Plato’s Cave Allegory

Socrates was Plato's mentor and good friend. He had ideas which were out of the realm for most people at the time to understand. One day he came up wit a theory so profound and preposterous to the community that they sentenced him to death. Plato was deeply disturbed by this. However he was smart enough to know not to shout from the roof top that those who had Socrates killed were indeed ignorant and that he was merely trying open their eyes to new possibilities of a world that shrouded in illusion.
Plato instead wrote a story. The prisoner that escapes of course is Socrates and the other prisoners are the "civilized Society" he lived amongst who didn't believe, couldn't see and eventually turned on him.

The Allegory of the Cave can be found in Book VII of Plato's best-known work, The Republic, a lengthy dialogue on the nature of justice. Often regarded as a utopian blueprint, The Republic is dedicated toward a discussion of the education required of a Philosopher-King. From http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html
Read the full story in Plato's words.

The following selection is taken from the Benjamin Jowett translation (Vintage, 1991), pp. 253-261. As you read the Allegory, try to make a mental picture of the cave Plato describes. Better yet, why not draw a picture of it and refer to it as you read the selection. In many ways, understanding Plato's Allegory of the Cave will make your foray into the world of philosophical thought much less burdensome.

* * * * * *

[Socrates] And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
[Glaucon] I see.
[Socrates] And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
platoscave
[Glaucon] You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
[Socrates] Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
[Glaucon] True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
[Socrates] And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
[Glaucon] Yes, he said.
[Socrates] And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
[Glaucon] Very true.
[Socrates] And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
[Glaucon] No question, he replied.
[Socrates] To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
[Glaucon] That is certain.
[Socrates] And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, 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 some one 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, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? 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? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
[Glaucon] Far truer.
[Socrates] And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
[Glaucon] True, he now.
[Socrates] And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.
[Glaucon] Not all in a moment, he said.
[Socrates] He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
[Glaucon] Certainly.
[Socrates] Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
[Glaucon] Certainly.
[Socrates] He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
[Glaucon] Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.
[Socrates] And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
[Glaucon] Certainly, he would.
[Socrates] And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,

and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
[Glaucon] Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
[Socrates] Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
[Glaucon] To be sure, he said.
[Socrates] And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
[Glaucon] No question, he said.
[Socrates] This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; 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, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that 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; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
[Glaucon] I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.
[Socrates] Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted.
[Glaucon] Yes, very natural.
[Socrates] And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?
[Glaucon] Anything but surprising, he replied.
[Socrates] Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter light, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the cave.
[Glaucon] That, he said, is a very just distinction.
[Socrates] But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes.
[Glaucon] They undoubtedly say this, he replied.
[Socrates] Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good.
[Glaucon] Very true.
[Socrates] And must there not be some art which will effect conversion in the easiest and quickest manner; not implanting the faculty of sight, for that exists already, but has been turned in the wrong direction, and is looking away from the truth?
[Glaucon] Yes, he said, such an art may be presumed.
[Socrates] And whereas the other so-called virtues of the soul seem to be akin to bodily qualities, for even when they are not originally innate they can be implanted later by habit and exercise, the of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other hand, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue --how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eyesight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness.
[Glaucon] Very true, he said.
[Socrates] But what if there had been a circumcision of such natures in the days of their youth; and they had been severed from those sensual pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below --if, I say, they had been released from these impediments and turned in the opposite direction, the very same faculty in them would have seen the truth as keenly as they see what their eyes are turned to now.
[Glaucon] Very likely.
[Socrates] Yes, I said; and there is another thing which is likely. or rather a necessary inference from what has preceded, that neither the uneducated and uninformed of the truth, nor yet those who never make an end of their education, will be able ministers of State; not the former, because they have no single aim of duty which is the rule of all their actions, private as well as public; nor the latter, because they will not act at all except upon compulsion, fancying that they are already dwelling apart in the islands of the blest.
[Glaucon] Very true, he replied.
[Socrates] Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all-they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.
[Glaucon] What do you mean?
[Socrates] I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the cave, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not.
[Glaucon] But is not this unjust? he said; ought we to give them a worse life, when they might have a better?
[Socrates] You have again forgotten, my friend, I said, the intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State.
[Glaucon] True, he said, I had forgotten.
[Socrates] Observe, Glaucon, that there will be no injustice in compelling our philosophers to have a care and providence of others; we shall explain to them that in other States, men of their class are not obliged to share in the toils of politics: and this is reasonable, for they grow up at their own sweet will, and the government would rather not have them. Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a culture which they have never received. But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the cave, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.
[Glaucon] Quite true, he replied.
[Socrates] And will our pupils, when they hear this, refuse to take their turn at the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light?
[Glaucon] Impossible, he answered; for they are just men, and the commands which we impose upon them are just; there can be no doubt that every one of them will take office as a stern necessity, and not after the fashion of our present rulers of State.
[Socrates] Yes, my friend, I said; and there lies the point. You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after the' own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State.
[Glaucon] Most true, he replied.
[Socrates] And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?
[Glaucon] Indeed, I do not, he said.
[Socrates] And those who govern ought not to be lovers of the task? For, if they are, there will be rival lovers, and they will fight.
[Glaucon] No question.
[Socrates] Who then are those whom we shall compel to be guardians? Surely they will be the men who are wisest about affairs of State, and by whom the State is best administered, and who at the same time have other honors and another and a better life than that of politics?
[Glaucon] They are the men, and I will choose them, he replied.
[Socrates] And now shall we consider in what way such guardians will be produced, and how they are to be brought from darkness to light, -- as some are said to have ascended from the world below to the gods?
[Glaucon] By all means, he replied.
[Socrates] The process, I said, is not the turning over of an oyster-shell, but the turning round of a soul passing from a day which is little better than night to the true day of being, that is, the ascent from below, which we affirm to be true philosophy?
[Glaucon] Quite so.

Timaeus

Timaeus /taɪˈmiːəs/ (Ancient Greek: Τίμαιος), Timaios, is one of Plato's dialogues, mostly in the form of a long monologue given by the titular character, written circa 360 BC. The work puts forward speculation on the nature of the physical world and human beings. It is followed by the dialogue Critias.

Speakers of the dialogue are Socrates, Timaeus of Locri, Hermocrates, and Critias. Some scholars believe that it is not the Critias of the Thirty Tyrants who is appearing in this dialogue, but his grandfather, who is also named Critias.

Introduction

The dialogue takes place the day after Socrates described his ideal state. In Plato's works such a discussion occurs in the Republic. Socrates feels that his description of the ideal state wasn't sufficient for the purposes of entertainment and that "I would be glad to hear some account of it engaging in transactions with other states" (19b).

Hermocrates wishes to oblige Socrates and mentions that Critias knows just the account (20b) to do so. Critias proceeds to tell the story of Solon's journey to Egypt where he hears the story of Atlantis, and how Athens used to be an ideal state that subsequently waged war against Atlantis (25a). Critias believes that he is getting ahead of himself, and mentions that Timaeus will tell part of the account from the origin of the universe to man. The history of Atlantis is postponed to Critias. The main content of the dialogue, the exposition by Timaeus, follows.

Synopsis of Timaeus' account

Nature of the Physical World

Timaeus begins with a distinction between the physical world, and the eternal world. The physical one is the world which changes and perishes: therefore it is the object of opinion and unreasoned sensation. The eternal one never changes: therefore it is apprehended by reason (28a).

The speeches about the two worlds are conditioned by the different nature of their objects. Indeed, "a description of what is changeless, fixed and clearly intelligible will be changeless and fixed," (29b), while a description of what changes and is likely, will also change and be just likely. "As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief" (29c). Therefore, in a description of the physical world, one "should not look for anything more than a likely story" (29d).

Timaeus suggests that since nothing "becomes or changes" without cause, then the cause of the universe must be a demiurge or a god, a figure Timaeus refers to as the father and maker of the universe. And since the universe is fair, the demiurge must have looked to the eternal model to make it, and not to the perishable one (29a). Hence, using the eternal and perfect world of "forms" or ideals as a template, he set about creating our world, which formerly only existed in a state of disorder.

Purpose of the Universe

Timaeus continues with an explanation of the creation of the universe, which he ascribes to the handiwork of a divine craftsman. The demiurge, being good, wanted there to be as much good as was the world. The demiurge is said to bring order out of substance by imitating an unchanging and eternal model (paradigm). The ananke, often translated as 'necessity', was the only other co-existent element or presence in Plato's cosmogony. Later Platonists clarified that the eternal model existed in the mind of the Demiurge.

(Later in history the term "demiurge" became a term of vilification by Gnostics who purported that the demiurge was a fallen and ignorant god creating a flawed universe, but this was not how Plato was using the term.)

Properties of the Universe

Plato's Atlantis described in Timaeus and Critias

Timaeus describes the substance as a lack of homogeneity or balance, in which the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) were shapeless, mixed and in constant motion. Considering that order is favourable over disorder, the essential act of the creator was to bring order and clarity to this substance. Therefore, all the properties of the world are to be explained by the demiurge's choice of what is fair and good; or, the idea of a dichotomy between good and evil.

First of all, the world is a living creature. Since the unintelligent creatures are in their appearance less fair than intelligent creatures, and since intelligence needs to be settled in a soul, the demiurge "put intelligence in soul, and soul in body" in order to make a living and intelligent whole. "Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God" (30a-b).

Then, since the part is imperfect compared to the whole, the world had to be one and only. Therefore, the demiurge did not create several worlds, but a single unique world (31b).

The creator decided also to make the perceptible body of the universe by four elements, in order to render it proportioned. Indeed, in addition to fire and earth, which make bodies visible and solid, a third element was required as a mean: "two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them". Moreover, since the world is not a surface but a solid, a fourth mean was needed to reach harmony: therefore, the creator placed water and air between fire and earth. "And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion" (31-33).

As for the figure, the demiurge created the world in the geometric form of a globe. Indeed, the round figure is the most perfect one, because it comprehends or averages all the other figures and it is the most omnimorphic of all figures: "he [the demiurge] considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike" (33b).

The creator assigned then to the world a rotatory or circular movement, which is the "most appropriate to mind and intelligence" on account of its being the most uniform (34a).

Finally, he created the soul of the world, placed that soul in the center of the world's body and diffused it in every direction. Having thus been created as a perfect, self-sufficient and intelligent being, the world is a god (34b).

The Creation of the World Soul

Timaeus then explains how the soul of the world was created (Plato's following discussion is obscure, and almost certainly intended to be read in light of the Sophist). The demiurge combined three elements: two varieties of Sameness (one indivisible and another divisible), two varieties of Difference (again, one indivisible and another divisible), and two types of Being (or Existence, once more, one indivisible and another divisible). From this emerged three compound substances, intermediate (or mixed) Being, intermediate Sameness, and intermediate Difference. From this compound one final substance resulted, the World Soul. He then divided following precise mathematical proportions, cutting the compound lengthways, fixed the resulting two bands in their middle, like in the letter Χ (chi), and connected them at their ends, to have two crossing circles. The demiurge imparted on them a circular movement on their axis: the outer circle was assigned Sameness and turned horizontally to the right, while the inner circle was assigned to Difference and turned diagonally and to the left (34c-36c).

The demiurge gave the primacy to the motion of Sameness and left it undivided; but he divided the motion of Difference in six parts, to have seven unequal circles. He prescribed these circles to move in opposite directions, three of them with equal speeds, the others with unequal speeds, but always in proportion. These circles are the orbits of the heavenly bodies: the three moving at equal speeds are the Sun, Venus and Mercury, while the four moving at unequal speeds are the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (36c-d). The complicated pattern of these movements is bound to be repeated again after a period called a 'complete' or 'perfect' year (39d).

Then, the demiurge connected the body and the soul of the universe: he diffused the soul from the center of the body to its extremities in every direction, allowing the invisible soul to envelop the visible body. The soul began to rotate and this was the beginning of its eternal and rational life (36e).

Therefore, having been composed by Sameness, Difference and Existence (their mean), and formed in right proportions, the soul declares the sameness or difference of every object it meets: when it is a sensible object, the inner circle of the Diverse transmit its movement to the soul, where opinions arise, but when it is an intellectual object, the circle of the Same turns perfectly round and true knowledge arises (37a-c).

The Elements

Timaeus claims that the minute particle of each element had a special geometric shape: tetrahedron (fire), octahedron (air), icosahedron (water), and cube (earth).

Tetrahedron.gif Octahedron.gif Icosahedron.gif
Tetrahedron (fire) Octahedron (air) Icosahedron (water) Cube (earth)

The Timaeus makes conjectures on the composition of the four elements which some ancient Greeks thought constituted the physical universe: earth, water, air, and fire. Timaeus links each of these elements to a certain Platonic solid: the element of earth would be a cube, of air an octahedron, of water an icosahedron, and of fire a tetrahedron.[5] Each of these perfect polyhedra would be in turn composed of trianagular faces the 30-60-90 and the 45-45-90 triangles. The faces of each element could be broken down into its component right-angled triangles, either isosceles or scalene, which could then be put together to form all of physical matter. Particular characteristics of matter, such as water's capacity to extinguish fire, was then related to shape and size of the constituent triangles. The fifth element (i.e. Platonic solid) was the dodecahedron, whose faces are not triangular, and which was taken to represent the shape of the Universe as a whole, possibly because of all the elements it most approximates a sphere, which Timaeus has already noted was the shape into which God had formed the Universe..

The extensive final part of the dialogue addresses the creation of humans, including the soul, anatomy, perception, and transmigration of the soul.

Golden Ratio

"For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean—then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one" (31c - 32a); thereby he implies the aesthetically perfect proportion known as Golden ratio or Golden mean

Later influence

Medieval manuscript of Calcidius' Latin Timaeus translation.

The Timaeus was translated into Latin by Cicero,[6] and the first part (to 53c) was again translated by Calcidius circa 321 AD. Calcidius' partial translation of the Timaeus was the only Platonic dialogue, and one of the few works of classical natural philosophy, available to Latin readers in the early Middle Ages. Thus it had a strong influence on medieval Neoplatonic cosmology and was commented on particularly by 12th century Christian philosophers of the Chartres School, such as Thierry of Chartres and William of Conches, who interpreting it in the light of the Christian faith understood the dialogue to refer to a creatio ex nihilo.[7]

References

  • Cornford, Francis Macdonald (1997) [1935]. Plato's Cosmology: the Timaeus of Plato, Translated with a Running Commentary. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 0-87220-386-7.
  • Martin, Thomas Henry (1981) [1841]. Études sur le Timée de Platon. Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin.
  • Sallis, John (1999). Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's "Timaeus". Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21308-8.
  • Taylor, Alfred E. (1928). A commentary on Plato's Timaeus. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • K. Sarah-Jane Murray (2008). From Plato to Lancelot: A Preface to Chretien de Troyes. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-3160-X.