Allegory of the Cave

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Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna

The Allegory of the Cave (also titled Analogy of the Cave, Plato's Cave or Parable of the Cave) is presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic (514a–520a) to compare "...the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature". It is written as a dialogue between Plato's brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the Analogy of the Sun (508b–509c) and the Analogy of the Divided Line (509d–513e). All three are characterized in relation to dialectic at the end of Books VII and VIII (531d–534e).

Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

The allegory may be related to Plato's Theory of Forms, according to which the "Forms" (or "Ideas"), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge.[1] Socrates informs Glaucon that the most excellent must learn the greatest of all studies, which is to behold the Good. Those who have ascended to this highest level, however, must not remain there but must return to the cave and dwell with the prisoners, sharing in their labors and honors.

Plato's Phaedo contains similar imagery to that of the allegory of the Cave; a philosopher recognizes that before philosophy, his soul was "a veritable prisoner fast bound within his body... and that instead of investigating reality by itself and in itself it is compelled to peer through the bars of its prison."[2]


Imprisonment in the Cave[edit]

Socrates begins by asking Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been imprisoned since childhood. These prisoners are chained in such a way that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them (514a–b). Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway. Along this walkway is a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects "...including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials." (514c–515a). In this way, the walking people are compared to puppeteers and the low wall to the screen over which puppeteers display their puppets. The people walking are behind the wall on the walkway, so their bodies do not cast shadows on the wall, but the objects they carry do. The prisoners cannot see any of this behind them, and are only able to view the shadows cast upon the wall in front of them. The sounds of the people walking echo off the shadowed wall, the prisoners falsely perceive these sounds to be that of the shadows.

Socrates suggests that, for the prisoners, the shadows of artifacts would constitute reality, because they have not seen the light. They would not realize that what they see are shadows of the artifacts, which are inspired by real humans and animals outside of the cave. Plato is conveying in the imagery of this game that the prestige of winning this game is not in fact an honor at all, because the prisoner is lacking the knowledge of the world outside the cave.

Departure from the Cave[edit]

Allegory of the Cave. Left (From top to bottom): Sun; Natural things; Shadows of natural things; Fire; Artificial objects; Shadows of artificial objects; Allegory level.
Right (From top to bottom): "Good" idea, Ideas, Mathematical objects, Light, Creatures and Objects, Image, Analogy of the Sun, and the Analogy of the Divided Line

Socrates then supposes that one prisoner is freed, being suddenly compelled to stand, turn, walk and look towards the fire. The light would hurt his eyes, and cause great difficulty for him to see the object's shadows he had seen before. In his pain, Socrates continues, the freed one would turn away and run back to what he can make out; the shadows of the carried objects. He is then told that what he has formerly seen has no substance, and that what he now sees (the carried objects) constitutes a greater reality. When he sees the world outside the cave he begins to question his previous beliefs.

The freed one is then dragged in pain and irritation up and out of the cave. Upon exiting the cave, this discomfort only intensifies as the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes. The sunlight is representative of the new reality and knowledge the freed one is experiencing.

Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. He is first able to see only shadows of things. Next he can see the reflections of things in water and later is able to see things themselves. He is then able to look at the stars and moon by night and finally he is able to look upon the sun.

He is then able to behold the sun and deduces that it 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." (See also Plato's Analogy of the Sun, which occurs near the end of The Republic, Book VI.)[3]

Return to the Cave[edit]

Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man.

"If such a man were to come down again and sit in the same seat, on coming suddenly from the sun wouldn't his eyes get infected with darkness?...And if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about those shadows while his vision was still dim, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not at all short, wouldn't he be the source of laughter, and 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?".

Socrates mentions that returning one's eyes, that have become acclimated to the light of the sun, would be overcome by the darkness of the cave. This is analogous to what happened to his eyes when they were first exposed to the radiant light of the sun (516e-518a). The darkness the freed one experiences in the return to the cave signifies the ignorance of one's thoughts before he is able to see all things through the light of the sun.

The prisoners, according to Socrates, would infer from the returning one's disorientation (on account of the cave's darkness) that the upward journey out of the cave had damaged his eye sight and that they should not undertake a similar journey. Socrates concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would even reach out and kill any who attempted to drag them out of the cave. (517a)

Socrates insists that the enlightened must return to the cave in order to share their enlightenment with the prisoners, even if it results in death. By analogy, Socrates is implying that the enlightened philosopher must descend from a continuous intelligible contemplation of the good to share in the visible lives of his fellow citizens for the well-being of the whole. (520a-c)

Remarks on the allegory[edit]

Socrates remarks that this allegory can be taken with what was said before, namely the Analogy of the Sun, and the Analogy of the Divided Line. In particular, he likens...

"the region revealed through sight"—the ordinary objects we see around us—"to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the Sun. And in applying the going up and the seeing of what's above to the soul's journey to the intelligible place, you not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. At all events, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the region of the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is indeed the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful—in the visible realm it gives birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible realm, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence—and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see you it" (517b–c).

...After "returning from divine contemplations to human evils," a man

"Is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when—with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness—he is compelled in courtrooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?".


  • Evolutionary biologist Jeremy Griffith's book A Species In Denial includes the chapter Deciphering Plato’s Cave Allegory.[4]
  • Journalist Chris Hedges' book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle refers to Plato's analogy in the chapter "The Illusion of Literacy".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Watt, Stephen (1997), "Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5–7)", Plato: Republic, London: Wordsworth Editions, pp. pages xiv–xvi, ISBN 1-85326-483-0 
  2. ^ Elliott, R. K. (1967). "Socrates and Plato's Cave". Kant-Studien 58 (2): 138. 
  3. ^ Jowett, B. (ed.) (1941). Plato's The Republic. New York: The Modern Library. OCLC 964319.
  4. ^ Griffith, Jeremy (2003). A Species In Denial. Sydney: WTM Publishing & Communications. p. 83. ISBN 1-74129-000-7. 
  5. ^ The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real By William Irwin. Open Court Publishing, 2002/ ISBN 0-8126-9501-1 "written for those fans of the film who are already philosophers."

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