Philosophy / Plato'S Allegory Of The Cave

Plato'S Allegory Of The Cave

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Autor:  anton  14 November 2010
Tags:  Platos,  Allegory
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Plato was born 427 BC, and died 347 BC. He was one of Socrates’ pupils, and learned very much from him. Plato wrote dialogues which collectively described Socrates’ teachings. He was preparing to enter politics when he discovered Socrates and his ideas, which changed his life. He began to follow philosophy, and opened a school called the Academy which was outside of Athens. The school was dedicated to Socrates and his search for wisdom.

Plato was both a writer and a teacher, unlike Socrates who was only a teacher. Everything he wrote was in the form of dialogue, which Socrates was always included in. His most famous work was The Republic. Its purpose was to inform people about what is necessary to educate philosophically. Within the Republic, Plato tells a story of man’s struggle for knowledge. He calls this story, �The Allegory of the Cave.” This is one of Plato’s many parables that explain the theory’s of knowledge. This story intertwines most of Plato’s postulations about Philosophy. These include his ideas that; the world our senses portray is not the real world but only a copy of it, and that we can only discover the real world through intellect and teaching; that knowledge is not transmitted from teacher to student, but that the teacher must guide the student towards learning what is important and let them find their own way; his ideas that the universe is good; and that individuals who have been fortunate enough to be enlightened owe it to society to show them the way.

Below, some paraphrased excerpts from the Allegory will help us to analyze the story.

Now then, imagine mankind as living in an underground cave which has a wide entrance open to the light. Deep inside are human beings facing the inside wall of the cave, with their necks and legs chained so they cannot move, or look in any other direction but forward. They have never seen the light of day or the sun outside the cave. Behind the prisoners a fire burns, and between the fire and prisoners there is raised way on which a low wall has been built, such as is used in puppet shows as a screen to conceal the people working the puppets. Along the raised way people walk carrying all sorts of things which they hold so that they project above the wall. These things are statues of men, animals, and trees. The prisoners, facing the inside wall, cannot see one another, or the wall behind them on which the objects are being carried - all they can see are the shadows these objects cast on the wall of the cave. The prisoners live all their lives seeing only shadows of reality, and the voices they hear are only echoes from the wall. But the prisoners do not know that these shadows are not real, or that the echoes are not coming from the shadows themselves. So the prisoners cling to the familiar shadows because that is all they have ever known. If one was ever freed, he would turn towards the fire and be blinded by the light. This would make him angry, and have him prefer to return to his shadow world. But if one of the prisoners were freed and turned around to see, in the light of the fire, the cave and his fellow prisoners. If he were then dragged upwards, out of the cave into the light of the sun, he would see the things of the world as they truly are. He would also see the sun, and eventually realize that the sun is the reason we can see all the things in the world, and that it is where light comes from. What would this person think now of the life in the cave and what people there know of reality and of morality? And when he went to descend back into the cave, to save the other prisoners, and show them the way, he would be fought against. He would be challenged to see, and would get ridiculed by the other prisoners. They would tell him that his vision was fine before he left the cave, and that going outside hurt it. So why would they want to go out there? They would not understand. They need to experience it for themselves.

Some find the symbols in the Allegory of the cave hard to recognize. There are 6 of them. The cave symbolizes our unlimited world of reference, the prisoners are all people, the stake resembles ignorance, and the chains represent our unwillingness to learn. The echoes and shadows represent objects of limited reference, and the sun represents the truth. These symbols show us how much there is that we do not understand or realize. In the cave, knowledge is based on what is most real. But different people have different perceptions of reality. This is what makes knowledge so infallible, and so easy to determine in Plato’s eyes.

There are four stages in the Allegory. These are tied to the stake, breaking free, walking to the light, and exiting the cave. The prisoners represent all people in the world before they are fully educated philosophically. These people only see the shadows on the walls. This is the first stage, tied to a stake. The second stage is breaking free. This is where the prisoner is relinquished of his chains, and can get up, and look around. He can see that there are figures, and a fire, and an exit to the cave. Next the prisoner feels compelled to find out what else is there. He wants to go towards the entrance of the cave to find out why it is so bright. This is the third stage, walking towards the light. The fourth stage is leaving the cave. This is when the prisoner finds his way out of the cave, and discovers everything that the outside world has to offer. It’s hard to see all of the new things that the world has to offer, so leaving the cave is one of the most challenging stages. Nothing seems like reality. It seems like the reality you have known all along means nothing, and that you have no knowledge of anything anymore.

So as the story says, the next thing the escaped prisoner needs to do is go back into the cave and explain his new discoveries to the other prisoners. The other prisoners may not react well, but this is your duty as the enlightened person. Socrates believed that it was the responsibility of the enlightened person to show the others the way to the proper education. Plato believed that education is not putting knowledge into empty people, but helping them realize what they already know. His idea that truth is implanted in our minds is a very powerful one at that. He believed that people can only learn through being completely open minded, and through dialect and reasoning. In the words of Plato, “Looking in the right direction does not come easily. Even the noblest natures do not always want to look that way; the rulers must bring compulsion to bear upon them to ascend upwards from darkness to light.” The same way the prisoner escapes and follows the light up to the true world, we accumulate knowledge and come into true reality. This true reality is thought to be ideas in our minds.

In Plato’s eyes, anything you can see, feel, or touch is not authentic. These things are just shadows of something real. He thought that the real things existed in some sort of parallel, where the essence of the real thing was. Let’s take a chair for example. The form of a chair exists. It is somewhere, and exemplifies everything that chairs have in common. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we could describe this form. Not all chairs have four legs, or any legs. Not all chairs are meant for sitting, not all chairs have arms. What does every single chair have in common that is included in this form? No one can completely answer that question. So does that mean that chairs are not authentic? To Plato, it does. The same could be said about an action or decision that is truly just. In the Allegory, the prisoners sit in darkness, day after day with artificial light from the fire. They do not realize that they are missing anything, or that their existence is lacking anything. They do not know anything else, or complain about it, because they don’t know any better.

Plato adopted many of Socrates’ theories. One of the more commonly known ones is, “It is the wise person who knows when they know not, and the fool that thinks he knows but they know not.” This is directly correlated with Plato’s theory about the struggle for knowledge, which is apparent in Allegory of the Cave. The story serves as his explanation of the enlightenment, and people being educated philosophically. They must go back into the cave after being enlightened, both for comparison, and to pass on their enlightened ideas to the others. Our world of sight is explained to be equal to intellects world of opinions. Our world of sight lets us see things that are not exactly real. This higher understanding is also known as intelligible or abstract reality. This knowledge comes first from reason, and finally from understanding. Understanding things such as abstract reality necessitate understanding math, as well as the forms of all things. These forms, which we spoke of earlier, are parts of the physical world, as well as how we think. First, we start with imagination, which Socrates’ didn’t have much respect for, and then continues, on to our real beliefs. Figuring out these forms directly correlates with understanding the ways of thinking that Plato described. This struggle for knowledge has a key. This is considered to be acquired through the teachings of mathematics and some sciences, and applied to understanding both ourselves and the world around us. This of course, must be done with an open mind, otherwise it is useless. The shadows on the cave wall are ever changing, and don’t really mean much. The outside world gains its importance because it does not change.

The main foundation of Plato’s philosophic thinking is his explanation of knowledge. Unlike the Sophists, who had skeptical views of how our knowledge is required, Plato was convinced that there were unchanging truths. These truths were considered universal, which all humans have the ability, and level of reasoning, to grasp. The allegory suggests that most of us are dwellers of darkness, such as inside the cave. It is the purpose of education to lead us as a people out of the cave and into the real world. Knowledge could be compared to vision, in that you need a part of the body that is capable of figuring it out. The prisoner needed to turn around and look at the light to see it. This is similar to us turning away from the world of change and enthusiasm, which could sometimes be deceiving. Plato stated, “The conversation of the soul is not to put the power of sight in the soul’s eye, which already has it, but to insure that, instead of looking in the wrong direction, it is turned the way it ought to be.” As discussed earlier, this is not an easy transition, as it is very difficult to throw away the world you have known your entire existence to begin to believe in another.

Plato was able to discard the views of the Sophists, with the help of Allegory of the Cave. Plato explained that there were two worlds, the bright world of light, and the dark world of the cave. Plato thought that knowledge was both possible and practically foolproof. This theory derives from the fact that knowledge itself is based on what is �most real.’ The different degree to which the people could be enlightened is shown through the remarkable distinction between the shadows and the actual objects. Plato and the Sophists disagreed because they didn’t believe in true knowledge. They were more concerned with the variety of change that varies from person to person. Plato realized that if we were only to know the shadows, that there was a possibility that the Sophists were correct. But he also believed that we all had the power to discover the objects that created the shadows, and achieve true knowledge through those discoveries.

The Allegory of the Cave could be applied in a few different ways. In the metaphysical view, Plato’s levels of reality are depicted. In this view, the cave represents the physical world, which is made up of many images and reproductions. The land symbolizes the forums, or the realities which are only represented imperfectly. And the sun represents the good, or the highest forum that provides life and transparency to everything else. Epistemologically, we see that acquiring additional knowledge of something does not necessarily make us understand it any better. We need a new perspective, or a �higher vision of the genuine realities.” This causes Plato’s statement: “Education us not what it is said to be by some, who profess to put knowledge into a soul which does not possess it, as if they could put sight into blind eyes. On the contrary, our own account signifies that the soul of every man does possess the power of learning the truth and the organ to see it with; and that, just as one might have to turn the whole body round in order that the eye should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world, until its eye can bear to contemplate reality and that supreme splendor which we have called the Good.”



After thoroughly researching Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, there are many more things to be taken out of it then I thought. First off, I didn’t realize that Plato believe that all material things are pure creations of the mind. This theory now makes sense to me because mostly everything around us was created by the human mind. All people see different things, different images, and sometimes even different objects when they look at something. One person looks at an object and sees something completely different then another person looking at the same thing. And what if you were colorblind? If when others saw green, you saw purple, and your whole life you were told that was green, wouldn’t you think purple things were green? That is what you were taught and what your mind agrees with. Furthermore, your learning backs it up, so why would you question it?

In the Allegory, �Socrates’ says �But, whether true of false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.’ Plato is expressing Socrates’ idea that goodness is reached after a lot of hard work, learning, and time. And once you see that goodness, you realize that it is where everything else in the world is derived from. In the Allegory, we see how Plato thinks about finding the light, and sharing it with the others. It is just as necessary for the escaped prisoner to go back into the cave to enlighten the others, because this is how knowledge grows, and is passed on through civilizations. If that one person learned something, and never opened the door for someone else, he would always be the only one who knew, and that would not benefit the world at all.

One thing that I think is pertinent when learning about the Allegory of the Cave is that is it not meant to be practical. It is a story based on principle, and is meant to be taken as such. It may be easier to understand if it was put into today’s terms. Let’s say the cave was a movie theatre, and instead of the fire, it’s the movie projector. The film would be the objects that cast the shadows, and the echoes would be the speakers in the theatre. When we watch movies, we are not actually seeing the things that are happening on the screen, we are seeing pictures of them, or representations of something that is real. But it isn’t real in that moment or in that place.

The Allegory of the Cave is so important because it describes how Plato believes that everything has an underlying truth. He says that only the most educated people can grasp these truths, and understand them for that they really are. Enlightenment is resisted at first, just as education is resisted. Preschoolers never want to learn, kindergarteners never want to read. Every time something new is introduced in elementary school the kids have no interest. They have to be taught how important education is before they have any desire to learn. Then once they see their friends succeeding in new topics, they then want to do the same. The girl who sits next to you learns to read, you want to know how to read. The same way the first prisoner has to convince the others that knowledge is good, and that learning more is a good thing, and something that they should want and definitely need.

To understand this theory, I felt that I needed a little more incentive that this really has happened. So I did a bit more research, and found out that Charles Darwin experienced a similar dilemma back in 1837. When he was traveling, he stopped at the Galapagos Islands. He found many new animals that he had never seen before, which lead him to many years of research. In 1858, he published The Origin of Species. In his book he explained natural selection and his theories of evolution. He was criticized, because most people accepted the theory of Creation, and was not ready to accept something new. Darwin and those who accepted his theory were the prisoners who escaped. They saw true reality, but unfortunately the others chose to stay in the cave, and call him crazy for his unbelievable findings. This is proof that Plato’s theory is real, and can be applied to real life situations.

I think that Plato’s basic thought is that until you are free from the stake and the chains, your beliefs are biased. The world is just shadows and echoes until you make sense of it. The more you think, live, and reflect on what you have already learned, the closer you will get to releasing yourself from the cave. If we break free of the stake and the chains, you will in turn shy away from being unwilling to learn and being ignorant. This will cause you to find truth. If you do not do so, you would be cheating yourself. You have to want to break free in order to do so, because otherwise, whose heart are you following? Things we need to work for are much more appreciated then things that are handed to us. If you have to work for the knowledge you earn, it will be a lot more valuable to you. This is what Plato is essentially trying to teach us through the Allegory of the Cave. He wants us to see that learning new things, and teaching others are very important, and that they are essential to our lives. He also wants us to keep an open mind to things, and realize that everything is not always what it seems, and sometimes digging deeper really is necessary to find truth. We should not take things at face value in a world such as this, because the one who loses in the end will always be you.



пЃ¶ Bloom, Allan. The Republic of Plato. 2. United States: Basic Books, 1991.

пЃ¶ Lawhead, William F. The Voyage of Discovery: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. 3. United States: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

пЃ¶ Stumpf, Samuel Enoch, and Fieser, James. Philosophy: History and Problems. 6. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2003.

пЃ¶ Kreis, Steven. "Plato, the Allegory of the Cave." The History Guide. 2000. 1 May 2008 <>.

пЃ¶ Marmet, Paul. "Allegory of the Cave." Absurdities in Modern Physics: A Solution. 1 May 2008 <>.

пЃ¶ "Analysis of the Allegory of the Cave by Plato." 123History. 1May 2008 <>.

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