Plato’s Cave

I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see

Jimi Hendrix

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Jimi Hendrix manages to say more in these four lines, I reckon, than Plato manages in four hundred. Where Jimi talks of expanding consciousness from the delusion of self-absorption to a direct and sensual delight in the real world, Plato suggests the tangible world around us is an illusion we can only escape by retreating into abstraction. At least, that’s how I read his cumbersome and deeply depressing analogy of human existence as a kind of underground imprisonment jumping at shadows.

Click on for an excellent comparison of Plato’s ideas with the TV film ‘Fifteen Million Merits (Black Mirror)’. And the internet abounds with short films on Plato’s Cave, such as and

On the face of it, Buddhism agrees in principle with Plato’s assessment of reality. The Buddhists believe that life is ‘dukkha’ or ‘suffering’. This suffering – according to the Buddha – comes about through human desire to hold on to the physical realm, an attachment to things. Buddhists might agree with Plato that physical reality is in a constant state of change. But I doubt whether they’d exchange the beauty of the world for his spooky and rather bloodless realm of pure Ideas and Forms.

The Buddhist higher worlds are much more down-to-earth: they comprise learning, compassion and realisation – this last I take to mean a more intense engagement with the world amounting to an ability to live fully in the moment. Enlightenment, or Nirvana, may perhaps be regarded as the moment of psychological escape from the cycle of birth and death. Life and death are one.

Plato’s cave denigrates the material world. According to Mel Thompson, Plato “fails to illustrate that attractiveness of the physical world; the scene inside the gloomy cave hardly represents the delights of the senses”.  Plato’s analogy of the cave is nothing like the world we live in, so we can’t relate to it or understand it the way Plato wanted us to. He doesn’t help us understand the world we live in. He implies the senses are useless, but we have survived for millions of years because of them. All artistic endeavour, he says, is pointless because we are merely making copies of things that are already copies.

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Plato’s misanthropy doesn’t stop there. All finer feelings – such as unconditional love, perfect friendship and selfless altruism – are imperfect copies of purely notional concepts. This is clearly nonsense. And if we are to believe there is a perfect Form of everything then there must be perfect Forms of nasty stuff too. Yet the realm of the Forms is meant to be perfect, unchanging, and eternal. This world, as Stephen Law says, “requires the existence of deeply unpleasant things such as mud, faeces, and mucus. The ‘Platonic heaven of the Forms’ does not sound so heavenly … “

Problems with Plato’s Cave multiply because he fails to make a distinction between the visible world and the World of Forms, as the analogy contains physical objects. The Sun is a physical object and the fire in the cave merely a smaller version of the Sun. This does not provide a convincing explanation of the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical.

Plato divides our one world into two but he offers no proof of two worlds. It is a leap of faith. Aristotle argued that a Form does not have separate existence over and above a particular instance of it. It is impossible to prove Plato’s theory.

Plato would no doubt turn this round, as he turns everything else round, by saying that authentic knowing is not possible while we’re constrained by these bodies. And yet he says that he knows these things. With Plato we are entering the realm of magical thinking and starting to leave the ground. But we have to question  whether a priori knowledge really is superior to empirical knowledge.

Moral relativists deny that moral fact exists. Nietzsche suggests we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Hume and Ayer regard moral statements as demonstrations of emotion. Sartre says that we are what we do, which locates our identity in the social environment. According to these thinkers, nothing descends from on high. It’s down to us.

Plato holds the deeply patronising view that only an elite can work out reality but we know how easily elites can lose touch with everyday life. Knowledge of practical goodness is widespread – those ignorant of goodness can be educated or uneducated. Plato disparages democracy and draws an over-simplified contrast between the ordinary person and the philosopher.

In a way I can understand some degree of special pleading because his mentor Socrates died for expressing his views. Also, while Plato’s analogy is at best dodgy and at worst damaging, it does shed unintentional light on political questions like social conditioning. This shouldn’t be overstressed as Plato’s reference to it is only a metaphor within a metaphor – hating art, he can’t be expected to be much good at it, can he? – but for what it’s worth, here it is:

Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

Is it the nature of life that plays tricks on us or is it the nature of human societies? Plato predictably doesn’t make this clear. Susan Sontag found interesting connections between Plato’s dancing shadows and the arbitrary contextless way the media portrays reality, but perhaps that’s an idea for another post …


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10 thoughts on “Plato’s Cave

  1. As with the religious books we seem to revere the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ as if they had some greater awareness of the human condition, insight into life and knowledge of what is the best way to live – or connection to some deity.
    This is clearly nostalgic nonsense. The ancients were ordinary people with extremely limited education, science or psychology. While there are nubs of great poetry and insight they have largely been superseded by greater science, psychology and thinking. The ‘wisdom of the ancients’ is flawed, racked with superstition and tribal culture, and tainted with primitive attitudes towards women, strangers and other tribes.
    Our ancestors were just like us – except less well informed. Their wisdom is severely limited. Their beliefs were pure superstition.

    1. Absolutely … if I can make such a statement in a relative world … absolutelier, maybe?! Anyhow, you’re spot on with this, Opher, which is why we can’t accept the cave analogy in its entirety. I found it stimulated thought, however. Socrates himself said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. And Scott Fitzgerald said something about needing to think for ourselves, otherwise we let others think for us. We certainly don’t need any more golden icons. Perhaps we should dump Plato and start worshipping our beautiful world …

  2. A mostrar excellent post dear Dave… I particularly enjoyed the excerpts concerning the similarities and differences between Plato’s Theory of Forms and the Buddhist approach. Your points as to Plato’s weakest elements in his theory are accurate, and I am with you as to his views, aiming to highlight the virtues of a small amount of people. Democracy was an evil thing for his and his book Republic was a clear example of how he intended to favour an elite.
    Thanks for the great reading and for linking back to my post… Sending best wishes 🌞🌟

    1. Glad you liked it, Aquileana, because it was your excellent post in conjunction with your colleague which stimulated me to write it. The link with the TV film was the trigger, I think, demonstrating that ancient and modern are really one thing. Thank you for your additional thoughts here, too, we’re all engaged in the same search for the light – to continue Plato’s metaphor!

  3. Dave what a thought provoking post. My initial thought about Plato and his cave was that it was talking about the unreliable nature of our senses and that everything we experience is filtered reality. Look at optical illusions for example, and the difference between being at a party and hearing a tape recording of the party (the recording will be full of noises of which you were unaware while you were actually there, your brain filters them out.)
    This link is about the unreliable nature of senses and the additional problem of quantum effects (“nothing exists until it has been observed”)

    The other aspect of Plato which you have highlighted were new to me. In particular I did not know anything about his view of society and democracy. This link is to an interesting piece about democracy requiring educated voters (Plato’s view.)

    As always Dave thanks for your posts, they force me to attempt to think – always a dangerous thing to try (at least that is what our leaders would like us to believe).

    1. And thank you, Mike, for responding with this thought-provoking consideration of the topic! The idea that our senses can mislead us has obvious value, a truth we perhaps overlook because it has been advocated by prudes and puritans throughout the ages. It has particular relevance for the modern age where culture is so bound up with our media, though speaking personally I don’t feel the need to seek metaphysical dimensions beyond what we experience in the here and now. To deny the senses as a route to understanding seems perverse. As to the democracy question, recent events could make one doubt the value of plebiscites which too often come down to smoke and mirrors, but I think the Plato/Socrates line is too patrician and mean-spirited. One thing’s for sure – perhaps the only thing – we’re all having to think a lot harder about things … maybe I should stop trying to beat up the ancients and start focusing on the moderns!

  4. I remember having to study Plato’s Theory of Forms (thankfully briefly) in my first year at university. I’m by no means a subtle thinker and I’m sure other people could make much more more of it than I could, but I have to say, I found it extremely unsatisfying as an explanation of anything.

    1. That’s a very good way to put it. Plato’s theory seems to add a completely unnecessary layer to the question, What is reality? Ideas are our creative collective attempts to understand the world and surely not airy abstractions that can exist by themselves and can only be perceived by the few.

  5. So much to think about here, Dave. I liked how you compared Plato’s theory of the cave to the general Buddhist mentality. What I find confusing is the “ideal” form. For example, what is the ideal envelope or something else that is typically mundane? What does it look like? This is an issue with the Forms. Well it seems not just Aristotle found holes in Plato’s theory 😉

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