For Plato, true knowledge is something that is only understood by few, but we have a responsibility to share knowledge with those who seek it. This concept can be seen in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Within the allegory, Plato arrives at the idea that we were alive and conscious before we were born because we are essentially forms. Forms are something that transcend life and death. They are more than just an object but rather a sort of metaphysical blueprint that the fundamental basis for which all objects and persons exist. Knowledge is formed when an awareness of a form is made known through observation, although Plato does not believe that everyone has the same capability of understanding a form, even when that form becomes visibly apparent.
Plato tries to demonstrate this idea with the allegory of the cave, where several people exist within a cave and cannot see a way out. Some become complacent and accept their place living in the cave, while others who make observations realize there must be a way out. With the knowledge that an exit must exist, those who seek a way out become aware that knowledge has led them to this conclusion. Plato says that only ones who are able to see the true objects and not just the shadow of those objects are able to transcend the cave and obtain real wisdom. Many, however, are trapped in the cave only to see the shadows of those forms cast before them.
Plato writes, “There is a difference between true beliefs and knowledge” (Plato 97a-99c). To Plato, beliefs can be true but if the person does not know the origin of these beliefs than it is not knowledge. The distinction between knowledge and beliefs is important to Plato because he sees knowledge as something that is not easily obtainable by all. Beliefs imply an element of faith in that one can choose to believe whether evidence has provided or not. Knowledge is different because it is gained by observation and evidence, and therefore does not represent a conscious choice being made. The ability to understand or the desire to learn is something that is innate, as part of our forms. For those that discover knowledge, it can be shared and built upon to form more complex concepts, but only if others are willing to listen.
The question raised in Plato’s allegory of the cave is whether those who are able to find their way out of the cave are obligated to help those who cannot. In other words, the essay asks if we are indebted to share the knowledge we learn, and in turn, if we are indebted to those we learn from. Plato would argue that we are not necessarily indebted to share knowledge, but we do have a moral responsibility to share information if it would help someone else. However, we cannot expect those we share knowledge with to always listen. Plato understood that even for those who are in the cave and cannot see, they will not listen to someone pointing them toward the exit.
Knowledge has given them a choice, in that they can choose whether to remain in the cave or exit, but they are free to exercise that choice. Plato suggests that most people would willingly choose to stay in the cave for whatever reason, as this is the easier choice for many people to make. It is easier to remain with what is known than try something new. If we do not share the secret that there is an exit, then people who remain in the cave would essentially be repressed because they would not have a choice. By giving them the choice to leave through knowledge, there is no more personal obligation or responsibility that is owed. In fact, it would be unethical to forcibly remove them from the cave if they chose to remain, even if we thought removing them from the cave would be in their best interests. Therefore, while we have an obligation to share knowledge with those around us, we cannot force them to act upon this knowledge nor even accept it as true.