The ever-flickering lights, the ever-present screen, the stupefied spectators immune to a larger reality and in need of sudden enlightenment—Plato’s allegory of the cave from Book VII of The Republic is a marketing department’s dream: it sums up an entire brand in a stock-simple parable that almost anyone can follow, one that lends itself to compellingly brief visual interpretations like those above and below. In the top video, Orson Welles narrates while the camera pans over some colorfully stylized illustrations of the fable by artist Dick Oden. This preserves the didactic tone of the text, but it is a little dry. In contrast, the award-winning three-dimensional renderings of the prisoners and their nonstop nickelodeon in the Claymation Cave Allegory below offers dramatic close-ups of the chained prisoner’s faces and the hypnotic movement of firelight over the cave’s rock walls.
Plato’s “brand” is a doctrine of idealism that posits a realm of ideal forms, of which everything we know by our senses is but an inferior copy. The ironically poetic Socrates relates the story to illustrate “the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature.” And yet it does much more than this—Plato illustrates an epistemology that supports notions of the soul and immortality, and hence his ideas survived in theology long after they was supposedly vanquished by analytic philosophy.
Plato’s idea of reason as a perfect, unchanging realm of which we’re only dimly aware is intuitively compelling. Most of us are at some time conscious of how limited our perceptions truly are. But just because the allegory of the cave is fairly easy to communicate to philosophy 101 students doesn’t mean it’s easy to adapt to the screen like the two examples above. Mark Linsenmayer of The Partially Examined Life points us toward these 20 YouTube takes on Plato’s cave, “many of them,” he writes, “frightfully amateurish and some of them presenting a warped and/or incomprehensible version of the story.” I am particularly intrigued by the silent film version below. As always, your comments on the soundness of these various interpretations are most welcome.