Look around you. What do you see? A chair? Okay. A table? Sure, why not. The device you’re reading this on. Yes, definitely. Now I have just one question for you. Why is that table a table? Why is the chair a chair? Your phone/computer/iPad a phone/computer/iPad? Why isn’t the table a stool, or the chair a table?
That’s something the Greek philosopher Plato thought about, and he came up with the idea of forms. Forms are kind of like blueprints. They show the perfect version of something. Then, somewhere in your mind, you compare everything you see to all of the forms you know. The reason that table is a table is because it was the most similar to the form of a table in your mind. It’s the same thing for a chair, and literally everything else you can think of!
Plato had some pretty interesting philosophies, so I’m going to dive into his thoughts on democracy, beautiful things, and his most famous: the allegory of the cave. Hopefully, this sparks some new thoughts in your mind (says the truth-teller to the people in the cave 😉)
The Allegory of The Cave
This is Plato’s most well-known theory (apart from possibly forms). In order to think about the allegory of the cave, you first need to imagine this. There’s a cave, with no natural light entering it whatsoever, so it’s usually completely dark. There are some prisoners who can’t leave the cave, staring at the wall. There’s a fire behind them, the only source of light, and sometimes things will move behind them, or people will cast shadows (or on purpose just move things), casting shadows on the wall in front of them. This might help:
The people think that these shadows are real, and they’re the only things that they will talk about. Details, like colour and texture, are lost on them. They can’t feel or truly see the items. They’re more like “phantoms”, mere ghosts of what they truly are.
One day, one of the prisoners manages to escape, by a total accident. He gets out of the cave and into the real world. From there, he is astonished! There’s actual colour, he can touch things, and it’s so much more beautiful than the cave! He even sees, for the first time, the sun.
A new person, the prisoner walks back into the cave. He has to free his friends and show them the real world! In comparison to the outside world, the cave is dark and dingy. The prisoner stumbles, because he can’t really see. To the others in the cave, he looks like a total fool. They don’t believe his stories about the outside world, calling him names and showing their superiority because they know more phantoms.
Plato’s explanation of this allegory is that the person who escapes is a philosopher once he sees the sun, the light of reason. He then goes back and tries to explain what he saw, but faces ridicule, much like all truth-tellers do.
I think that makes regular people like you and me the people stuck in the cave, bragging about things that we don’t fully understand? And we’re stuck there? I guess some allegories aren’t meant to be taken too far (although that might depend on Plato’s mood when he was writing this, who knows, he might have just met the town fool).
The essential meaning behind Plato’s allegory is to get more people out of the cave, and get them to start thinking deeply, like philosophers. He also believed that only philosophers could truly think. He created the Academy because of this, a place where people could go to learn not just math and language, but how to think, act, and be a good person (wow school has degraded since then). Plato’s intention was to make everyone think like he did, not with the same views, but the same logical and reasoning style.
If Plato were alive today, he would probably be publicly denouncing our entire parliamentary system, starting with voting. I don’t mean the whole 2016 U.S. presidential election thing, I mean the actual process. Plato believed that you only deserved a vote if you actually put deep thought into it. He also believed that most people couldn’t think deeply, which is why he made the Academy, etc., etc. The point is, Plato would only have the wisest people be in power, not as a dictatorship, but doing what’s best for their people and thinking about the magnitude of their actions. With great power comes great responsibility (I’m not quoting Plato here). The really interesting thing is that 2000 years later, Plato’s theory still holds true, and that probably is the best form of government (pointing no fingers at the 2016 election).
Plato’s views on why we like things, and why we love the people we do, are actually very interesting. He proposes that everything and everyone has certain qualities, and we like things and people that have qualities we don’t.
This is the part where you think about that sentence for 30 seconds and realize how it makes so much sense! I like my computer because it can record information I want it to, and all I have to do is press a few buttons. I don’t have buttons (duh). It can access the Internet, etc., etc., etc. and I can’t. I like my wallet, because it can hold money, my earbuds, because I can’t direct sound from my computer to my ears without annoying anyone else at will, and so much more!
Plato is one of the greatest philosophers ever to live, up there with Kant, Aristotle, and the like. His ideas and theories have survived over 2000 years for a reason: they work. His philosophies are still applicable today, and that, in and of itself, makes him one of the best philosophers ever.