Philosophy 111 – Introduction to Philosophy (Fall 2002)
Metaphysics. Plato. “The Parable of the Cave”
[Students and professors, please read.]
Many religions believe we are unable to understand spiritual things if we are not one of their devoted members and agree with every detail of their doctrines, like the professors Plato mentions in “The Parable of the Cave,” who say they put understanding in the soul. Have you ever tried to discuss spiritual or related issues with one of the members of these religions, but soon discovered that with them it is not a pleasant conversation, because they are so devoted to their beliefs that they will get angry if you suggest alternatives, or at the least they will insult your open-mindedness as infantile and maybe even mentally unstable? But how does one come to any kind of understanding without learning first what it is all about, what all it implies? — just as Plato says “this power is already in the soul of each, and is the instrument by which each learns.” And if science is constantly revising what it previously assumed was scientific fact in this seemingly predictable world, what makes any of us think that, even under divine revelation or a vision we can not deny we had, we have fully understood everything and do not need to ever reconsider or reexamine one little detail?
It is our very human nature, the need for routine and predictability, the attachment to what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, which prevents us from seeing that our ways of thinking are faulty which were initially formed without first giving it much thought. It is human nature to form and fall back on stereotypes, which are faulty mental shortcuts of organizing information–mental shortcuts which also come in the form of spiritual stereotypes which, once formed, are so difficult to keep from falling back on, especially if we were taught from the time we were born that we are not spiritually right if we consider otherwise. We form our self-identity by taking note of how our caregivers treat us. If being spiritually right is of utmost importance to our caregivers, and our agreement with them brings smiles and hugs and words of approval, we will strive to conform to their understanding of ‘spiritually right’. Now–if their understanding is that God’s love can not be earned because his love is unconditional, yay for us that their understanding does no harm to us. But if their understanding is that questioning the doctrines of their denomination is influenced by Satan, if it is that we are eventually paid back by God beyond the natural consequences of our actions, no matter how unreasonable their understanding is, even if it has no backing in the holy writings they supposedly study, we will strive to live up to their understanding without questioning it–our self-esteem depends on it, we are not born with a self-image.
That is one of the reasons why the person in Plato’s cave had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, out of that cave. That is one of the reasons why Plato says the world we know is like the shadows in that cave. But once we see the shadows for what they are, and we are all capable of doing this, no matter how much it threatens the old stand-by mental shortcuts we’ve depended on for our self-worth for so long, it is like being freed from a prison in our mind, it is like coming outside and letting our eyes adjust, gradually and not all at once, to the light outside the cave, “the most brilliant light of being: and this we say is the good, don’t we?”
“The Parable of the Cave.” The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, Second Edition. Ed. Presbey, Gail M., et. al. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2000. 15-17.