Platos Journey to Knowledge Cave and Divided Line as Roadmap and Destination

A careful reading of Platos Allegory of the Cave and Analogy of the Divided Line demonstrates that his fundamental concern was the gap that existed between things that were visible or knowable through the senses and things that were intelligible or real as a consequence of an understanding of the fixed nature of the forms.  This gap, and how human beings might bridge the gap through the use of deliberate intellectual processes and reason, he illustrated in very structural and visual ways.  This paper will discuss and analyze the essential characteristics of this gap, how Plato believed the forms could be known through the proper use of the human mind, and the ways in which the cave and the divided line are complementary approaches toward a definition and approach to attaining an understanding of the forms which constitute the true nature or reality of things.

The cave represents a type of darkness and a constraint within which the human mind is simply incapable of employing reason or knowing the actuality of objects.  Reason cannot be employed because the prisoners cannot move their heads and the substantive reality of objects cannot be known because the prisoners are limited to the use of the senses without any corresponding use of the minds higher intellectual reasoning processes.  The shadows are merely visible representations perceived by sight.  Plato intends three main commentaries in this respect.  First, he intends to argue that there is an absolute difference between things perceived and things that are actually intelligible or knowable.  Second, he intends to show that the forms and knowledge cannot be obtained through the use of the senses.  The sensory world, in his view, is misleading and inaccurate.  Third, the reality of things and the forms can only be characterized as things that are intelligible.  This notion of intelligibility, in turn, implies a blind allegiance to the senses and demands a certain type of reasoning process signaled by the prisoners being allowed to walk out of the cave.  This reasoning process, the constituent components of Platos intelligibility concept, is detailed in more depth in the divided line analogy for purposes of understanding the cave allegory, however, the dominant theme is that human beings are cloaked in a darkness representing ignorance because it is the mind rather than the senses that ultimately leads to understanding and a clearer appreciation of the abstractly fixed nature of the forms.  Plato notes that the prisoners, when released from the cave, ascend to the sunlight and then realize that they have been deceived by their senses.  This reinforces the distinction drawn between things perceived visually and the contrary reality of things, but it does not answer how these realities can be known through the use of the minds powers of imagination, thought, belief, and understanding.  This process, very much akin to a mental journey from ignorance to understanding, is more precisely illustrated through Platos divided line.

The divided line, in a very real way, seems to function as Platos theoretical roadmap for escaping from the darkness and ignorance of the cave to the understanding of the forms symbolized by the sunlight.  This intellectual roadmap, in turn, is defined with reference to a series of intellectual capacities and steps through which understanding can be achieved.  Ascending to this type of understanding, the highest truth in Platos framework, is to understand the fixed ideas that are reality.  He refers to these fixed realities, the understandings of which are attained through a series of intellectual processes, as the forms.  The Theory of Forms is therefore the purest set of truths, understandable through the processes set forth on the divided line rather than through the misleading senses, and human knowledge of the real world demands a dedication and commitment to these intellectual processes and a transcendence of each intellectual level of the divided line until understanding is secured.  The visible section of the divided line represents only images of reality because what is visible or known is simply the product of the senses.

This part of the line has no true knowledge and it also describes the prisoners as they are sitting in the cave staring at the shadows.  Here, Plato basically equates sensory perception with imagination because only images are visible or known.  This is Platos purest state of ignorance.  The next step along the line is belief at this point, the human mind develops common identification patterns but is still lacking any intellectual reasons to legitimize the reality of these beliefs.  This legitimization process is furthered when the human mind engages in thought toward a type of understanding that transcends mere belief.  This intellectual state is similar to the use of logic, whether of an inductive or deductive nature, and resembles in certain ways what is today generally referred to as the scientific method.  He also used the concept of mathematical objects to reinforce this level of intellectual progression. Finally, Platos divided line culminates in what he refers to as knowledge.  This knowledge is what leads to an accurate understanding of the forms which constitute the real world.

In the final analysis, although the  two pieces of writing are comparatively short, Plato creates an extraordinarily nuanced and sophisticated approach to knowledge and reality.  More, by creating separate visual representations in the form of the cave and the divided line, he sets forth an extraordinarily useful and comprehensible framework within which to challenge his assumptions or agree with his assumptions.  The Allegory of the Cave would not be nearly as significant without Platos having contemplated and written the dialogue related to the divided line.  This is because the cave alone simply represents an unenlightened state of the human mind capable of becoming enlightened.   Nothing in the cave allegory suggests how this enlightenment might be attained specifically quite the contrary, at this point, Plato restricts himself to a descriptive release of the prisoners and a subsequent realization that the shadows were images rather than truths.  It is through the divided line that Plato sought to more carefully elaborate as to how understanding and a true knowledge of the forms could be achieved.  The cave and the divided line therefore function as harmonious and complementary dialogues designed to point out the nature of human ignorance and how this ignorance might be transcended in pursuit of true knowledge and intelligence.  Education is the key component to escaping this ignorance.


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