The Enigma Of The Universe ► 1 ►What is the Universe? ► (A) Nature Of Reality: Idealism And Realism ► 1. Philosophical Idealism ► Plato

Posted: 16.08.2014

One form of idealism is found in the Plato's "Theory of Ideas". According to this theory, the world of our experience is not real. Plato illustrates this theory by the story of a "cave and the prisoners" in his famous work, the Republic. He describes a cave in which the prisoners live from their very childhood and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move and can only see in front of them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their head. Above and behind them, a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a wall. Thus they can see only their own shadows which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave. One of these prisoners escapes and comes out of the cave. Then he sees the light of the sun for the first time and understands the real nature of the things. He then explains the truth to the prisoners within the cave.[1] The conversation which he had with one of the prisoners, is related by him-

"...... and now, I said, let me show in figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened-Behold human beings living in an underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; there they have been from their childhood, and have before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. 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, if you like, see a low wall built along the way like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

"I see."

"And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and figures of animals made of wood and various materials, which appear over the wall?

"You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners."

"Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?"

"True, he said; how could they see anything, but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

"And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?"

"Yes, he said.

"To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images."

In the above simile, Plato has compared man to the prisoners of the cave to whom the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. Knowledge of the universe, obtained by man, is not the true knowledge. In other words, the universe which we perceive is only subjective - it does not exist except in our minds. The objective reality, according to Plato, can only be perceived by a person who can free himself from the cave. But it is out of reach for people who are confined to the cave. And because we, men, are the prisoners, our universe is only subjective.

According to the Theory of Idea, advocated by Plato, the objective reality exists, but it is not experienced by us. Whatever we perceive is only appearance. Thus, according to the meta­physical part of the doctrine, the word "cat" means a certain ideal cat, created by God, and unique. Particular cats partake of the nature of the cat, but more or less imperfectly; it is only owing to this imperfection that there can be many of them. The cat is real, particular cats are only apparent.[2] Thus whatever man knows, is only appearance and not reality.

Footnotes:
[1]
[2]
Share this page on: