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Frequently Asked Questions
"Could you tell me in what work of Plato I might find his "cave analogy". It is a story of men chained in a cave only able to see their own shadows and delude into thinking that this was all there was to reality."
The story this letter refers to, usually called "the allegory of the cave", is found at the beginning of book VII of Plato's dialogue called The Republic. The Stephanus references (the universal way of quoting Plato, available in all editions of his works) for the section telling the allegory are Republic, VII, 514a-517a. It is followed by an interpretation of the allegory put by Plato in the mouth of Socrates, as is the allegory itself. The text of this section of the Republic is available in various English translations on the web, including :
The avowed purpose of the allegory is to give an image of the process of education at a point in the discussion when Socrates has just introduced, through what is known as the analogy of the line (Republic, VI, 509d-511e), the notion that the whole of being is made up of a visible and an intelligible "realm" (not "world"). Thus, the allegory depicts the process that allows us to raise from the approximate knowledge of the visible realm through our senses to the clearer knowledge of the intelligible realm through our reason ("logos" in Greek).
To do justice to Plato and to do away with the notion that he was dreaming for the philosopher of a life devoted to contemplating an eerie "world of pure ideas" from an ivory tower away from the sound and the fury with no care for what is going on in the city around, it is of the utmost importance to realize that the story doesn't end with the freed prisonner reaching the top of the hill and contemplating the sun, but continues with his return into the cave where he tries to enlighten his fellow-prisonners at the risk of his own life. Indeed, as I try to explain in the Introduction to Plato and his Dialogues I wrote for the EAWC site at Evansville, Plato's motivations and goals were political all along and he himself makes fun of the "philosopher" who falls in a ditch while looking at the stars in the "caricature" of philosopher he puts in the mouth of Socrates for his friend Theodorus of Cyrene, the scientist, in the Theætetus, 173c-175b (though most scholars would not admit that this picture of a philosopher is a caricature along the lines of what Theodorus sees as the proper behavior for a "philosopher" or "scientist", not the picture of what Plato sees as the true philosopher).
For more on the allegory of the cave, its place in the general organisation of the Republic and its relationship with the story of Gyges (Republic, I, 359d-360b) at the beginning of the dialogue and the myth of Er (Republic, X, 614b-621b) at the end, see the pages of this site on the plans of the Republic and on the ring of Gyges.
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