Sample Essay by Dr. Jan Garrett
Introductory note written September 10, 2009
This sample is a bit misleading for the Fall 2009 Introduction to Philosophy course because it does not (directly) address philosophy of human nature or the Plato texts now being used in the course, although it does refer to another text by Plato, the Cave Allegory from book vii of Plato’s Republic. (A version of the Allegory of the Cave may be found on the course website under “Study Materials on Plato.”)
But I think you may find it a useful example in the following respects. It discusses main points being made by the author of the passage. It uses complete sentences. It avoids plagiarism. It avoids unusually long paragraphs. It tries to be complete within the limits of space. It brings in relevant explanatory material that the student might have picked up from the textbook or lecture but which is not explicitly in the text itself. It provides student information at the beginning of the text.
(nnn is section number)
January 14, 2008
Word count: 648
The Allegory of the Cave
The Cave Allegory seems to presume questions about the human condition between (relative) ignorance and enlightenment, appearance and reality: What is our current condition? How might it be improved? What would improvement consist in? What are the obstacles? What does wisdom lead us to do?
The answer is presented in the context of an allegory or parable, which tells of a movement from darkness to light, from being imprisoned in a Cave to being free in the Outside or Upper World. Many of the items in the allegory and the allegory as a whole stand for something else, with relative darkness standing for ignorance, increasing illumination standing for growing wisdom, and the Sun standing for the source of all truth or reality.
One of Plato’s points is that, as ascent is a movement or process, so philosophy is a process, a search for wisdom. Enlightenment proceeds in stages, corresponding to the original situation of the prisoner, the situation of the prisoner who sees the fire and realizes the source of the shadows, the long journey up, seeing things by moonlight, then by sunlight, then finally gazing at the sun. The prisoner is fully enlightened when he realizes that the sun is the source of all other realities or semi-realities, such as the shadows in the Cave, even the Fire (source of light) in the Cave.
The prisoners who stay shackled in the Cave are accustomed to their situation and resist being released. They do not even know there is a higher truth. If they are told about it, then do not understand it. They do not want to turn around, because brightness is painful; even when they are released in the Cave, they resist the long trek to the upper world. But at least some can become accustomed to greater light, and when they are, they are grateful for having been led up.
The released prisoner who has been to the upper world wants to return and liberate his fellow prisoners. So also it is natural for one who has been enlightened to wish to share it with less enlightened persons. Yet when he tries to lead them up, he risks losing his life. This is a reference to what actually happened to Socrates.
The Cave Allegory is a concise representation of Plato’s philosophy as a whole, which is spelled out in other places. Here I can only note that the things illuminated by the Sun in daylight probably stand for the Platonic Forms, objects of knowledge that are more real than physical bodies. The prisoner who has gone up stands for the wise person.
Plato is a rationalist who regards reason here as a tool of inquiry. It is reason, in the form of persistent Socratic questioning with an at least somewhat willing conversation-partner, that can “lead us up.” Since he regards reason is the human being’s characteristic and most important quality, Plato is committed to the first and perhaps most important proposition of the Traditional Rationalist View of Human Nature.
Plato is an epistemological optimist, because he thinks we can come to know ultimate truths (just as the released prisoner can make it all the way up and finally comprehend the role of the Sun), although doing so is difficult. In this respect, he is opposed by epistemological pessimists or skeptics (who deny we can know reality).
The prisoners’ chains seem to represent the biases with which our bodily senses or societal myths bind the individual who is unenlightened. The shadows made by puppet masters may refer to the stories told us by the masters of public opinion who themselves have no knowledge but in their unwisdom try to maintain us in greater unwisdom.
The obvious practical message is: Enlightenment is a good thing, but to reach it one will have to proceed stage by stage, painfully to overcome obstacles, and abandon old habits and prejudices.