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How Do I Interpret the Allegory of the Cave?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2016
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People who study the allegory of the cave should know that individual insight is necessary to develop a thoughtful viewpoint on this kind of relative parable or philosopher’s tale. Some established ideas about the allegory can help students in coming to their own comprehensive interpretation of this story. The story, written by Plato in his book, The Republic, is often taught in schools and universities, and students can benefit from knowing about the context for this written work, as well as its most common interpretations in today’s academia.

At its root, the allegory of the cave illustrates the idea of philosophic forms, which are sometimes called archetypes or universals. They are contrasted with a different series of forms that are seen as inferior or secondary. Many use the language of the cave allegory to point out the difference between an individual instance of an archetype and a true archetypal form. For example, someone might describe the secondary form as a “shadow" of the true form or universal archetype.

Another essential element of interpreting the allegory is knowing how academics often view Plato’s depiction of the subject. In this case, the subjects are prisoners in a cave, who can only view the shadows of true objects and not the objects themselves. Many academics describe the overall point of the story as representing the role of the philosopher, who is responsible for freeing the public by showing them the true forms rather than the shadows.

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The allegory of the cave can be understood in several ways. In one sense, it is pointing out the difference between a simple instance of a thing and its universal archetype. In another sense, it is exploring the way that humans perceive and think about either tangible items or abstract concepts.

Another important way to understand the story is to consider how it has been used in a modern political context. This allegory is often used to talk about political apathy or apolitical tendencies that allow for the corruption of a democratic process according to some thinkers. Finding modern examples can help students further understand how this story is still relevant today, and how it is useful in contemporary rhetoric around political and social processes.

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