The Modern Plato

As I was responsible yesterday for your overconsumption of wine, perhaps I can offer amends today.  Remember that in the discussion of the nature of a chair, Plato hypothesized that the form of a chair existed separately from the existence of any particular chair or of the craftsman who make them.  That form did not depend on space or time for its existence and that this abstract thought is the basis for parts of modern math and science.  Perhaps there is a thought experiment of Plato’s that is more recognizable than the one about “chairness.”


Suppose that there is a cave where prisoners are chained together.  In the same cave there is a fire, and the prisoners are looking away from the fire to the wall where the light from the fire is cast. Between the fire and the prisoners are puppeteers using shapes that cast shadows on the wall in front of the chain gang.  The prisoners watch this shadow puppet show and believe what they are seeing is real. When one prisoner guesses what shadow will appear next, he is praised by the others for his ability to see the future, in the eyes of his fellow prisoners he has the most knowledge. 


Now another prisoner sees the fire by accident and realizes that the shadow show is all fake.  This prisoner manages to escape the cave and sees the real world.  When he tries to return to the prisoners and tell them that what they are seeing is not real, he finds himself blinded because his eyes are not accustomed to real sunlight.  The prisoners refuse to believe him but rather believe that they will be harmed if they leave the cave.  After all, look what happened to the prisoner who left. [1]


At its core, the story is about the perception of reality vs. actual reality.  To the prisoners in the cave the shadows are real.  Because that is all that they have seen, that is the extent of their reality.  Then can conceive of no other.  They rely entirely on the empirical evidence of what their eyes tell them is true.  In this story, the shadows represent the beliefs of those for whom empirical knowledge is all that there is.  If they don’t see it, then it must not exist.  In the game that they play, the one that guesses the next shadow correctly is the master of the empirical evidence of their known world.  He is the best at perceiving, when, in fact, he knows nothing of the real world, he only sees the shadows that the puppeteers project, just like all the other prisoners, and his knowledge of which shadow puppet will appear next is simply a random guess.  Being as it is Plato telling the story, the prisoner who has escaped is the philosopher who is willing to explore the world outside of the perceived world, and who tries to enlighten others.  Interestingly the sun, which Plato acknowledges to be a great thing, blinds the escaped prisoner physically, but even in his blindness he has better perception than the remaining prisoners in the cave with their sight.  


Why is this important?


Well, the first answer is that, the next time you are invited to a party and someone asks you if you enjoyed the “Matrix”, you can reply that you thought that the movie was OK, but that you appreciated Plato’s version of a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates for its nuance, even while you enjoyed the special effects of the movie.  Then you will not have to worry about being invited to a party by that person ever again.  


The second answer is that, in our very first discussion we explored the cave painting and the grave.  The existence of both tells us that man’s nature causes him to recognize that he is, and to wonder about what happens after he is gone.  In order to better understand the world around him man must ask, “what is truth?”  When we do, we tend to get the same answer as the prisoners in Plato’s chain gang.  “Truth” is what we can see.  Truth is that which science can prove.  That which our senses tell us is real.  But we already showed that there can be unseen, unscientific if you will, Truths.  


Plato would argue that those things that we can perceive are less true than concepts because senses can be fooled.  It would not be hard to take a look around yourself today and see an event that two people perceive differently.  Because that is not only possible but likely, then that means that anything we perceive is, by definition, subject to our intellectual “spin”.  And if THAT is true, then nothing we perceive can be real knowledge.  If I blow on my hands in winter to warm them, and blow on my soup to cool it, is my breath warming or cooling?  Well, that depends on my perception.  (By the way, that example is from Aesop’s fairy tales, “The Man and the Satyr”, and was used in several other fairy tales; the “Satyr and the Traveler” – Jean de La Fontaine, the “Peasant and the Satyr”, a traditional fairy tale from Flanders, and the “Peasant and the Student”, a fairy tale from Germany. All these from back from when your philosophy lessons were delivered to young minds by stealth.[2])  If perception is how we measure knowledge, then all knowledge is equal because the perception of one person is as real to that person as the perception of another person is to that person.  And if that is true, then everyone is both as knowledgeable as the gods and as knowledgably as a fool next door.  

What Plato eventually settles on is the fact that we can perceive through our senses rather than with them.  For example, we can say that taste and sight are two different sensations even as we do not have a single organ that does both.  We are perceiving a truth through our senses even as we have no direct sense that can be brought to bear.  


This matters because Plato is warning you to be careful of what your senses perceive.  He would tell you to be distrustful of everything your observations tell you is true because your perceptions cannot always be trusted.  And finally, to always recognize that you are bringing your intellectual spin to any observation that you make.  

If you enjoyed this article, then please REPOST or SHARE with others; encourage them to follow AFNN

Truth Social: @AFNN_USA
CloutHub: AFNN_USA


[1] Benjamin Jowett translation (Vintage, 1991), pp. 253-261 




Leave a Comment