In short: The material world is merely a byproduct of our senses, our representations, and our perceptions, according to the idealist philosophers, who claimed that only human consciousness had a genuine existence. Since all idealist theories inevitably lead to the presence of a higher power that is independent of humans, whether directly or indirectly, idealism and religion are intimately related. Idealism in itself is a metaphysical view that our reality is based upon our own perception. Plato, a major member of the Athens aristocracy, is credited for starting idealism in ancient Greece. He was a pupil of Socrates and the creator of the Academy, an academic institution that ran in Athens from 529 to 387 BC. Plato views the corporeal world as a world of shadows and a feeble reflection of ideas, whereas the actual world is the supersensible world of ideas. The antithesis of idealism was materialism, which was developed by Epicurus as both a philosophy and a way of life.
Idealism in Socrates
Socrates used a technique known as the Socratic method, which allowed the teacher to help the learner learn new information through his or her own logical inferences. Socrates searched for things' essence. Knowing reality's essence was necessary for the comprehension of reality. Socrates held that the soul and body exist in a dualistic relationship and that in order to transcend, a person must learn to control their desires and so reach wisdom, which is unclouded by the senses. Finding the essence of things allowed the soul to properly manage itself. In the Phaedo, a dialogue written by Plato, Socrates declares:
Consider, therefore, my dear, Cebes, if it is not necessarily inferred from all that we have just said that our soul is very similar to the divine, immortal, intelligible, simple, indissoluble, always equal and self-like and that our body perfectly resembles what is human, mortal, sensitive, composed, soluble, always changing and never resembling itself.
Plato's Cave Allegory
Imprisonment in the Cave
Plato begins by having Socrates ask Glaucon to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from childhood, but 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 to look around at the cave, each other, or themselves. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway with a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects or puppets "of men and other living things". The people walk behind the wall so their bodies do not cast shadows for the prisoners to see, but the objects they carry do ("just as puppet showmen have screens in front of them at which they work their puppets". The prisoners cannot see any of what is happening behind them, they are only able to see the shadows cast upon the cave wall in front of them. The sounds of the people talking echo off the walls, and the prisoners believe these sounds come from the shadows.
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. The fire, or human-made light, and the puppets, used to make shadows, are done by the artists. Plato, however, indicates that the fire is also the political doctrine that is taught in a nation state. The artists use light and shadows to teach the dominant doctrines of a time and place. Also, few humans will ever escape the cave. This is not some easy task, and only a true philosopher, with decades of preparation, would be able to leave the cave, up the steep incline. Most humans will live at the bottom of the cave, and a small few will be the major artists that project the shadows with the use of human-made light.
Departure from the Cave
Plato then supposes that one prisoner is freed. This prisoner would look around and see the fire. The light would hurt his eyes and make it difficult for him to see the objects casting the shadows. If he were told that what he is seeing is real instead of the other version of reality he sees on the wall, he would not believe it. 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). He writes
"... 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."
"Suppose... that someone should drag him... by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun." The prisoner would be angry and in pain, and this would only worsen when the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes and blinds him. "Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. First he can see only shadows. 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." Only after he can look straight at the sun "is he able to reason about it" and what it is.
(See also Plato's analogy of the Sun)
Return to the cave
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. The returning prisoner, whose eyes have become accustomed to the sunlight, would be blind when he re-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. 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.
Plato. Rouse, W.H.D. (ed.). The Republic Book VII. Penguin Group Inc. pp. 365–401.
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