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Plato begins by having Socrates ask Glaucon to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from childhood (important to note that they were (based on text) imprisoned from childhood not from birth).These prisoners are chained so that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them and not look around at the cave, each other, or themselves (514a–b).They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind.
Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall.
The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners.
In his pain, Plato continues, the freed prisoner would turn away and run back to what he is accustomed to (that is, the shadows of the carried objects). it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him." "Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. Gradually he can see the reflections of people and things in water and then later see the people and things themselves.
Eventually, he is able to look at the stars and moon at night until finally he can look upon the sun itself (516a).") Plato continues, saying that the freed prisoner would think that the world outside the cave was superior to the world he experienced in the cave and attempt to share this with the prisoners remaining in the cave attempting to bring them onto the journey he had just endured; "he would bless himself for the change, and pity [the other prisoners]" and would want to bring his fellow cave dwellers out of the cave and into the sunlight (516c).
Socrates suggests that the shadows are reality for the prisoners because they have never seen anything else; they do not realize that what they see are shadows of objects in front of a fire, much less that these objects are inspired by real things outside the cave which they do not see (514b-515a).
The fire, or human made light, and the puppets, used to make shadows, are done by the artists.
Even if these interpretations (or, in Kantian terminology, intuitions) are an absurd misrepresentation of reality, we cannot somehow break free from the bonds of our human condition—we cannot free ourselves from phenomenal state just as the prisoners could not free themselves from their chains.
If, however, we were to miraculously escape our bondage, we would find a world that we could not understand—the sun is incomprehensible for someone who has never seen it.
The prisoners, according to Plato, would infer from the returning man's blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey.
Plato concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave (517a).