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Dialogue In The Socratic Method

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Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
Allegories (a story within a story) are an African trademark. In Socrates’ “The Allegory of the Cave” (Plato’s Republic), we find a summary of what has happened to struggling Black Americans since the start of African American slavery. This story, a fictional dialogue between Socrates (Plato’s teacher) and Plato’s brother Glaucon, begins with the scenario in which what people take to be real would in fact be a combination of an Illusion (misinterpretations), a Delusion (false beliefs that can not be modified by facts), or an Hallucination (perceptions of what does not exist)—all of which can cause behaviors which are senseless, if not absurd to those in contact with reality. Socrates asks “Glaucon” Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood.  Not only are their arms and legs held in place, but their heads are also fixed, which compels them to gaze at a wall straight ahead. Behind the prisoners is an enormous “Fire” fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised “Walkway” walkway, along which puppets of various “Animal” animals, “Plant” plants and other things are moved. The puppets cast “Shadow” shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.  Socrates asks: “Isn’t it reasonable that the prisoners would take the shadows to be “Being” real things and the echoes to be real sounds, not just reflections of “Reality” reality, since they are all they had ever seen.  Wouldn’t they praise as clever whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world? And wouldn’t the whole of their society depend on the shadows on the wall?” Socrates, introducing something new to this scenario, says: “Suppose that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up (Socrates does not specify how). If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they were and could not name them. He would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees.  Suppose further,” Socrates says, “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real?” Once Glaucon understands, Socrates continues:

“What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave.  Wouldn’t the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be distressed and unable to see even one of the things now said to be true, viz. the shadows on the wall.” After some time on the surface, however, Socrates suggests “that the freed prisoner would acclimate. Would he now see more and more things around him, until he could look upon the sun?  Would he not understand that the sun is the “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing?” Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man.

“Wouldn’t he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and then consider himself happy, and they pitiable? And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, if he were to return there, wouldn’t he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness?  Wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?”

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