Allegory of the Cave
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Plato from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509
|Allegories and metaphors|
The Allegory of the Cave (Analogy of the Cave, Plato's Cave, Parable of the Cave) is presented by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato in the Republic to compare "the effect of philosophy 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 of the Cave is presented after the Analogy of the Sun and the Analogy of the Divided Line. All three are characterized in relation to dialectic (διάλεκτος) at the end of books VII and VIII.
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"/"Archetypes"), 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. 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."
Imprisonment in the Cave
Socrates begins by asking Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been imprisoned since childhood. These prisoners have been imprisoned in such a way that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at a wall in front of them, unable to move their heads. 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.". In this way, the walking people are compared to puppeteers and the low wall to the screen over which puppeteers display their puppets. Since these walking people are behind the wall on the walkway, their bodies do not cast shadows on the wall faced by the prisoners, but the objects they carry do. The prisoners cannot see any of this behind them, being only able to view the shadows cast upon the wall in front of them. There are also echoes off the shadowed wall of sounds the people walking on the road sometimes make, which the prisoners falsely believe are caused by the shadows.
Socrates suggests that, for the prisoners, the shadows of artifacts would constitute reality. They would not realize that what they see are shadows of the artifacts, which are themselves inspired by real humans and animals outside of the cave. Furthermore, the prisoners would "assign credit and prestige" to whomever among them could quickly remember which shadows came before, predict which shadows would follow and name which shadows were normally found together.
Departure from the Cave
Socrates then supposes that one prisoner is freed, being suddenly compelled to stand, turn, walk and look towards the fire. He is told that what he has formerly seen has no substance and that what he now sees (the carried objects) constitutes a greater reality. He is also asked to identify some of the carried objects. He is unable due to his confusion and he still believes the shadows to be more real.
The freed one is then compelled to look directly at the fire, which hurts his eyes. In his pain, Socrates continues, the freed one would turn away and run back to what he can make out, which now are the carried objects to which he was just previously introduced.
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.
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.
Eventually, he deduces 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". (See also Plato's Analogy of the Sun, which occurs near the end of The Republic, Book VI.)
Return to the Cave
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 consider himself happy and them 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, were he 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 them up, wouldn't they kill him?".
Socrates mentions that the returning one's eyes, having 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.
The prisoners, ignorant of the world behind them would see the freed man with his corrupted eyes and be afraid of anything but what they already know.
Remarks on the Allegory
"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—". I also think that the sight of it is a prerequisite for intelligent conduct either of one's own private affairs or of public business".
...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.
- Journalist Chris Hedge's 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".
- Analogy of the Sun
- Analogy of the Divided Line
- Intelligibility (philosophy)
- The Form of the Good
- Plato's Republic in popular culture
- 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
- Elliott, R. K. (1967). "Socrates and Plato's Cave". Kant-Studien 58 (2): 138.
- Plato, & Jowett, B. (1941). Plato's The Republic. New York: The Modern Library. OCLC 964319.
- Griffith, Jeremy (2003). A Species In Denial. Sydney: WTM Publishing & Communications. p. 83. ISBN 1-74129-000-7.
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- Allegory of the Cave at PhilPapers
- Animated video of Plato's Cave
- Animated interpretation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave
- Plato: The Republic at Project Gutenberg
- Plato: The Allegory of the Cave, from The Republic at University of Washington – Faculty
- Plato: Book VII of The Republic, Allegory of the Cave at Shippensburg University