Plato’s theory of knowledge is found in the Republic, particularly in his discussion of
the image about the myth of the cave. Plato distinguishes between two levels of awareness:
opinion and knowledge. The myth of the cave describes individuals chained deep within the
recesses of a cave. Bound so that vision is restricted, they cannot see one another. The only
thing visible is the wall of the cave upon which appear shadows cast by models or statues of
animals and objects that are passed before a brightly burning fire. Breaking free, one of the
individuals escapes from the cave into the light of day. With the aid of the sun, that person
sees for the first time the real world and returns to the cave with the message that the only
things they have seen are shadows and appearances and that the real world awaits them if
they are willing to struggle free of their bonds. The shadowy environment of the cave
symbolizes for Plato the physical world of appearances. Escape into the sun-filled setting
outside the cave symbolizes the transition to the real world, the world of full and perfect being,
the world of Forms, which is the proper object of knowledge.
Plato established the Forms as arranged hierarchically; the supreme Form is the Form of the
Good, which, like the sun in the myth of the cave. There is a sense in which the Form of the
Good represents Plato’s movement in the direction of an ultimate principle of explanation.
Ultimately, the theory of Forms is intended to explain how one comes to know and also how
things have come to be as they are. In philosophical language, Plato’s theory of Forms is a
theory of knowledge and a theory of being.
The shadows of ourselves are the passive states which we know by thinking.
The learned in the cave are those who possess empirical forms of knowledge
(who know how to make predictions, the doctors who know how to cure
people by using empirical methods, those who know what is going on, etc.).
Their knowledge is nothing but a shadow.
Education, he says, is, according to the generally accepted view of it, nothing
but the forcing of thoughts into the minds of children. For, says Plato, each
person has within himself the ability to think. If one does not understand, this
is because one is held by the chains. Whenever the soul is bound by the
chains of suffering, pleasure, etc. it is unable to contemplate through its own
intelligence the unchanging patterns of things.
No doubt, there are mathematicians in the cave, but their attention is given to
honors, rivalries, competition, etc.
If anyone is not able to understand the unchanging patterns of things, that is
not due to a lack of intelligence; it is due to a lack of moral stamina.
In order to direct one’s attention to the perfect patterns of things, one has to
stop valuing things which are always changing and not eternal.
One can look at the same world, which is before our eyes, either from the
point of view of its relation to time, or from that of its relationship to eternity.
Education means turning the soul in the direction in which it should look, of
delivering the soul from the passions.
Plato’s morality is: Do not make the worst possible mistake of deceiving
yourself. We know that we are acting correctly when the power of thinking is
not hindered by what we are doing. To do only those things which one can
think clearly, and not to do those things which force the mind to have unclear
thoughts about what one is doing. That is the whole of Plato’s morality.