Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute. He is a professor of Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, and Contracts at the National Paralegal College, a counselor at the American College of Education, and a founding board member of Salt and Light Global. Washington is a co-host of "Joshua's Trial," a radio show of Christian conservative thought. A graduate of JohnMore ↓Less ↑
Plato’s Cave illustration
Socrates (470-399 B.C.) – a renowned Greek philosopher from Athens who taught Plato – Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Socrates used a method of teaching by asking leading questions. The Greeks called this form dialectic – starting from a thesis or question, then discussing ideas and moving back and forth between points of view to determine how well ideas stand up to critical review with the ultimate principle of the dialogue being Veritas – Truth.
St. Thomas Aquinas (Realist)
Socrates: We are gathered here today at my Symposium to discuss part of a major work by my student, Plato, namely his venerated parable, the Allegory of Plato’s Cave, which appears in Book 7 of his “Republic.” This opus examines the form and essence of the ideal state and its ideal ruler – the philosopher king. Plato’s justification for placing the controls of government in philosophers is based on his comprehensive study of truth and knowledge, and it is in this background that the Allegory of the Cave is created.
Plato: Imagine you have been imprisoned all your life in a dark cave. You and your fellow prisoner’s hands and feet are bound and your head positioned to only see the wall directly in front of you. Your only consolation is a blazing fire behind you, and between you and the fire a passageway on which your captors carry an assortment of statutes and other objects. The entire world for you and your fellow prisoners is restricted to the shadows cast on the wall by these objects; they are the only things you have ever thought about, seen or discussed.
However, one fateful day you are freed from your shackles and set at liberty to move inside the cave. Confused by the fire, you gradually gain knowledge of the cave and begin to recognize the origin of the shadows you at first thought to be real. Later you are freed from the cave and move into the sunlit world outside, where you experience the full richness of reality radiated by the brightest object in the skies, the sun.
St. Aquinas: What does the symbolism of Plato’s Cave mean?
Socrates: The cave represents the realm of becoming – the observable world of our daily life; here everything is imperfect and constantly changing. The chained prisoners (symbolizing ordinary people) live in a world of speculation and illusion. The ex-prisoner achieves the most authentic ideal of reality possible within the constantly changing world of perception and experience. A third and higher level of reality is the world outside the cave, which represents the realm of being – the understandable world of truth inhabited by the objects of knowledge, which are perfect, eternal and unchanging.
Plato: Indeed, Socrates has brought us to the paradox of my theory of Forms. Nothing in the empirical world fits this paradigm – a good person or an honest man could not be found by Diogenes; a tall person is short relative to a tree; an apple looks red at noon but appears black at dusk; everything seems relative to your vantage point. As nothing in the empirical world is an object of knowledge, I theorized that there must be another realm (the world outside the cave), a place of perfect and unchanging entities which I call “Forms” (or Ideas). So, for example, it is by virtue of imitating or copying the Form of Justice that all particular just actions are just. As chronicled in my Allegory of the Cave, there is a hierarchy among the Forms, and superior to all is the Form of the Good (represented by the Sun), which provides the others their ultimate meaning and even is the cause of their existence.
St. Aquinas: Plato’s theory of Forms and its underlying metaphysics introduces the “problem of universals.” As a realist (or Platonist), I believe that universals such as goodness, redness and tallness existed independently of particular good, red and tall things. Through transcendent ideas like biblical theism, natural law, conservatism and truth, God alone determines all things.
Kant: I am an anti-realist (or nominalist) and hold the opposite view of Plato and Aquinas. I believe that goodness, redness and tallness were names or labels that were attached to objects to highlight particular similarities between them or transcendental conditions. The Ideal of Reason [God] does not satisfy my transcendental conditions and so cannot be considered objectively real. Humanity alone through its own ideas – humanism, Social Darwinism, positive law, progressivism, relativism – determines what is real, what is “truth.”
Socrates: Plato’s Cave attempts to do more than elucidate his distinctive view on reality and our understanding of it. This is evident in the conclusion of the story.
Plato: Having ascended to the outside world and recognized the nature of ultimate truth and reality, the released captive desires to convert or enlighten his imprisoned former companions, but there’s anxiety. He is shocked by their stubbornness and fanatical hatred of truth because they believe that his expedition has corrupted him; they loath to listen to him any further and threaten to kill him if he persists.
Socrates: Here, Plato alludes to a repeated tragedy of human nature and history, the eternal curse of the philosopher – ridicule and rejection – in attempting to enlighten ordinary people and set them on the path to truth, knowledge and wisdom. Plato hearkens back to the forced suicide I suffered under the Athenian state because I refused to moderate my philosophical teachings. Four centuries later, this ridicule and rejection would happen to another philosopher, Jesus Christ – the greatest philosopher of us all!
Jesus: All earthly knowledge is but mere shadows. My servant St. Paul wrote, “… we see through a glass darkly; but now face to face.” I am the light of the world. Light removes darkness and shadows. I transcend reality and the Shadowlands. I told the unbelieving Jewish leaders of my day, “Search the scriptures [Torah]; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.”