A Comparative Study of the Meaning of Freedom and Existence in Platos Allegory of the Cave and Sartres Existentialism and Human Emotions

Plato, in his famous cave allegory from Book VII of The Republic, imagines a group of prisoners confined in a subterranean cave like structure where their only glimpse of reality is what is projected to them from outside in the form of shadows. All the prisoners are chained in such a way that neither can they look otherwise nor look at each other while speaking. As a result, they are deprived of every chance to verify even the truth of what they conceive to be reality. Plato likens the phenomenal world that we see around us with this condition of the cave-men. We see only shadows around us, which are but reflections of Ideas  Platos conceptual essence of all existing forms, and usually conceive them as reality. Little do human beings realize that these are but reflections of higher truths that exist not necessarily in the plane of our perception but in higher planes.

Plato then goes on to further his allegory to a situation where one of the cave dwellers is given an opportunity to come out of the cave and perceive reality outside. Plato goes through a very poetic and vivid description of his initial reactions on being let out. He tells of the resistance that his eye would immediately face on being exposed to light, which has been so long used to darkness and then his utter disbelief in perceiving what he sees around him as true, as it is the shadows that he has long believed to be truth. However, if once, through courage and grit, he trains his eyes to get accustomed to the light outside he would understand the truth of things, as well as the falsity of the reality as it is understood in the cave. This is where Plato repeats, in a different way, the analogy of the Sun that he used just before he got into this analogy in the same book of The Republic. The Sun, he would understand, states Plato.

This is a very representation of Platos idea of knowledge, which can liberate man from the misconception of considering the phenomenal world around him as reality. However, apart from the very obvious analogy in the allegory, as well as following Platos conclusion of adapting it to the question of his Ideal State, we can come through a different direction, and try and read Platos implied ideas of freedom and meaning of existence in this analogy because that his what brings him closer to modern existentialist philosophers like Sartre.

For Plato, it is understandable from the very premise of the analogy, human existence is primarily considered to be one in captivity. Human beings are as if chained by the fetters of ignorance, considering the shadowy world around them as reality. Neither can they look around themselves, nor can they see the reality, because their ignorance stops them from looking for reality. There is also a jibe that Plato uses here against the traditional rivals of Socrates, the Sophists  who apparently were preaching a false idea of knowledge, which instead of taking human beings closer to the truth were in fact guiding them away from it. However, for Plato, there is a possibility of transcending this ignorance and looking into the truth of things, and that can only be achieved through sound philosophy, which for Plato, is largely revealed and he uses Socrates as an agency for that revelation.

The caution that Plato exercises in this part of the inference is noteworthy. He shows a keen awareness of the opposition and resistance that true knowledge  knowledge of the Ideas and realization of this present world as its imitation (or mimesis)  would face in this world, of which it is indeed a part. There would be resistance both internally and externally. Internally, because it would not be easy for man to accept what he has so long accepted as reality to be a shadow and there would be a natural tendency to turn away from it. Externally, because nobody will be willing to believe him, as nobody else has had any practical vision of that reality. However, Plato is reluctant to keep this theory at the mere level of speculation. His case is an immensely practical one, and although he understands the resistance that this brand of philosophy would face in most human institutions that matter  like the courthouse, he is firm on the belief that only a belief in this is possible to bring about a change in society in any positive way, and finally bring about a practical materialization of The Republic.

Thus, Plato believes the world to be a world of captivity, from which freedom is possible only through knowledge of the Forms. He also believes that life without questioning the reality of things and realizing their unreality is meaningless. Existence can have meaning only if it is understood to be what it is  a life lived within shadows, but one with a potential to search for the reality of things and apply that knowledge in carrying out practical business.

Sartres meaninglessness, which develops upon the existentialist theories of the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, are a far cry from the clear practical and political overtones that are apparent in Platos argument. The meaninglessness is still there, but it is a meaninglessness of a more absolute kind, of which even knowledge appears to be no channel for escape. One point that binds them together is their antagonism to organized religion. Socrates antagonism to the official Greek religion is well known, and is in fact the topic of Platos first and one of the most popular discourses that deal with the trial and execution of Socrates. Sartre writes at a time which is at the same time more liberal and more rigid. In the two and a half centuries that separate the two philosophers, organized religion has gone from strength to strength, building up a discourse of metaphysics much stronger than the mythical tropes that Socrates faced. Its control over the state, over matters political and financial, has become much more covert as well as powerful than the influence that the priests exercised in Platos time. At the same time, Sartre had a privilege over Plato he could publicly propound his philosophy and denounce religion more openly than Plato could possibly do, without fear of corporeal punishment of execution.

Sartres idea of meaninglessness draws from the stock Existential concept of the death of God. It is very important to remember here that Existentialism has an inherent double bind  and it is not necessarily, as it is often thought to be, purely negative philosophy and this double bind was very much in Sartres mind when he considered meaninglessness of existence originating from dissociation from any kind of divine control. Sartre develops from Nietzsches declaration of the death of God. This God is most immediately the Christian God, but can also include divinities as expressed and understood in most organized religions. The immediate consequence of considering a dead God is the fact that human existence is immediately deprived of any purpose. Most religions, and in a broader way most ideologies even when not overtly religious, according to the existentialist thinkers, draw their strength from asserting some purpose for the human race. This purpose is usually seen to be teleological  both in individual as well as in social terms. There is no doubt that this teleology has its roots in the Platonic concept of telos which has been the bedrock of most ensuing Western philosophy. Thus by considering God dead, human being is immediately divorced of any overarching purpose, and ascertaining purpose becomes the sole prerogative of the deciding individual. This is in a nutshell, the basic tenet of Existentialism as developed by Sartre.

The double bind is already apparent in the above formulation. Freedom from purpose means there is no God to look after good and evil, which means there is no necessity of judgment par say  as there is no ultimate authority to ensure that good is rewarded, and that evil is punished. Good and evil loose all meanings as the very structural base of its determination  the will and law of God, is shaken. The world becomes a monster driven only by the principle of self-interest. At the same time, it also means freedom  man is free to do whatever he wants. This freedom is more meaningful than the Christian concept of Free Will which is always judged against the will of God for validity and acceptance, and is finally judged through consequence. This freedom is absolute. An analogy can be drawn with a sailor in the deep, stormy sea, who has lost all maps and compass, and thereby a purpose to his voyage. He will be tossed around in the stormy sea, but at the same time will be free to explore on his own, never knowing where to anchor his vessel. It is this crisis, this co-existence of the positive and the negative aspects of absolute freedom, that is source of the crisis, which we name as Existentialist crisis.

The above study makes it very clear that there is a fundamental difference between Platos idea of existence as reflected in the cave analogy, and Sartres idea of Freedom as expressed in Existentialism and Human Emotions. Plato believes in a kind of ultimate good

the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instruments of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good (Plato, 1976, p.417).

Sartre completely denies any idea of ultimate good, and in fact questions the very definition of good as standing on troubled ideological grounds. The only good is that which at that time is good for an individual, nothing more, and more importantly  nothing less.


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