1 Heraclitus said: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice.’
2 The main influence of the pre-Socratics, thinkers of the fifth and sixth centuries bce, on early Greek philosophy was to raise questions about the certainty of knowledge in a world that is forever changing. Understanding this helps explain why Plato sought the realm of the Forms.
3 The poet Meletus brought charges of impiety against Socrates. His indictment said ‘Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognise the gods recognised by the state and introducing other, new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.’ There is also the sense that the Socratic Method itself led young people to question things that the leaders in Athens did not want them to question.
4Plato asks his readers, in the voice of Socrates, to imagine several prisoners who have been chained up for their whole lives. All they can see is one wall of the cave. Behind them is a walkway and behind that a fire that casts shadows on the wall they can see. Along this walkway men carry objects, which the prisoners see as shadows on the wall. So the prisoners see the shadows as reality and hear the voices of the walkers bouncing off the wall of the cave. They therefore know nothing of the true nature of the objects carried.
In the analogy Socrates suggests that any prisoner who was freed would not recognise what the walkers carry as real but would instead continue to believe that the shadows were real. Socrates further suggests that, if the prisoner were made to look at the fire, he would be struck blind and want to return his gaze to the shadows. If he were dragged out of the cave, here too he would be blinded by the light and unable to see the nature of reality. After some time he would acclimatise to the light and come to know that ‘the Sun’ is the source of the seasons of the year and is the steward of all things in the visible place.
5 The prisoners have no real choice but to believe in their shadows as real because they have no experience of anything else. In philosophical terms they have no ‘empirical evidence’ for there being a natural world beyond the cave. Part of the game of guessing which shadow will be next emphasises the idea that their world is just their reality.
6 The prisoners could, in fact, argue that all they have experienced is real as they have no experience that would allow them to understand the nature of reality as anything else. Anyone coming from the world outside, or indeed the prisoner returning to the cave, would be seen as mad and, Plato suggests, possibly killed by those who can see the shadows better than those who have been outside and who are now the disorientated ones.
7 Plato believed that philosophical education is often resisted and that educational enlightenment is progressive. As with the prisoner being removed from the cave, the experience of a learner is painful and disorientating. The prisoner’s eyes, like the minds of students, have to adjust slowly to the new reality. Ultimately Plato points to the Form of the Good as the source of all others.
8 Clearly the prisoner is suffering not only from the oncoming light as he is dragged up the ramp but, to use modern parlance, he is also being taken out of his comfort zone. This is often true of students of philosophy who are forced to explore an uncomfortable world where things they thought had been certainties are much more nebulous than they could have imagined. This may make them feel that the foundation on which their understanding of reality stands is sand rather than rock.
9 Plato believed that parallel to the material world we all experience is the realm of Forms, which, unlike our realm of Appearances, is unchanging and permanent, a realm of souls. As this world did/does not decay, it was/is true reality. He believed that this realm of the Forms gave us a certainty and fixity that we will never find in this world. A classic example would be that we know a house cat, a lion, a puma or a tiger are all cats because they all share in the Form of a cat.
10 The ‘shadow world’ is understood by us because we are a mixture of temporary body and everlasting soul. Even as it exists in this shadow world, our soul, which for Plato is pure spirit, originally belonged in the realm of the Forms. The shadow of a chair is a chair only because it participates in the Form ‘Chair’. In fact, the better the chair, the closer it is to the Form.
11 This question is for you to discuss with others. It is clear that the nature of reality is not as fixed as many would believe and different cultures hold often conflicting views about why we are here and indeed where we are. For example, as explored in another part of the course, there are differences between those who hold fundamentalist views about religion and those who hold that there can be no knowledge beyond that which is empirically verifiable.
12 It is clear from the analogy that if the prisoner were to return to the cave, he would appear disorientated and possibly mad to those who still see the shadows as reality. It is important for Plato that those who govern have gone through the pain of education and become philosophers so that their decisions are governed by true knowledge and not shadow knowledge. In this there is no doubt a criticism of the Athenians for their treatment and execution of his teacher Socrates.
13 The examples of Forms used in textbooks are generally such things as chairs or cats. However, in the Republic, Plato is trying to explore how we come to ideas such as truth, justice or beauty. When we say someone or something is beautiful, what are we actually saying? Plato would say we are remembering our experience of the Form Beauty in the realm of the Forms. This is interesting to explore with others as, if we look at the history of art from Plato’s time until today, we find that the idea of beauty in the human form, male or female, has changed often over the millennia.
14 In our world, all life is dependent on the radiation from the Sun for warmth and light. In the same way as sight of things here depends on the Sun, so our mental powers need the spiritual realm to enable us to understand the truth that resides in the Forms. The supreme Form that enables the understanding of all other Forms is the Form of the Good.
15 A number of arguments you will study in this course depend on an understanding of the concept of infinite regress. Here is one of the first places you will come across it. Aristotle argues against the idea of Platonic Forms by saying that, if in order to understand what a man is you need to postulate the Form of Man as a perfect man itself, then a further form, the ‘third’ man, would be required in order to explain this, and so on ad infinitum. While Aristotle makes this neat argument, it is worth keeping in mind that Plato had already produced a similar argument in the Parmenides.