“Allegory of the Cave” by Plato

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Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is found in his Republic, in which Socrates explains the journey of a soul from the dark into the light (from ignorance to truth) and the issues it may present for those who become enlightened to the level of philosophy. In Plato’s Apology, the presentation and reception of the old charges, new charges, and Socrates’ sentencing create a parallel with, respectively, the shadows, puppets, and enlightened prisoner in the Allegory of the Cave of Plato’s Republic (514a – 518d). Two specific portions of the text encourage a parallel reading of them: the first being at the end of cave allegory, Socrates asks Glaucon if the prisoner returns with the truth might be killed by the other prisoners (517a) much like the verdict for Socrates’ trial in the Apology; the second being at the start of the Apology, Socrates acknowledges he must defend himself “as though fighting with shadows” (18d) much like the shadows cast upon the wall in the cave allegory. Ultimately, the Allegory of the Cave can be seen as a paradigm for Socrates’ own journey.

A first parallel can be drawn between the shadows in the cave allegory and the Socrates’ defense of the old charges made against him. Socrates starts by asking Glaucon to imagine a cave of prisoners bound since childhood, forced to look at the cave wall in front of them. There is a fire behind the prisoners and between the two there is a tall walkway. Lining this walkway, there is a wall where unknown individuals “show the puppets” and “[carry] all sorts of artifacts” which cast shadows upon the cave wall the prisoners are facing (Republic 514b-c). As these shadows were cast and occasional echoes were muttered by the unknown individuals, prisoners would discuss the names of these things with one another (Republic 515b). Thus, these prisoners were forced only to see shadows of reality and construct their worlds from shadows of the truth. In essence, the prisoners don’t see the shadows as just shadows, but as their reality. Furthermore, the naming of the objects through competition and discussions makes clear the implicit sense of community amongst the prisoners and the influence they may have on one another’s “truth”.

Glaucon acknowledges, “It is a strange image and strange prisoner’s you’re telling of” (Republic 515a). Socrates replies, “They’re like us”. Here, we can draw a connection between Athenians and the prisoners. By extension, it can be argued that the prisoners are similar to the Athenian jurors. Therefore, the first parallel can be drawn between the shadows phase of the cave allegory and the old charges in the Apology (17a – 18a). Socrates’ defense begins by addressing the Athenian jury: “How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know” (Apology 17a). Socrates addresses that the Athenian jurors have long been exposed solely to the image of him portrayed by his accusers. The accusations against Socrates include that he is impious, he is a “clever speaker” (Apology 17b), and that he corrupts the youth of Athens with his teachings (Apology 24b). Rather than try to correct this image, Socrates asks for the jurors to “leave aside the manner of [his] speech” and see “whether the things [he says] are just or not” (Apology 18a). He speaks of his old accusers influencing the Athenian jurors since “childhood” (Apology 18b6) and that the image of him has been “acquired over a long time” (Apology 19a). Thus, both the Athenian jurors and the prisoners have been presented images since childhood that they were to perceive as the truth, whether or not it was merely a shadow of the truth. Ultimately, the jurors initially believe Socrates to be exactly what the accusations against him allege for that is the image that has been presented to them since childhood.

Furthermore, the second parallel can be drawn between the puppets in the cave allegory and the new charges in Socrates’ defense. Socrates describes an instance in which one of the prisoners is released for the first time, “to walk and look up toward the light; and who, moreover, in doing all this is in pain and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before” (Republic 515c7-9). The prisoner will reach the opening of the cave and into the sunlight, whose brightness pains the prisoner, whose eyes have been in the darkness of the cave throughout their whole life. Socrates concludes that “such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things” (Republic 515c1-2). This second phase of the cave allegory ends with Socrates asking Glaucon whether the prisoner could discern that the puppets were the source of the shadow “truer than what is now shown” (Republic 515d7). Both Socrates and Glaucon agree the prisoner will most likely conclude that the puppets are mere copies of the shadows rather than the originals. The puppets and the shadows may be similar in shape; however, the prisoner is unlikely to break from that which they have known their whole life even when presented convincing evidence to do so.

At this point, Socrates has defended himself against the old charges and his previous accusers. He continues to address the new charges and his “dangerous accusers” (Apology 18c). Socrates brings Meletus forward so that he can question him. He repeats Meletus’ charges against him: “Socrates does injustice by corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes” (Apology 24c). Socrates, through cross-examination, tries to expose that Meletus, the accuser himself, doesn’t care for education or piety. He wanted to convey that although the new charges may be true or false, they are unoriginal, and that Meletus, the new accuser, is not genuine. In effect, it seems Socrates wanted the Athenian jurors to tell the difference between the old and new charges. Would the Athenian jurors recognize that the new charges are merely copies of the old charges? Much like the prisoner released in the cave failing to recognize the puppets as the source of the shadows, the Athenians would most likely fail to recognize that the old charges are the source of these new charges. Furthermore, the Athenians were more likely to see the new charges merely as additional charges to the original old charges.

Lastly, the third parallel can be drawn between the enlightened prisoner in the cave allegory and Socrates’ sentencing in the Apology. Socrates asks Glaucon what would happen if the prisoner were dragged outside the cave and forced him to look at the “light of the sun” (Republic 515e6-8). He continues, “and when [the prisoner] came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes full of its beam and be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true?” (Republic 516a). In the order of realization, Socrates suggests the prisoner would “easily make out the shadows”, then the puppets, and lastly, “the things themselves” (Republic 516a3-5). Now, under the sunlight, the prisoner can distinguish the objects from another and can see the truth behind the illusion within the cave. Socrates asks Glaucon of a hypothetical return of the prisoner back into cave in order to tell the other prisoners (Republic 516e). Socrates believes that if the prisoner were to do this, it would make them the “source of laughter”, that the other prisoners would say “he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up?” (Republic 517a). Socrates even goes as far as to say whether or not they would kill anyone who tries to release and lead other prisoners up. Glaucon believes they would certainly do so (517a). Thus, this return wouldn’t lead to the enlightenment of the other prisoners, rather he who returned would become the foreigner. Even if they were to believe him, they haven’t seen the “light” and are more likely to firmly believe in the “truth” of the shadows.

In the Apology, Socrates repeats that the old and new charges against him are false. He insists on the insidious nature of the slanderous claims against him. Near the end of his defense, Socrates is aware that he can’t get rid of the long-held image Athenian jurors have of him in such a short speech (Apology 37b). After he has been sentenced to death, Socrates makes a few more statements. He says, “I have been convicted because I was at a loss, not however for speeches, but for daring and shamelessness and willingness to say the sorts of things … such things as you have been accustomed to hear from others” (Apology 39e). In the Allegory of the Cave, when the prisoner returned to cave in order to share what he had learned, the others were skeptical and may have killed the now foreigner. Similarly, in the Apology, Socrates ends his defense and accepts his sentence knowing that it was unlikely for him to change the minds of the jurors. They rejected his defense and then they sentenced him to death. He was someone who had stepped outside normal frames of thought and was presented as the enemy of democracy by prosecutors like Meletus.

In conclusion, it can be argued that a parallel reading of the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic and Socrates’ defense in the Apology will reveal similarities between aspects of the two. First, the shadows cast upon the walls for the prisoners to see and believe in are much like image of Socrates that the Athenian jurors have come to know. Second, the prisoner cannot perceive the puppets to be the true source of the shadows much like the Athenian jurors cannot see the old charges as the source of the new charges against Socrates. Lastly, the other prisoners won’t believe (and may even kill) the prisoner that returns with the truth much like Socrates is eventually sentenced to death after completing his own defense. Thus, the Allegory of the Cave could be considered a paradigm for Socrates himself.

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"Allegory of the Cave" by Plato. (2020, Jan 03). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/allegory-of-the-cave-by-plato/

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