intention is to present enlightened and unenlightened of human nature. Plato gets to illustrate the gap he perceives between the transient world as it appears to us, and the unchanging world of the Forms, which exists behind or beyond appearances.

Plato wrote from his perspective on looking at his current day democracy and could not understand why Socrates did not get a just and fair trial —  Plato’s concerns were Justice, Truth, Beauty, Fairness and Courage.  In Plato’s world we see a Pyramid Form being represented, as well as a clear division – on the lower/bigger part we have the world as we come to life, also called a the world of appearances, which explains that the world is made up of reflections of more perfect and ideal forms. The material world, the one we can see, touch, hear and smell, is really just half-seen images of the reality of the forms. Relying on your physical senses alone – trusting what you see and touch, etc.  So the cave with the prisoners chained and the whole experience with Shadows( simulacrum of forms) they have, is this world.   Then we have the world of Forms, behind us, at the mouth of the cave,  the Ideal ( The real Forms) , the Utopia, which one can only reach by a spiritual/mental perception, not though your senses,  and then we have the top, the sun, the Logos , the Symbol of the Good, which we all should esteem to reach. Plato is not a dualist and sees people not doing/reaching this understanding not as ‘evil’, but as uninformed, ‘chained’ .  It is clear that all the stages in the allegory, from the prisoners in the cave through to the sun outside,  symbolise the Platonian Ideas,  to reach this ‘higher realm’ as our study material (p80) describes it.

I feel the need to stay with the learning curve I have received through this assignment  and apply this in the assignment.  The learning in this chapter was about constructivism, representation and sign – being introduced to these ideas/concepts and relating it to current artmaking/picture making, challenged my current ideas up to that point.  It confused me as well as challenged me to come to an understanding of meaning and existence  with regards to my view of reality, my decision making process about what art is (logic or not, true or false) as well as how I view art – make sense in my mind of what art means.  I had to ask myself several times through this part of the studies: ‘What is happening here?  In a way I can say that the knowledge I gained by this understanding, awakened ignorance, such as for instance the concepts, simulation and hyperreality, which was literary challenging existence and how I think about making art/representing. In my reading on Plato I  understand that the sense of vision and being able to see that the knowledge about the source of light played a huge part of how Plato used it as a metaphor for perception of reality/the world on a sensory level. I tend to think that Plato has presented a form of social constructivism with this allegory; a view on society, that says that human beings have the power to design better social systems, and philosophy has a major role to play in this.  I can understand ideas of believing we are being ‘collectively manipulated’   through ideology/ religion/money/ business/politics, etc,  and that our technological advances can chain us by becoming part of what Baudrillard and his ideas on simulation and Hyperreality described. This leaves me with the cave, prisoners, chains, the shadows of objects as symbols which I can say is valid today.  Have I ever been challenged to look so deep into the domain of the image and visuality from an artistic point of view?  Did I ever contemplate the world of illusions and imagining by contemplating intentionality and consciousness within art making?

The exercises in the study material started with a question of suspicion – things we have read so far in this course book that seemed suspicious.  Looking back at how this process took me though thinking about my own ideas, which has been so influenced by others and clear ignorance, I need to honestly say, I had the same answer as Claucon – ” you have shown me a strange image……True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads.” Socrates is attempting to influence the mind of Claucon, as my study material was influencing my mind.  The learning process is a way of breaking the chains of ignorance to go to a deeper understanding, but that goes with guidance, pain and suffering.: “he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence…..”  My process of learning was to make sense of theoretical concepts – see copies and representations and find meaning.  Researching simulacra and coming to an understanding where I can place it with signs and representation was my way of seeing the puppeteers playing behind the wall and using the fire to cast shadows of the real.  I had to read more, it made me to think and apply logic –  took me up the stairs out of the cave.   “And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, – will he not be perplexed?  “And suppose once more, that he is dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? ……He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world…..last of all he will be able to see the sun …..but will see him in his own proper place”  By the end of the allegory the changed person goes back to share his discovery with his old prison mates, whom are not interested and ridicules his ideas.   When the allegory ends Plato explains the following:

  • ‘the prison-house is the world of sight
  • the light of the fire is the sun
  • and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief…’

This leaves me to discuss whether this idea is still valid today.  I see Plato being interpreted here as referring to uninformed, naive, not open minded, manipulated. I can totally relate so many things in current society and the history of humans in this world to this situation.   Lipmann ( 1922,18) talked about us living in a “pseudo environment” and also coined the word, stereotype in contemporary sense, and he says:  “what each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him.” (1922,13)  Plato saw the simulacrum  as “false claimant to being”.  Deleuze also refers to Baudrillard who made the simulacrum out to be the ‘demonic character’  and Plato also tried to suppress it, but Deleuze argued (1990, 266, 267)  that simulacrum never claim to be the the copy,  it is a false pretender, but not trying to deceive, as it is what it is.  Plato’s view of art as imitation to me refers to this world of appearances, distortions and reflections of the immaterial forms and appeals through the simulacrum to the emotions and not reason- fear that copies of copies can be mistaken for the truth, a faithful copy to the Idea.

Much of  Western Philosophy was built on the Platonian Ideas and we are, almost unknowingly applying it.  The studies presented me with other views to consider and understand, than my own and  pushed me to challenge my art practice in order to pursue to make it better to have an impact.

In the way I understood Deleuze where he refers to Alice in Wonderland and Plato’s Ideas/Pure (2015,1 -3) it is clear that the ‘proper’ or singular is guaranteed by permanence – but when we use language and dissolve structure, “all identity disappears from the self, the world , and God.  …For personal uncertainty is not a doubt foreign to what is happening, but rather an objective structure of the event itself, insofar as it moves in two directions at once, and insofar as it fragments the subject following this double direction.  Plato invites us to distinguish between two dimensions – Deleuze reverse Platonism – there is no longer any privileged point of view – the same and the similar is seen as simulated,  it becomes a ‘condensation of coexistences and a simultaneity of events.” (2015, 271)

I am aware that I have attempted to compress a very complex world into my limited visual vocabulary.  Around me I experience FOMO – fear of missing out, and think this caused a fear of facing facts, and partake in distortions and deceptions of our model of reality, which again, should be seen as just an opinion, mine.  Plato and all the other big philosophers after him reminds us that there should be more about this world of forms to be concerned with – we should try to require the life of the mind (beyond the transient world of appearances) and do our bit to shape the world in line with those higher truths.  I do believe this is also possible – hindsight also shows us how humanity has changed for the better, not just being simulations.



The Allegory of the Cave by Plato from the  Plato Collection, translated by Benjamin Jowett in 1871 (kindle version)


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