The Allegory of Plato: The Distinction between Reality and Illusion
Published 27 Apr 2017
Plato is one of the most relevant figures in philosophy. He has been a great influence to all the other philosophers who emerged after him. His works are mostly in the form of a dialogue, allowing readers to easily understand his philosophy. One of the most recognized texts attributed to Plato is the Allegory of the Cave, which conveys an important element of his philosophy through a conversation with Glaucon. Through the allegory, Plato tries to illustrate the difference between how illusion and reality is perceived by people.
An allegory is that which represents something apart from itself. Therefore, the Allegory of the Cave by Plato is more than just a story. It conveys a message beyond the given instances indicated in the text. It actually illustrates one of the most integral aspects of Plato’s philosophy.
In the allegory, Plato tries to distinguish between “enlightenment” and “ignorance” of humanity (Plato 79). He gives out a specific scenario, one which includes prisoners in a cave. Plato describes this cave as one which has an entrance that allows sunlight to come into the cave. Inside the cave, there are prisoners who have been there since their youth. Their legs and necks are bound, forcing them to only look ahead. The prisoners could see through a curtain wall which is also found inside the cave. Somewhere high above, there is a fire (Plato 79). The fire creates shadows of those people which move behind the curtain walls, shadows that the prisoners can see. Because of their bondage, these shadows are the only things that the prisoners can see.
Plato gives another scenario. One of the prisoners is freed from the condition he was trapped in since he was a child (Plato 80). For the first time, this allows him to see for himself the fire and the objects behind the shadows. Initially, he is blinded by the light; afterwards, his eyes adjust in time to see the outside world (Plato 80).
Plato presents yet another scenario. The freed prisoner goes back to the cave (Plato 81). This time, he is blinded by the darkness; his exposure to the light made him this way. In the instance that he was to “discriminate” against the darkness, the other prisoners would consider him crazy (Plato 81). They would not understand him, as all they know are the shadows that they see. If the remaining prisoners in the cave can take a hold of the prisoner who has returned, the former would kill the latter.
The Allegory of the Cave tries to illustrate how human limitations can blur the lines between reality and illusion. The allegory presents an analogy of how Plato perceives the limitation of man. The prisoners in the allegory represent humans. The prisoners have been bound since the beginning; their eyes have been limited to see only shadows. Because it is the only thing they see, it becomes reality for them. The objects behind the curtain wall represent reality, while the shadows are merely illusions. Under the given conditions, the prisoners consider the shadows as the real things.
Humans are like the prisoners. The human body limits an individual’s ability to determine between reality and illusion. From the beginning, a human’s perception of reality is distorted by his sensory experiences. What is real for him is that which he has experienced from his senses, just as the shadows were considered reality by the prisoners.
There is a resistance by the prisoners to embrace reality which can be found in the last scenario given by Plato. In the instance that a prisoner who had seen the outside world would return to the cave and tell the other prisoners the real story behind the shadows, he would be perceived as a fool and might even be killed in the process. The reason behind this is that only the freed prisoner is aware of the truth; everybody else is still bound to their ignorance. If the freed prisoner was to relay what he had seen to the others, the prisoners would not believe him. How can the prisoners believe his stories when all they can see are the shadows? The shadows are all they experience; it is the only reality available for them. To hear a testimony of another experience would surely be met with opposition. The knowledge of the freed prisoner would make him appear insane; the others would assume that the world beyond the cave has damaged his eyes (Plato 81). The so-called damage would then discourage the others from breaking free of their bondage and would render freedom from the cave as an unworthy endeavor (Plato 81).
There is a reason why the remaining prisoners do not want to see the outside world. There is a reason why they do not want to know the truth. For most of their lives, the shadows have been reality for them. It is all they know as true. They have long held such perception that to do otherwise would be extremely difficult. When the freed prisoner tells them the truth, they are challenged. It is almost an insult for the prisoners to have their long held belief questioned. The prisoners do not want to know the truth because the experience would be similar to what the freed prisoner experienced. In the beginning, the freed prisoner was blinded by reality; it took time for his eyes to adjust to reality. For the remaining prisoners, to know the truth would also be a blinding experience. It will take a long time for them to break free from their illusions and adjust their eyes to reality. The cave is their comfort zone; there is much hesitation in their part to leave it for the outside world. This is the reason why the prisoners do not want to know the truth. They want to spare themselves from a blinding experience.
In a way, the situation is similar to humans. Humans are bound to their sensory experiences and to the illusions that these experiences provide. However, the senses do not suffice in providing people an access to reality. Therefore, one must go beyond the senses and illusions to reach reality. The only way one can experience reality is through reason (Plato 82). In the allegory, the prisoner was only immersed in reality when he was free from the cave. Reality was only experienced by the prisoner when he went to the outside world and discovered the real story behind the shadows and reflections. In this case, humans can only experience reality through the use of reason. Plato believed that people can only grasp reality if reason was involved. People should not rely on their senses to know the truth; thinking is more important than using the senses. The importance of thinking is the reason why some people find it easier to retain their illusions. They mostly rely on their senses, even though it presents inaccurate information. Thinking would force them to go beyond what they thought is true; instead of their senses, they would have to resort to reason. The transition from senses to reason would be similar to the prisoner’s dilemma: the adjustment from darkness to light.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is an illustration of the problematic distinction between reality and illusion. It represents how people can mistake illusion for reality given the limitations their bodies provide. In the allegory, the prisoners represent the people. Their sense of reality is false, as their eyes only allow them to accept illusion as the real thing. It is only when they can come out into the outside world they can they truly experience reality. For humans, the physical world only presents illusions. Their senses can grasp these illusions as reality. Plato believes that reason should be used to truly experience reality. Hence, the problem between reality and illusion can only be resolved through the use of reason.
- Author’s last name, author’s first name. Title of the book. Place of Publication: Publisher, Year of Publication.