Grades 9+

Across the walls of the cave, the shadows dance in the flickering light of the fire at the entrance. The only sound is the crackle of the flames and the occasional murmurs of prisoners chained to their seats, their heads fixed to face the wall. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a walkway on which people pass carrying various objects. The prisoners cannot see the people or the objects, only their shadows, which are projected onto the wall in front of them.

For their entire existence, these people had been confined within the walls of the cave. They watch shadows without knowledge of the reality that creates them. The prisoners are totally unaware of the world outside the cave. They don’t even know there is a world beyond the walls — to them, the cave is the world.

This is “Plato’s Cave,” an allegory he used to describe human’s reality and their interaction with it. According to Plato, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. Freed from the cave, a person comes to understand that the shadows are not reality at all. He can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured one.

Plato likens the cave experience to humans being shackled to the everyday material world, unable to see the true forms beyond.

To break free from the proverbial cave, we must know about Forms. Plato’s Theory of Forms states that there are unchanging, perfect forms of everything in the world. These forms are the ultimate reality, while the physical world is only an imperfect reflection of these forms.

How do we know, for example, what Goodness is? Many choose to disobey it or deny it exists, but we all have a basic sense, Plato argues, of what it is. That is true for everything, even things that, like Goodness, do have any tangible reality, such as Justice, Grace, or Disobedience.  We cannot touch Goodness yet we all have a fundamental understanding of what it is.  That fundamental understanding is the Form of Goodness.

Plato’s ideas have been a basic part of Western (i.e. European) civilization for the past 2300 years. Yet Plato would have never been the philosopher we know if it wasn’t for Socrates.

Plato was born during the Peloponnesian War, which except for a six-year truce lasted from 431 to 404 BC. He reached adulthood at the time of Athens’ defeat by Sparta. At first, Plato sought to pursue a career in politics. He desperately hoped for someone who would take over for Athens’s power leader, Pericles, who had died in a plague during the war. Plato sought a benevolent dictator: someone who would rule the country with love and wisdom.

That person would rule by using Socrates’s reasoning and other ideas. Socrates did not write down his ideas – but his pupil, Plato, did. Yet Plato was not a mere scribe or secretary. Many, perhaps most, of the ideas he wrote down were his own. We do not know which ideas are Socrates’s and which are Plato’s.

Plato wrote an amazing number of treatises, or papers, which we call his Dialogues. Socrates is the main character in most of them. He engages in loving argumentation with various other people of the time, in Socrates’s search for Truth about an almost dizzying number of subjects.