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Socrates’s defence and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Socrates’s defence and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Nearly four centuries before Christ, 70 years old Socrates was being tried for the charges of corrupting the youth of Athens with his doctrines and turning them against their people. Though his story is different than his accusers, he believed every generation has its own set of thoughts and beliefs which are given birth to by their observations. Socrates worked as a part-time teacher, a part-time philosopher and a full-time thinker always lost in his world. His inquisitive nature and his method of bringing in every single dogmatic belief under the reigns of reason always found him in difficult situations. One of such instances is when he was looking for the wisest person in Athens after he was told by the Pythia of the oracle at Delphi that he is the wisest. He went to a political expert and found him to not know about politics, he went to carpenters and found that their wisdom about carpentry was superseded by their dogmatic beliefs and in then he went to the poets who, he found, were lost more than the political expert. He concluded true wisdom is the wisdom to know exactly how much knowledge about what you claim to know do you possess. That may have answered a question Socrates had but it certainly made a few powerful bodies of Athens mad at him. What followed was a warrant to his needless trial and unjust death.

“…I’ll stop doing it as soon as I know what I’m doing” 

These are his lines uttered by him at his trial. 

Why is it relevant now? Why am I telling you this story? And what’s it got to do with a cave? Let me answer those questions one by one. Plato was a student of Socrates. In his book ‘The Republic’, Plato talks in detail about the Socratic method of questioning the ideas, presented in the form of a conversation. He does so by writing a character of Socrates himself walking around the alleys of Athens seeking answers to his questions, particularly the ones that are political. In one of such discussions, to explain his theory, Socrates gives an analogy of people trapped in a cave. It goes as follows: 

Imagine a family dwelling in a cave that has only one opening that allows the sunlight in. Not one member of this family has ever left the cave. What they do all day every day is watch shadows on the wall, shadows of cats, dogs, men, women, trees and everything that blocks the sunlight and casts a shadow on the wall. They imagine the whole world to be composed of only the shadows and nothing else. One of these members finds a way out and despite being warned by his fellow mates about the horrors that lay waiting outside, he leaves the cave. The bright light from the sun irritates his eyes; confusing perception of third-dimensional objects and their shadows drives him mad. It takes time but he finally learns to see the world as it is. His eyes adjust to the daylight brightness of the sun and they no longer hurt. He can differentiate between an image and a real object. He decides, then, to go back to the cave to tell his friends about his newfound wisdom, but as you may have guessed, they reject his theories. They call him mad for saying what he said, they become hostile towards him, hitting his head hard on the wall and killing him.  

What Plato says through Socrates is that the people are happy in their ignorant life. Whenever someone seems to challenge their views and opinion, a lot of them simply don’t care while few others become rather hostile toward their challenger and the remaining accept the challenge, take what is supported by reason and reject everything else. This is what Plato believes is the job of a philosopher and reformer, to bring the dogmas in questioning under strict rules of reason rather than following them mindlessly under the influence of authority. Coming to the second question, I’m telling this story because that’s what happened with Socrates himself. He questioned his reality, he questioned the contemporary perception of the world, he questioned everything that he could bring under the umbrella of reasoning, but he was tried against false accusations and was forced to drink Hemlock and meet his maker in the process.  

Lastly, I don’t think I need to go forth and tell you why this is still relevant. The world we see now is significantly different from the world we saw in the history books. What made the change wasn’t one person or one single idea but a continuous reformation of old rituals and addition of new thoughts to the pre-existing set. The world won’t be the same in the future, either. Our generation has problems of its own; every new site, every new angle that can be added is valuable for reshaping it and moving it towards a better tomorrow.   

Of course, this allegory is related to Plato’s theory of Forms and his theory of knowledge directly or indirectly, but that’s for another article. Till then, read The Republic and Socrates’ defence, both written by Plato himself. 


Mukul Joshi   

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