Allegory of the Cave / Cave Art
Allegory of the Cave / Cave Art
Allegory of the Cave / Cave Art
Allegory of the Cave / Cave Art
Allegory of the Cave / Cave Art

Allegory of the Cave / Cave Art

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Plato’s Republic is a Socratic dialogue concerning justice in the context of examining the character of the just man and the order of a just polity.

Written in 380 BC, The Republic essentially consists of Socrates discussing the meaning and nature of justice with various men, speculating how different hypothetical cities, underpinned by different forms of justice, would fare. Plato’s solution is a definition of justice that appeals to human psychology rather than supposed behaviour.

In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates elaborates upon the immediately preceding Analogies of the Sun and of the Divided Line in the Allegory of the Cave, in which he insists that the psyche must be freed from bondage to the visible/sensible world by making the painful journey into the intelligible world. 

In the Analogy of the Sun Plato's Republic uses the sun as a metaphor for the source of "illumination", arguably intellectual illumination, which he held to be The Form of the Good. The metaphor is about the nature of ultimate reality and how we come to know it. 

The eye, Plato says, is unusual among the sense organs in that it needs a medium, namely light, in order to operate. He argues that for the other senses to be used all that is needed is the sense itself and that which can be sensed by it (e.g., to taste sweetness, one needs the sense of taste and that which can be tasted as sweet), but "even if a person's eyes are capable of sight, and he's trying to use it, and what he's trying to look at is coloured, the sight will see nothing and the colours will remain unseen, surely, unless there is also present an extra third thing which is made specifically for this purpose." The strongest and best source of light is the sun; with it, we can discern objects clearly. Analogous things, he writes, can be said of intelligible objects (i.e., the fixed and eternal forms that are the ultimate objects of scientific and philosophical study).

The Analogy of the Divided Line is a visual metaphor for Plato's ontological (and epistemological) view of the Universe. Reality is divided into two basic parts: the invisible, unchanging realm of universals (or Ideas also sometimes called Forms), and the visible, ever-changing realm of particulars (i.e., physical objects). Each of these two realms may be sub-divided giving us four realms of being and cognition. 

The lowest region is the realm of images (eikones) or reflections of physical objects which are cognized through the faculty of imagination (eikasia). Next is the realm of physical objects which are cognized through opinion or trust (pistis). The next level is the realm of mathematical objects (or what we would call abstract ideas) which are cognized through intellect (dianoia). Finally there is the realm of ideas which are cognized through reason (noesis). These four realms represent the ontological hierarchy of Plato's middle metaphysics.

In the Republic, Plato gives the famous Allegory of the Cave to further clarify the ontological and epistemological doctrines implied in the divided line. 

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato begins by having Socrates ask Glaucon to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from childhood. 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. 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. This can be compared to how illusions are made with light and sound today, with electronics, videos, movies, and 3D visuals. 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.

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.

Plato continues: "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 only see shadows. Gradually he can see the reflections of people and things in the reflection of the 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. In other words, he would encounter another "realm", a place incomprehensible because, theoretically, it is the source of a higher reality than the one we have always known; it is the realm of pure Form, pure fact.

Cave Art
The most ancient evidence of the production of art predates the generally accepted earliest dates for the appearance of modern humans. Cup marks and a meandering line were etched into a sandstone cave in India two or three hundred thousand years ago. Line markings on bone, teeth, ivory and bone of equal antiquity are known from the campsites of archaic humans.

Sculpture, in the form of modified natural forms, has been dated to 250-300,000 years ago in the Near East. An early archaeologically discernible behavior that seems to lack practical purpose is the use of hematite or ochre, the red mineral pigment. This activity dates to several hundred thousand years ago in southern Africa. Although no rock paintings of such great antiquity are known, ochre is later evidenced as a rock art pigment.


Some 200 caves in southwestern France and northern Spain (the French-Cantabrian area) contain cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period. These are radiocarbon dated from 32,410 at Chauvet to 11,600 at Le Portel. By 30,000 years ago rock art included hand stencils, complex finger markings and two-dimensional paintings. Also by 30,000 years ago perspective, shading, outlining of animal forms and the depiction of movement are all evidenced. And the pigments demonstrate considerable effort and complexity of formulation.

Physicists Michel Menu and Philippe Walter studied the residues of red and black paint in engraved bone objects along with charcoal remains from the cave of La Vache. They used scanning electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and proton-induced X-ray emission to examine the physical and chemical properties of the pigments. Radiocarbon dating established that the paintings are between 12,000 and 13,000 years old. The red pigment was hematite and the black was manganese dioxide. More interestingly the extender was a mixture of biotite and feldspar. Biotite and feldspar do not occur together. The specific recipe of combined ingredients used by the painters was also found in neighboring caves in the same valley. Additionally, quartz grinding stones with pigment residue were found in the caves. There was also evidence of technique. A charcoal layer under the black manganese indicated a preliminary sketch was undertaken.

Rock art constitutes the greatest body of evidence of the intellectual life of our ancestors. According to Robert G. Bednarik, "Prehistoric rock art is by far the largest body of evidence we have of humanity's artistic, cognitive and cultural beginnings. It is found in most countries of the world, from the tropics to the Arctic regions, in sites ranging from deep caves to high mountains. Many tens of millions of rock art figures or motifs have been found, and more are being discovered each year. This massive, semi-permanent and cumulative record is the most direct evidence we have of how pre-humans first became human and then evolved complex social systems."

Rock art also represents our earliest evidence of the development of systems of symbols. Present day writing systems and alphabets derive, at least in part, from simplification of drawings of objects. This process is one of reduction of the image to a simple geometric representation. Numerous symbolic geometric symbols and dots and lines are found along with the better known representational paintings of the Paleolithic.

The meanings of the representational art have been the subject of academic speculation for decades. In the 1920s noted French prehistorian Abbe Henri Breuil interpreted the art as an expression of hunting magic. Breuil's viewpoint was based on anthropological observations of the Arunta aborigines in Australia. The Arunta painted kangaroos to ensure a plentiful supply of prey in rituals comparable to those of other foraging populations.

Leroi-Gourhan subdivided Paleolithic art into successive styles and equated older with more rudimentary. His Style I, the oldest, was defined as archaic and crude. This progressivist theory of evolution from rudimentary to sophisticated has recently met with the contradictory evidence cited above, overturning the application of styles to dating and site sequencing. The most sophisticated techniques, shading, outlining and representation of movement, are now known to have existed in the earliest Paleolithic art in Europe, more than 30,000 years ago. Leroi-Gourhan's supposition has been empirically disproved by the discoveries of Chauvet Cave and the advent of the new method of radiocarbon dating, Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS). AMS has made dating of very small amounts of organic material possible.

This new understanding fits well with the fact that there is no discernible change in subject matter over time. Pairing of animals and symbols appears in the earliest art and persists. The representational art depicts the large mammals of Ice Age Europe, the occasional human, and the more frequent stenciled handprints. The large variety of signs and symbols, the non-representational category of the art, is rarely given much attention. However the signs are greater in number than the figures, and perhaps in interpretive importance. While the artists continually attempted to accurately depict the animals, contrastingly the symbols underwent a process of geometrization.

^ Photograph of the rock wall at Turao Kula.

^^The same photograph after digital enhancement

"The Paintings at Turao Kula are important to the community because the express oral tradition of a historic and true story that happened before. It was retold by our elders–many now deceased–and now we can see the story on the rock. Finding the paintings has brought joy to the community because it can now be shared with people of a different culture. This beautiful thing that I see is that we can share our culture, and people who come in contact with us share part of us."

Entoptic phenomena

In archaeology, the term entoptic phenomena relates to visual experiences derived from within the eye or brain (as opposed to externally, as in normal vision). In this respect they differ slightly from the medical definition, which defines entoptic phenomena as only applying to sources within the eye, not the brain. 

There has been a great deal of work trying to find evidence of motifs and compositions derived from entoptic phenomena in prehistoric art, especially rock art and megalithic art. The justification of this research is that entoptic phenomena normally occur during states of altered consciousness, the practice of which may impact our views of ancient religious and social practice. The importance of looking outside traditional methods of research for interpreting prehistoric cultures is made more so due to the lack of abundant data which makes current cultural studies viable. "Art and the ability to comprehend it are more dependent on kinds of mental imagery and the ability to manipulate mental images than on intelligence."