Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” Essay

Plato’s “allegory of the cave” is a metaphor for human life and the effect of education on the human character and spirit. While most of us are not familiar with the allegory of the cave, most of us have read or at least heard of the enormously popular Harry Potter series. At first sight, it might seem that a modern day fictional story about witchcraft and wizardry might have little to do with platonic musings on societal governance. But if we look a little deeper, we could find many similarities the main one being the creation of an artificial society with specific norms, rules, and circumstances. Both the harsh reality of the cave, and the magical world inhabited by Muggles and wizards alike, are environments which form the individuals living within them according to what is allowed, possible, and desirable.

Despite the influence of the surroundings, however, some exceptional individuals escape the cave, fight against dark magic, and discover new forms of understanding, sorcery and being. It seems that to be exceptional one must either acquire new skills and knowledge or be born extraordinary. Similar to Plato’s ideal city, there are individuals in the world of J. K. Rowling’s books, who stopped at certain levels of development and act accordingly. Let us look at Plato’s four stages of knowledge, and try to associate each of them with a character from the Harry Potter series. This analysis will help us to understand how individuals in each of the stages are likely to behave in their reality and what qualities within a person are expected to lead them to toward the fourth stage of enlightenment.

According to G. M. A. Grube’s translation of Plato’s allegory of the cave, there are four stages of knowledge which an individual goes through on the way to enlightenment. The first step is associated with the complete lack of education, when “the prisoners are at the bottom of the cave” (Plato,17). In this stage, they are bound by their unnecessary and appetitive desires, which attach them to the world of ignorance.

In the second step toward knowledge, the prisoners are educated in art or craft. Once they have received this training, they can view the world more explicitly. They can now see the real objects and not just their reflections on the walls of the cave, and they are free of their unnecessary desires and continue having only necessary ones. (Plato,17)

In the third stage, the prisoners are educated in mathematics, which allows them to let go of their necessary appetites and embrace active ones. Once this has happened, they can exit the cave, free of their bondage, and see the world for themselves. According to Plato, the fourth and final liberating step on the journey toward knowledge is the study of dialectics and practical city management. Through it, people can let go of their spirited desires and become governed by rational ones alone. Those who have gotten this far may see the good itself, which is related to all their previous experiences. (Plato,17) Now that we have outlined the four stages of knowledge according to Plato, we may proceed to relate each of them to a character from the Harry Potter series.

As already stated, the least favorable state of the individual from a Platonic perspective is the one in which they are completely ignorant and uneducated. This way of being is related to a complete lack of attitude toward the world, and a presence of appetitive desires. Provided we were to accept Plato’s definition and relate these traits to a character present in Harry Potter; it would have to be Uncle Vernon. Harry’s uncle is without a doubt a very fortunate man. He owns a beautiful house, a car, and is somewhat wealthy, but a significant question arises here. If one is professionally successful, but deprived of emotional intelligence and the ability to accept new ways of thinking and life, is it possible for this individual to advance and learn?

Although he is aware of the magical world, Mr. Dursley is firmly determined to squeeze the magic out of Harry. Any hint of anything out of the ordinary drives the head of the Dursley family wild. He is just unable and unwilling to understand magic, in the real or metaphorical sense. When Harry gets his first letter from Hogwarts, he is terrified and helpless to believe that something like this could catch up with them after all these years. He cannot understand that it is best for a young wizard to live in his world, surrounded by magic. The only thing he can say is: “I’m not having one in the house, Petunia! Didn’t we swear when we took him in we’d stamp out that dangerous nonsense?” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 31-32)This response to a world outside the “cave” of Vernon’s understanding is a clear sign of how stuck he is in his ignorance and lack of empathy. His desires are indeed limited to the material world in which he lives; he is only capable of seeing the shadows of what truly matters in life.

A character fit for the second stage of the learning cycle would be professor Umbridge. She is a character “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” who has received a magical education but cannot move above her desire to control all situations and rise in her career as a Ministry of Magic official. She has an excellent occult knowledge, but she has far from being increased above her desires to advance in her career at the expense of others. She is still capable of punishing students in the cruelest of fashions and is far from seeing the genuine good will of Dumbledore, whose primary concern is the well-being of the students and that of the whole magical world. Umbridge is still stuck with the attitude of the cave, even though she can see the objects for herself she does not yet have the whole picture.

The Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge fits the third step of the knowledge path. When he finally gets the necessary proof of the return of Lord Voldemort, he exits the metaphorical cave and can see the sunlight and the world as it is. We could say that the minister’s desires are necessary ones because even in his delusion and refusal to accept the fact that the Dark Lord has returned. He is determined to do all that he can to safeguard the magical community. Even though his methods are wrong, once he has learned the “mathematical” truth of the return of Voldemort, he reforms his behavior to encompass his new knowledge. His desires become spirited with the understanding of the fact, and he is liberated from the ones which he thought to be necessary before.

It is rare that a person reaches the fourth final stage of knowledge and can pay attention only to the rational part of their wanting. To see the truth and goodness in the world and understand how things function, one needs to have not only the necessary knowledge but also the right qualities. Such a character, who can watch over the happenings in this world, is Albus Dumbledore. Throughout the series of books, we are given the impression that the headmaster of Hogwarts is everywhere. He is all knowing and knows the kind of magic even Voldemort can only dream. He is the only person the Dark Lord fears and is undoubtedly one of the kindest wizards and one that loves Harry dearly. Dumbledore has a bird’s eye view on life itself, so great is his thought and ability to see the whole picture, that he says: “…to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 215)

The journey through the stages of human knowledge as described by Plato is closely related to the trip toward self-awareness. In a world where people are allowed to explore their full potential, instead of being bound in a cave, we can see how far each one is capable of going. We are not all destined to make the final step toward wisdom, not even in a world where magic exists.

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Plato. (1992). Plato: Republic. Translated by Grube, G. M. A. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company.
Rowling, J. K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.