Plato believed that most of us have a skewed view of the world. Plato, the most creative and influential of Socrates’ disciples, wrote dialogues, in which he frequently used the figure of Socrates to espouse his own (Plato’s) full-fledged philosophy.
In “The Republic,” Plato sums up his views in an image of ignorant humanity, trapped in the depths and not even aware of its own limited perspective. The rare individual escapes the limitations of that cave and, through a long, tortuous intellectual journey, discovers a higher realm, a true reality, with a final, almost mystical awareness of Goodness as the origin of everything that exists. Such a person is then the best equipped to govern in society, having a knowledge of what is ultimately most worthwhile in life and not just a knowledge of techniques; but that person will frequently be misunderstood by those ordinary folks back in the cave who haven’t shared in the intellectual insight. If he were living today, Plato might replace his rather awkward cave metaphor with a movie theater, with the projector replacing the fire, the film replacing the objects which cast shadows, the shadows on the cave wall with the projected movie on the screen, and the echo with the loudspeakers behind the screen. The essential point is that the prisoners in the cave are not seeing reality, but only a shadowy representation of it.
The importance of the allegory lies in Plato’s belief that there are invisible truths lying under the apparent surface of things which only the most enlightened can grasp. Used to the world of illusion in the cave, the prisoners at first resist enlightenment, as students resist education. But those who can achieve enlightenment deserve to be the leaders and rulers of all the rest. At the end of the passage, Plato expresses another of his favorite ideas: that education is not a process of putting knowledge into empty minds, but of making people realize that which they already know.
This notion that truth is somehow embedded in our minds was also powerfully influential for many centuries. In The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic, Plato describes untutored people as slaves chained by their limited views and perceptions. Most people never leave this realm of slavery in which they do not see the world accurately, but ignorantly see a skewed view of the world. Everyone is capable of seeing a true reality, for they already do know truth but do not realize it.
In order to escape the realms of the cave and see truth, an individual has to embark on an intellectual journey that is painful. Few people ever do embark on this journey in which they realize what they already know. Those that succeed, and leave the cave can see the world accurately from their enlightened perspective. These are the few that truly understand reality and find truth. Plato believed that those who have found truth and understand reality are the people that are most suited to govern in society.
This is because these people have an understanding of what the important issues really are. However, ordinary people who have not realized truth will frequently misunderstand those who have, because they have limited perspective rather than an enlightened perspective. The people in government should be there not because they thrive on having power and influence, but because they understand best the principles of government.