Plato’s allegory of the cave

Marissa asked:

What does each figure in the Allegory of the Cave represent?

Answer by Helier Robinson

If Plato were writing today the prisoners in the cave would be couch potatoes watching television. The television pictures are images of daily life. If the prisoners in the cave are released they perceive the origin of their images, the slaves carrying objects that throw the shadows on the wall; the couch potatoes, released from their lifelong-to-date television watching, would discover that the television pictures were images of daily life.

The point, for Plato, is that daily life is itself a series of images: images of the forms, which can be known by those who achieve wisdom. Plato claimed that there are two worlds: the sensible world of daily life, and the ideal world of the forms. The sensible world represents the world of the forms by means of images, and is largely illusory.

You get a better idea what all this is about from the metaphor of the divided line. The bottom half of the line consists of daily life, and below that, images of daily life such as soap operas. And this bottom half is itself an image of the top half. The top half consists of the world of the forms, and below it an image of it in the form of mathematics and logical thought.

The more we know this image of the world of forms the more we discover the forms themselves, and so gain wisdom. The word wisdom (sophia) has been so debased over time (think of wise-crack and wise-guy) that a better way of thinking of all this is to treat the bottom half of the line as irrational, the lower part of the top half as rational, and the top portion as supra-rational. Wisdom is supra-rational.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I would like to know a bit more about the couch potatoes, the people who pander to them and also the ‘slaves’ who work in the couch-potato-pandering industry, otherwise known as television.

The couch potatoes know that the images are taken from daily life: the question is what the images tell them about that life. The TV image is a fantasy re-creation of the actual world, epitomized in soap operas no doubt, but also and more subversivly in things we take to be factual like the TV news.

This isn’t about alleged bias of news programs. The BBC or CBS do a good job. The problem is in the process of consuming – being invited to consume – information from a passive perspective, when one is disconnected from any sense of relationship to the events in the world outside, or indeed any sense of responsibility for those events.

Plato wouldn’t refuse to watch television. He would say that it’s fine to get our entertainment or information this way. But we need a corrective. The panderers cannot supply the necessary corrective. For that, you need philosophers.


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