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Allegory of the Cave As a Playbook of Ostracization: Opinion Essay

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Socratic dialogues are deemed as the inception of Western civilization in their distinguishing of tribalism from humanitarianism, thereby constructing the “Other” and Western consciousness. Each dialogue has contributed to the “ideal” teaching model in which new knowledge is created for both teacher and student. Interlocutors expand this method to facilitate the multilogical understandings of knowledge and truth, removing man from “unintellectual” foundations of tribalism (Popper 164). Such conversations have laid the groundwork for Western concepts of educational elitism. As authors like Nehamas and Popper engage in discussions about the Socratic pedagogical method, The Republic sustains relevance into the present day. However, the allegory of the cave denotes a playbook of ostracization, as the “chained” individuals of the cave can only be transformed by a univocal notion of education. In deconstructing what Plato explicates through characters like the puppeteers and prisoners as they pertain to Western intellectual hegemony and slavery, the modern-day conception of the exploitative democracy can be unearthed.

Intellectual and educational enlightenment is framed by a pedagogical, Socratic model within the context of authors like Nehamas and Popper. The model is bound both by notions of aesthetic sensibility as well as dramatic performances of truth seeking. Socrates’ “insisten[ce] on receiving answers his interlocutors truly accept” becomes a compelling model for interjecting reason within philosophical inquiry (Nehamas 11). The method details a form of teaching and learning in a small group, without a clear hierarchy. Nehamas similarly purports a notion of maturity and one’s innate capacity to philosophize and engage in the dialectic. Though this learning archetype seems inclusive, it proclaims a conviction that reason is grounded in faith, a Western doctrine for revelatory experiences. Plato describes a “purging of the soul of false benefits that stand in the way of learning” (Nehamas 13). This “purge” is the formal point of departure for philosophy and has solicited an entire discourse around Greek connotations of virtue and truth.

Popper categorizes closed and open societies, in relation to Plato’s anxiety and discomfort in the dialogues. First, through the ideal teaching method, the Socratic concepts of knowledge promulgate submissiveness to justice: “the strength of both the old and new totalitarian movements rested on the fact that they attempted to answer a very real need” (Popper 162). This dire political situation is the foreground for violent colonialism, especially as Popper distinguishes archaic from classical Greek, tribalism from humanitarianism, and closed from open societies, respectively. He writes, “it is necessary…to see that tribalist exclusiveness and self-sufficiency could be superseded only by some form of imperialism” (Popper 172). This imperialism is grounded in “mastery: dominating and enslaving your neighbors” (Popper 173). The dominion over man is mediated by money and some membership to an ideal political community, reflective of the ideal logic of educational command: “by inventing the…art of thinking rationally, [Ancient Greece] is one of the inexplicable facts which stand at the beginning of our civilization” (Popper 178). This underpins Western education’s footing in writings like Plato’s.

The allegory of the cave in The Republic grapples most precisely with Western terms of educational prowess in exploring why man speaks. The parable’s normative picture of the ideal state is founded in the univocity that Plato alludes to throughout the text. The Republic itself is rampant with blatant assumptions, precipitating philosophical discussion that is inherently marginalizing: “the justice of a single man and also the justice of a whole city” creates a commensurability of justice in tandem with the conflation of happiness (43, 368e). As the city is a proxy for the individual, joy and happiness are accordingly attributed to the cohesion and concord of an entire system: “happiness in the city as analogical to happiness in the soul” (110, 434e). The Republic and the allegory of the cave propel a discourse of submission to justice and philosopher kings because man is flawed and has an epistemic deficiency. Plato holds dear a prioritization of unity over multiplicity, especially as “a god…doesn’t change himself…whether in visions or dreams” (59, 382a). Driven by the divine, the cave is a site for how reality and the world of Forms stand in contrast to the objective-existing universals, such as the Good, the Just, the Beautiful.

There are two fundamental claims of allegory of the cave. First, there is a clear discontinuity between divine knowledge and mundane empirical beliefs. The perceptible provides us with an incomplete understanding of our world which sustains an incomplete body of the Forms. This is why individuals must redirect themselves back to the intuition of wholeness and stability, under the “philosophers [who] come to power in the city” (212, 540d). Second, man has unequal access to the proclaimed illumination. The majority of man is destined to remain without light, while a select few are drawn out of the cave. Socrates writes that, “we should be able to defend ourselves by showing that the people we mean are fitted by nature both to engage in philosophy and to rule in a city, while the rest are naturally fitted to leave philosophy alone and follow their leader” (149 ,474c). Society will correspondingly have a natural hierarchy that creates the clear-sighted governing elite and subordinate classes. Societal roles are assigned according to both an ability to philosophize and biological capacity: “The god who made you mixed some gold into those who are adequately equipped to rule, because they are most valuable” (91, 415a). The categorization according to commensurable value elicits an immovable stratum as each individual “must practice the one thing about the city the one for which his nature has made him naturally most suited” (108, 433a). The Republic is a blueprint for an elitist society that survives off of the backs of those less suited and naturally unfit to engage in philosophy. Because Western civilization is based off of the much idealized Greek tradition, it also appropriated exploitive, patronizing elements inherent in Classical democracy.

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The allegory does not defend a city like that of Book II of The Republic, wherein the polis is structured by using its citizens’ exhaustively to meet the general populous’ needs. Instead, the cave details a feverish account of the demos, marked by slavery and wretchedness. Socrates begins the allegory by asking Glaucon, an interlocutor, to “imagine human beings living in an underground cave-like dwelling” (188, 514a). Individuals are chained, unable to turn their heads and only seeing what is directly in front of them. At some distance, a fire is burning which is the acclaimed source of light for the prisoners and slaves. The puppeteers manipulate the light to create the concepts of object, including the prisoners themselves: “the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts” (187, 515c). Socrates describes a causal interaction between the prisoners and the puppeteers; irrespective of intention, the puppeteers are responsible for the shadows that the prisoners observe. Their relationship elucidates how the philosopher king, in parallel to puppeteers, can influence the ordinary people, like the prisoners, as the rulers assume the position of “manipulators of thoughts”—they are in control, the masters of hegemony and colonizers who “carry all kinds of artifacts that project above it” (187, 514d). It is their prerogative to bring people into the light, either vocally or literally— “talk [or stay] silent” (187, 515a). The ordinary mirror the prisoners and slaves as they all grapple with the tension of “being released from their bonds” and gaining some consequential intelligence (187, 515c).

Prisoners and slaves are forced to first look at images shown by the puppeteers or the demos’ philosopher-kings without alternatives. Then, they must resign to accept the images because there are no alternatives. This is the immediate tragedy of Plato—the text elucidates an instrumentalization of enslavement and imprisonment that is the onslaught of philosophy. The discourse is an attempt to redress the material injustices. Not everyone is completely brought out of the cave, however. The forced ascent out of the cave makes man “pained and dazzled” from the brightness, making him refuse to bring others out in a similar fashion (187, 515d). Instead, a gradual process marked by discerning shadows and understanding water reflections facilitates interest in the divine Forms, allowing man to relay the knowledge back to other prisoners (188, 515e). The necessary descent back to the cave ideally illuminates the illusions of one’s un-enlightened existence, proliferating the tugs to this “truth.” These notions have created the Western hegemonic discourse that relegates the “Other,” who is misguided and biologically absent of the “strong” and “modern” philosophizing faculties of the mind, attributed to the West (Said 67). Such distinctions have contributed to colonial theory, exemplifying the pervasive dangers of the allegory of the cave—by determining members in a populous who can be easily molded into adhering to an exploitative discourse, the “truth” can be illuminated.

Thinkers, like Plato, Socrates, and Glaucon, participated in their forums and theaters to elucidate how to turn man away from morally reprehensible desires and towards the correct, true Forms. However, slaves labored to economically sustain the demos—the wealth produced by the “strange prisoners” allowed free Athenians to engage in discourse (187, 515a). It is reported that the silver mines at Laurium in Greece, wherein masses of slaves were forced to extract metal, were the bedrock of the state’s wealth (Boardman 198). Workers were chained to extract metals for the polis, parallel to how philosopher kings’ coercively extract metal from their constituents’ souls. So long as philosopher kings assumed the positions of power that proliferated a discourse excluding members according to “biological” or “metallurgical” attributes, the resulting intellectual and exhaustive slave-labor institutions perpetuated—this is the site of scholars like Plato, Socrates, Nehamas, and Popper. The metallurgical hierarchy within Athenian society ran rampant, evidenced by the slavery in silver mines, as many of Plato’s philosophical ideas were much in line with the practices in Athens.

The dangers that philosophies like the allegory of the cave allude to persist in Western society, as per the categorization of “fit” and “unfit” members. Apropos to Western hegemony, the allegory of the cave deploys a value and priority of unity over multiplicity, as the ideal form is stable and eternal—”there is no other inquiry [like the dialectic] that systematically attempts to grasp with respect to each thing itself what the being of it is…all other crafts are concerned with human opinions and desires” (205, 533c). The stability of the polis, and according to Western democracy, was, in their eyes, contingent on unity. The dangers of multiplicity, especially as it pertains to an inclusive discourse of man and his “opinions and desires,” introduce a city that is marked by chaos and without command. The state mirrors the philosopher king’s understanding of the Good, the Just, the Beautiful—“it is our task as founders, then, to compel the best natures to reach the study…namely to make the ascent and see the good” (191, 519d). The allegory upholds a framework of control, marked by one type of ascent, in which the commoner’s escape from slavery redirects them to adhere to the absolute desires of rulers.

Plato’s discussion of philosophy is dependent on a polis profiting off of the backs of the “unfit.” The allegory of the cave purports a romanticized method of freedom that is hearkened by material sustenance of those without ideal qualities. Hegemonic thought is founded upon the similarly repugnant notions put forth in the allegory of the cave—“they’ll take possession of the children, who are now free from the ethos of their parents and bring them up in their own customs and laws” (212, 541a). The compulsive method of defining the Good and concepts like it are a reflection of a philosophy established by inequality. Western democracies, in choosing to adopt the Greek model or their interpretation of such, are an extension of Plato’s project, enacting chaos and exploitation that members of society now see. The univariate axioms of equality and emancipation that Plato puts forth are mere afterthoughts. Nehamas and Popper have become distracted in trying to reconcile equality with Plato’s overall philosophy, and in doing so, have given the idea too much weight. The “invention” of rational thought continues to eliminate discourse associated with ancient Greek enslavement and its consequences in the modern-day. These structures are propagated in present society, as attitudes toward past doctrines have destroyed individuals’ capacities to exist in the Western-dominated intellectual discourse.

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Allegory of the Cave As a Playbook of Ostracization: Opinion Essay. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 25, 2023, from
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