Plato’s Analogies of the Sun, the Line and the Cave

http://outre-monde.com/2010/09/25/platonic-myths-the-sun-line-and-cave/

Plato represented the ideas of good, knowledge and education in a series of metaphors using the sun, a line and a cave. This website has all three, but I found the ones of the sun and the cave particularly interesting and applicable.

The Metaphor of the Sun 

1. Just as it is by the light of the sun that the visible is made apparent to the eye, so it is by the light of truth and being – in contrast to the twilight of becoming and perishing – that the nature of reality is made apprehensible to the soul. 2. Just as light and sight may be said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so science and truth may be said to be like the Good, and yet not to be the Good; it is by the sun that there is light and sight, and it is by the Good that there is science and truth. 3. Just as the sun is the author of nourishment and generation, so the Good is the author of being and essence. Thus, the Good is beyond being, and the cause of all existence.

The Metaphor of the Cave

Human beings have spent all their lives in an underground cave or den which has a mouth open towards the light. They have their legs and their necks chained so that they cannot move, and can see only in front of them, towards the back of the cave. Above and behind them a fire is blazing, and between them and the fire there is a raised way along which there is a low wall. Men pass along the wall carrying all sorts of statues, and the fire throws the shadows of these statues onto the back of the cave. All the prisoners ever see are the shadows, and so they suppose that they are the objects in themselves.

If a prisoner is unshackled and turned towards the light, he suffers sharp pains, but in time he begins to see the statues themselves and thereby moves from the cognitive stage of imagination to that of belief. The prisoner is then dragged out of the cave, where the light is so bright that he can only look at the shadows, and then at the reflections, and then finally at the objects themselves: not statues this time, but real objects. In time, he looks up at the sun, and understands that the sun is the cause of everything that he sees around him, of light, of vision, and of the objects of vision. In so doing, he passes from the cognitive stage of thought to that of understanding.

The purpose of education is to drag the prisoner as far out of the cave as possible; not to instill knowledge into his soul, but to turn his whole soul towards the sun, which is the Form of the Good. Once out of the cave, the prisoner is reluctant to descend back into the cave and get involved in human affairs. When he does, his vision is no longer accustomed to the dark, and he appears ridiculous to his fellow men. However, he must be made to descend back into the cave and partake of human labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not. This is because the State aims not at the happiness of a single person or single class, but at the happiness of all its citizens. In any case, the prisoner has a duty to give service to the State, since it is by the State that he was educated to see the light of the sun.

I love the idea of the sun representing all things good and being the “the author of nourishment and generation.” Even more powerful I think though is this metaphor of a prisoner in a dark cave. While before the prisoner is ignorant to the world and all things bright and beautiful, he slowly (and painfully) becomes aware and learned of reality. I think in our own lives this is often the case because we are all so naive and ignorant, and still learning about the world around us. Education paves the way towards light and a knowledge of truth- Plato captures this perfectly in the last paragraph when he writes:

The purpose of education is to drag the prisoner as far out of the cave as possible; not to instill knowledge into his soul, but to turn his whole soul towards the sun, which is the Form of the Good. 

I am so grateful for my education. I hope that I can use the education and truth and goodness that I’ve learned to go into the world and apply what I’ve learned to make it a better and happier place. By improving myself, I hope that I can try to improve others as well. I want others to reap the benefits of becoming “educated to see the light of the sun.”

1 thought on “Plato’s Analogies of the Sun, the Line and the Cave

  1. Aviva Rosensweig

    what I like about the metaphor of the cave is the progression that we see man going through.he moves from seeing shadows, to seeing statues, to seeing the objects themselves, not reflections of those objects. This is identified as moving from a state of imagination to that of belief and finally understanding. There’s so much to think aboutin this short analogy.

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