Throughout human history, philosophers have attempted to determine the best way to promote intellectual freedom and allow individuals to break free from intellectual oppression and increase their enlightenment levels. In their analysis of these questions, philosophers have developed numerous different theories that have been applied over time. The merits of various philosophical views are debated intensely among scholars, with some ideas accepted, and others ultimately becoming discredited as society changes, and new facts about life are discovered. An example of a philosopher who explored these ideas was Plato, a Greek philosopher who is largely considered one of the founding figures in Western philosophical thought. Plato first explored how philosophy promotes freedom and intellectual curiosity in The Allegory of the Cave, a section in his philosophical treatise The Republic. The Allegory of the Cave illustrates the human situation as a parable about ignorance and learning.
Plato begins his discussion in The Allegory of the Cave by describing the condition of human ignorance as akin to prisoners living in a cave deep underground with the inability to move freely within the cave. The cave is also mentioned as devoid of all forms of visible light. The only form of visible light in the cave is a fire that reflects the shadows from objects and individuals passing by onto the cave walls. Additionally, the echo inherent to the cave results in the sounds of individuals or objects either passing the cave or inside the cave to be reflected. This would result in the prisoners to talk to the shadows even though the shadows are not real. As such, the prisoners’ reality is only the reflection of the shadows and the echoes of their voices and other sounds.
Plato next discusses what might happen when the former prisoner decides to leave the cave for the first time. The fact that the individual has to climb from the bottom part of the cave to higher ground is akin to the fact that the pursuit of knowledge often places an individual at a higher level of consciousness and increases their level of clarity regarding society and the world in general. Once outside of the cave, the former prisoner is also described to have their eyes blinded by the light from the sun. The fact that the sunlight burns the eyes of the former prisoner may also be an illusion to the fact that newfound knowledge at times can be overwhelming for an individual and result in their initial rejection of new knowledge. Once they are at the outside world and accustomed to numerous facets of life, the former prisoner will begin to realize that the reality they experienced in the cave is false.
Plato is correct in saying that educated people are treated as outcasts by other individuals who lack education or the initiative to pursue higher knowledge and wisdom levels. Societal institutions such as the educational system and the media at their core do not value critical thinking and critical analysis. Instead, it emphasizes presenting facts in such a manner that prevents individuals from questioning the nature of reality and the way life works. In turn, these societal institutions reinforce oppression and allow the status quo to continue without a critical examination of its very nature. Through the exposure to new ideas and concepts, a person accustomed to the structure created through societal institutions will soon realize that there is more to life than what they previously understood. By taking their newfound perspectives on life and applying to their thought processes, an individual, in effect, is challenging the status quo and many of the perceptions that numerous individuals hold. As such, they will be considered by society as outcasts and non-conformists due to their questioning the information they have been taught from an early age.
In conclusion, the importance of philosophy is discussed by Plato in The Allegory of the Cave. By explaining the pursuit of knowledge through the perspective of an individual escaping from imprisonment in a dark cave and journeying to the outside world, Plato is promoting the belief that intellectual curiosity and critical thinking is akin to liberating oneself from the chains of societal oppression and earning a newfound level of freedom. Additionally, by stating that the former prisoner will be looked at in a negative light by the remaining prisoners assuming that he travels back to the cave, Plato is pointing to the fact that society itself does not value intellectual curiosity and tends to view individuals who value the traits of knowledge and wisdom as non-conformists who will question the most basic elements of societal fabric.