The Republic by Plato - Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Modern Man’s Perception

Jane Hoffman

In a world void of forms and limited materialism, self-awareness and enlightenment may be easier to achieve. In Plato’s “allegory of the cave,” true belief is like a moving statue that can change forms through elevated perception. The allegory of the cave is an eternal conflict of appearance versus reality.  It sets out to find the nature of truth to define the ultimate state of man’s existence. In the game of shadows where mirages of forms appear across our media and television, modern man has cultivated these forms tailored to his own desire and longing-ness.  When Plato imagined his allegory of the cave on the basis of being visually and mentally chained, he strove for a higher interpretation of existence that would create an idealized society.  
The Republic begins with Socrates explaining his claim that the just man is the happy man. Socrates argues that in order to have a happy and good life, man must first have an idea of the ends of human existence.  Plato clung to an ideology in which he groped for a transcendent, supreme being who authored the idea of perfect forms that could translate common forms or objects into a divine realm of being, where they could exist at their highest perfection. However, Plato was discriminatory and believed that only few were capable of drawing this knowledge outside of their selves. He believed that knowledge was innate—it existed within and had to be cultured and refined through perception. There were three states: being, becoming, and non-being. The existence of being was eternal or fixed.  The essence of becoming was a non-static state of changing particles in which forms participated in the nature of existence to provide some type of quality or value.  What divided man’s perceptions or striving toward a better purpose or existence?  It was simply his ability to conceive and perceive.  
In the allegory of the cave, there is a group of people chained to a structure. They cannot move their head or limbs and are forced to stare at a wall.  Behind them is a well-lit, continuous fire and a catwalk that objects move across. These objects can be animals or man-made things like vases or swords. Plato doesn’t define the regulation of these objects.  He only notes that the people chained to the floor can only see the shadows created by the fire behind them as these objects move across the catwalk. The chained individuals start believing that the shadows are the actual forms, that the objects do not exist in material form. People begin naming these objects.  If they hear echoes from outside the cave, they may attribute sounds to particular objects.   
There are also stairs leading outside the cave, where one comes into the light of the sun. In Plato’s world, the sun is the perpetuation of enlightenment.  The closer to the sun one becomes, the closer to the truth. The sun provides light but is not the light.  The sun is the cause of sight itself.  Man must will himself out of the cave by expanding his innate knowledge to conceive of more perfect forms. It is not necessarily contingent on a material world of objects but can include ideas like justice, ethics, and civil matters.
Is it in fact possible that all of our knowledge comes from within?  St. Augustine believed in divine illumination, in which God imparts certain key knowledge to man. We live in a world now of standardized, text-driven education where thoughts and ideas are organized in a constructed formula, issued within a relative time frame of periodic intervals in which a student digests material and then regurgitates it.  Plato lived in an age prior to the recognition of holy books like the Talmud or Bible.  His conceptions were based on his own observations. Like many cultures around the world, he could conceive of a higher being who ordered and shaped the universe, but he did not ascribe it to a certain named deity.   
I find that Plato’s flaw even in his allegory is that he perceives that man starts out chained with sketchy knowledge. Some people are born content and digest the world around them in a literal or abstract way but are not at odds with their environment.   Nowadays, people construct their world not through distorted perceptions of discourse but by linear modules of television and social media through the tool of a sun-like source known as the internet.  We define our beauty, our ambition, our careers through shared values that are exalted. In the U.S., the development of a career and the ultimate contributions to society we make are measured through our self-perceived gifts or ability to master certain subjects in school.  We can also develop a sense of being by things we are drawn to, such as likes.  
Plato’s inevitable distinction was that higher forms such as justice, ethics, and the organization of society could only be envisioned by a polished philosopher king who weighed these matters through discourse.  As the sun is in the visible realm, the form of good is in the intelligible realm. It is “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower.” Whatever knowledge we attain of the Forms must be seen through the mind’s eye, while ideas derived from the concrete world of flux are ultimately unsatisfactory and uncertain. Plato maintains that degree of skepticism that denies all permanent authority to the evidence of sense. In essence, Plato suggests that justice, truth, equality, beauty, and many other things ultimately derive from the Form of the Good.  However, in the modern world, people’s perception of beauty and value, such as whom they love, is individualized.  Congress continually has disputes over social value aiming at individual preferences of what government should provide or approve.  
Thrasymachus argued that the unjust man demonstrates his superior intelligence in appearing to be just. Thrasymachus attempts to demonstrate that this type of individual always gets his way through the affronted appearance of justice. If man is smart enough to duplicate justice, he can deceive and put on false airs, according to Thrasymachus.  
In conclusion, there is, as Plato says, a part of the world that lives in self-sustaining ignorance.  In my perception, it is people who are chained to their own desires who cannot sacrifice for their own survival or for the common good.  Yet there is no law or restriction in America for serving one’s own desires, as long as it is within the law.   Plato left a permanent mark through his ability to imagine a higher existence and social entity, yet it is only through individual trial and error that we can gain wisdom.  We live in an age when many of our physical needs are met, which may stymie urges of exploration to wander and discover.  The definitive is everywhere and an imposition to place value on our lives.  The struggle to interpret our higher thoughts as we are exposed to them or find them is within our realm.