The Allegory of the Cave is a story from Book VII in the Greek philosopher Plato’s masterpiece “The Republic,” written in BCE 517. It is probably Plato’s best-known story, and its placement in “The Republic” is significant. “The Republic” is the centerpiece of Plato’s philosophy, centrally concerned with how people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice, and good. The Allegory of the Cave uses the metaphor of prisoners chained in the dark to explain the difficulties of reaching and sustaining a just and intellectual spirit.
Plato writes this story approximately 20 years after Socrates was put to death by the state for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and “corrupting the youth” through his powerful, transformative teaching methods (approx. 379 BCE, or roughly 2400 years ago). It is not known whether Plato is retelling an actual dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon (the other speaker), or if Plato used Socrates more like a character through which he could express his own views on this subject. The latter is more probable. This allegory illustrates Plato’s view of the purpose of education.
You can watch this animated film narrated by Orson Welles on the summary of the Allegory of the Cave.
The allegory is set forth in a dialogue as a conversation between Socrates and his disciple Glaucon. Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A great fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them. They have been chained in that position all their lives.
There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them is their shadows. Some of the others speak, but there are echoes in the cave that make it difficult for the prisoners to understand which person is saying what.
Plato suggests that the prisoners would begin a ‘game’ of guessing which shadow would appear next. If one of the prisoners were to correctly guess, the others would praise him as clever and say that he were a master of nature.
One of the prisoners then escapes from their bindings and leaves the cave. He is shocked at the world he discovers outside the cave and does not believe it can be real. As he becomes used to his new surroundings, he realizes that his former view of reality was wrong. He begins to understand his new world, and sees that the Sun is the source of life and goes on an intellectual journey where he discovers beauty and meaning. He see’s that his former life, and the guessing game they played is useless.
The prisoner returns to the cave, to inform the other prisoners of his findings. They do not believe him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free.
The Allegory of The Cave’ by Plato – The Meaning
The Allegory of the cave by Plato should not be taken at face value. In essays and exams, whoever is marking it expects you to have a deeper understanding of the meaning of the theory. You can then use these to think about criticisms and then to form your own opinion.
In Plato’s theory, the cave represents people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world – empirical evidence. The cave shows that believers of empirical knowledge are trapped in a ‘cave’ of misunderstanding.
The Shadows represent the perceptions of those who believe empirical evidence ensures knowledge. If you believe that what you see should be taken as truth, then you are merely seeing a shadow of the truth. In Plato’s opinion you are a ‘pleb’ if you believe this!
The Game represents how people believe that one person can be a ‘master’ when they have knowledge of the empirical world. Plato is demonstrating that this master does not actually know any truth, and suggesting that it is ridiculous to admire someone like this.
The escaped prisoner represents the Philosopher, who seeks knowledge outside of the cave and outside of the senses. The Sun represents philosophical truth and knowledge. His intellectual journey represents a philosophers journey when finding truth and wisdom
The other prisoners reaction to the escapee returning represents that people are scared of knowing philosophical truths and do not trust philosophers.
In a Nutshell
The path to enlightenment is painful and arduous, says Plato, and requires that we make four stages in our development.
- Imprisonment in the cave (the imaginary world)
- Release from chains (the real, sensual world)
- Ascent out of the cave (the world of ideas)
- The way back to help our fellows
It is always recommended that you read the original text by Plato.