Human's Meaning In The Allegory Of The Cave

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A fundamental question of our existence is what makes a human being a human being? What concretely defines the division between man and all other living creatures. While the answer seems straightforward, the debate of the components of human beings was a controversy between ancient philosophers. In the philosophical works of both Plato and Aristotle, they argue for the importance of human virtue and the soul as the key ingredients for humanity. Due to Aristotle and Plato’s dualistic philosophies, they proposed that humans are comprised of essentially two main tenets. Pertaining to philosophy, Dualism centers itself on the belief that there are essentially two fundamental categories or principles that make up a greater thing. In the philosophical argument of what is a human being, the two philosophers believed that we are made up of the material and immaterial. They supposed that while the physical body is material, it has the ability to hold within itself a soul. It is because of these two principles that humans exist according to Plato and Aristotle. By investigating the two formulations, we might gain a deeper understanding on the contrasting ideals and foundations of what it takes to be a human being.

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Plato’s definition of being a human consists of two main parts: the body and the soul. He further posits that the soul is an indestructible force that exists eternally before birth and after death. In order for this cycle to continue from body to body, a human must attain knowledge throughout their existence on Earth. In Plato’s “The Republic”, he presents the Allegory of the Cave, a scenario which depicts humans as oblivious and unintelligible. The basic premise of the Allegory of the Cave is that in a hypothetical situation, humans are bound by chains and unable to perceive anything around them except for the shadows cast by figures adjacent to a fire. Plato makes a direct correlation to human beings and their roles as prisoners in the cave. Until humans are free from the chains of the material world, we lack the ability to fully understand anything. Here, Plato presents the way human beings perceive their surroundings. When a man escapes from his chains, he “would remember that there are two kinds of disturbances of the eyes, stemming from two sources- when they have been transferred from light to darkness and when they have transferred from darkness to light” (The Republic 517a). The absence of light, or knowledge, keeps a person from being “human”. In Book VII of “The Republic,” Plato presents this argument to explain the inability of humans to process anything without the presence of a greater being, the sun in this instance. Declaring the sun as a gateway to true understanding implies that a philosopher might have the same ability to educate a human just as the sun does to the prisoners. In order for a person to reach their intellectual potential, a philosopher must instruct and guide them. While the central idea of the Allegory of the Cave makes sense, he portrays the humans as unable to seek truth, not unwilling, which I maintain to be false. I believe that humans consistently strive to become better versions of themselves. Not only is there a no possibility for humans to seek truth for themselves, the central idea in Bok VII disagrees with other points he has made in the same work as well as others he has written.

The problem with portraying these humans as blind and ignorant to the outside world is that previously in the “The Republic” and as well as “Phaedo”, Plato argues that humans have an innate intellectual ability even before birth. Through his portrayal of Socrates in “Phaedo,” Plato argues that a person should be “firmly convinced that he [humans] will not find pure knowledge anywhere except there,” with “there” referring to death (Phaedo 68b). In order to have a soul and be human, knowledge is crucial. Plato defends an argument that collapses on itself. His assertion of the omniscient soul seems false when he refers to death as the ultimate way to gain intelligence. Plato would agree that once a human being dies and the soul exits the body, it is no longer part of this world. So how would humans be educated to the highest degree if it means they must go through the process of death? Plato claims that those bound by chains in the cave have a lesser understanding of reality. This means that those with intelligence, philosophers, are the only beings that could have a soul and are therefore the only beings that could be classified as human. This even puts into perspective on what truth really is. Who is qualified, other than philosophers, to define a legitimate meaning of reality and truth? Plato only references philosophers as the singular group to have the capacity to be knowledgeable, even stating that the common man “is unable to put knowledge and lack of knowledge and imitation to the test, seeming all wise” (The Republic, Book X 598 d). Plato’s claim not only contradicts itself, it is altogether biased, for he himself is a philosopher. He puts philosophers on a different plane, pedestalizing their role in society, ultimately defeating the purpose of the existence of a soul in a common man. Plato’s Socrates even denounces the established poet Homer for his lack of education. He goes as far to say that Homer is an “imitator of the phantoms of virtue” and “doesn’t lay hold of the truth” (The Republic, Book X 600e). If such a man like Homer doesn’t have the ability to understand truth and virtue, thereby not deserving of a soul, does that mean philosophers are the only ones capable of attaining true wisdom? If even a recognized individual like Homer doesn’t deserve to be human, how can any of us be?

While Plato correlates intelligence with the soul, Aristotle’s view on the soul’s purpose differs greatly in that he believed that the notion of virtue enhances a soul. He asserts that courage and wisdom are the fundamentals of human virtue. The virtue of anything that has a soul serves as a moral compass towards their actions. This essentially equates virtue with self-control, making it so that man is inherently good. It follows that if a person does something that is considered bad, it really isn’t so because what they want and do comes from the intention of doing good. So, would a murderer be considered virtuous if killing was his idea of good? The whole idea of virtue relates to the Aristotelian idea that the soul corresponds with knowledge. Aristotle states in “De Anima” that “the soul is the same sort of actuality that knowing is” (De Anima 411-23). This conception of human virtue then simplifies down to knowing the good, and completing actions that bring out the most good within a person. This puts into question what is good and bad. Who makes the clear-cut definition of “the good?” It seems that the standard of the good is an idea that is exclusive to philosophers and philosophers only. I find this to be a huge problem because if someone is not in the know of the good, they should still be capable of having a soul. Unlike Plato who doesn’t prioritize learning, Aristotle explains that an individual can be educated in the means of virtue. What is right and what is wrong can be communicated between philosopher and man. As a proponent for education, with truth and virtue as part of his ideal curriculum, Aristotle also believed that subjects other than philosophy, such as mathematics and politics, were necessary. Because he vouches for a holistic education, this might go against his idea of what the soul is comprised of. Aristotle’s idea of the soul is that it is an immaterial force that is completely separate from the body. How does a human being fully nourish the soul when they partake in courses that bring out their urges? If humans bring themselves to care about Earthly things, for example politics, won’t their soul suffer? This circles back to the previous discussion of how knowledge is alike to the soul. If philosophers are the only humans qualified to educate others on virtue, how can all of mankind then be innately good? If the soul is a form of knowledge, shouldn’t philosophers realize that non-philosophers can be unconditionally virtuous. Aristotle essentially limits a human’s ability to be and do good, making it nearly impossible for a human being to become genuinely virtuous.

Despite the fact that the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of the soul overlap, there are fundamental differences between the two theories. To start with the idea of virtue, the two philosophers’ ideals and sources of virtue differ completely. For Aristotle, virtue comes from being educated and knowledgeable. The idea of virtue not only intertwines with the immaterial soul but also is associated with the body. A human must go through the process of learning about what it means to be good, making it so that even those that are not philosophers can attain knowledge, and therefore a soul. Yet for Plato, the idea of the soul comes from knowing the Form of the Good. Only from knowing the good can one be virtuous and have a soul. Repeatedly, Plato mentions how the body relies on the immaterial soul. The soul is considered to be the bringer of not only life, but knowledge. Plato defends the claim that humans are inherently knowledgeable as soon as they are born. He assumes that human beings possess knowledge without even having to go through the process of actually experiencing life and learning, contrasting greatly to Aristotle’s thought that education is a necessity. Someone, a philosopher, that possesses knowledge of the good should be able to determine the good in all their decisions consistently, thus being unconditionally virtuous. But what of those that aren’t philosophers? It is here that Plato fails to convince me that humans are naturally educated and virtuous. By connecting virtue with the form of the good, Plato automatically limits a human’s understanding of the good, making it impossible for a human being to be fully virtuous. However, Aristotle finds that being virtuous is actually possible and it is on this basis that I slightly agree with Aristotle over Plato. The fact that human virtue can be actualized in a human being creates an explicit contrast to the Platonic formulation of the human soul. While on the surface these two ideologies appear to be similar, at the core the two theories diverge from each other, further continuing the debate on the nature of humans.  

29 April 2022

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