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What is the Allegory of the Cave?

Sculpture of Plato, author of The Republic.
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The Allegory of the Cave is a narrative device used by the Greek philosopher Plato in The Republic, one of his most well known works. It is an extended allegory where humans are depicted as being imprisoned by their bodies and what they perceive by sight only. Plato plays with the notion of what would occur if people suddenly encountered the divine light of the sun and perceived “true” reality — in other words, he examines what would happen if people actually embraced philosophy and became enlightened by it. The allegory has been the subject of many scholarly interpretations, and has many resonances is modern culture.

Context in The Republic

The Republic is structured as a fictional dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, two Greek thinkers. The Allegory of the Cave becomes a seminal piece of the work when Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a scenario in which people actually live their entire lives in a dark world where shadows and light refractions from fires behind them are the only constants. The people are chained up, Socrates says, but because this is the life they have always known, they do not understand or appreciate the limitations they face.

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Socrates goes on to describe how these prisoners would likely react if they were to look directly at the fires they can only see flickers of — or, more importantly, how they would respond if they were ever brought out of the cave and into the world. Scholars have extensively analyzed the Allegory of the Cave, and though interpretations do tend to vary somewhat, most agree that the allegory speaks to man’s condition in the world, the power of knowledge and truth, and how easy it is for humans to become blinded by their own immediate limitations.

Man’s Condition

According to the allegory, man’s condition is one of bondage to perceptions. When man is chained up with only a fire behind him, he perceives the world by watching shadows on the wall. He does not realize that there is more to be seen or known, and as such leads a largely passive, disinterested life. So long as his basic needs are met, he does not ask questions. Many believe that this is a statement about people who do not overtly seek knowledge or truth, but rather accept what they are told or what they can immediately experience.

The Search for Truth

Socrates next describes what would occur if the chained man was suddenly released from his bondage and let out into the world. He describes how some people would immediately be frightened and would want to return to the cave and its familiarity. Others would look at the sun and finally begin to see the world as it truly is. These people, the allegory suggests, are wiling to seek the truth.

Truth-seekers would come to understand the limitations of their previous existence, and would question the deception of their former lives. A few would embrace the sun and the “true life,” and would therefore have a far better understanding of truth, knowledge, and wisdom. Many would also want to return to the cave to free the others in bondage. They would be puzzled when people still in the cave would not believe the now “enlightened” truth bearer.

Common Interpretations

Allegories are subject to numerous interpretations, and the Allegory of the Cave is no exception. Some interpret Plato’s work as related to Socrates’ life. Throughout The Republic, Socrates spent his life trying to unchain others by helping them arrive at “truth.” That he was dismissed, discredited, and ultimately sentenced to death suggests that “telling” someone the truth is inadequate.

Truth must be experienced rather than told because language fails to convey belief. This theme is a constant in Plato’s work. Language is the barest shadow of reality, and people who are firmly committed to a religious view often echo this statement — faith can’t be given to other people, but must be experienced to be known.

The Allegory of the Cave may also represent an extended metaphor for the state of human existence and the transformation that occurs during philosophical enlightenment. When the light of the sun shines on the freed man, he experiences enlightenment. The minor concerns of the world as he has viewed them previously are now seen as falsely held perceptions and he is eager to share his enlightenment with others.

Extension in Modern Media and Culture

Thematic elements from the Allegory of the Cave continue to influence Western thought. Whether or not a person agrees with Plato’s definition of truth or enlightenment, knowledge of his argument can inform interpretation of art, film, and literature since references to it are common and quite popular.

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Discuss this Article

anon300790
Post 40

In The Allegory of the Cave, are the people wrong to doubt the person who escaped? What are reasons for why they would not be wrong?

anon269233
Post 38

What is reality? Is it what we experience, feel and see or what we perceive?

anon219369
Post 37

why does the world of sensory perception somewhat illusory? Why does Plato say that our senses deceive us?

anon215899
Post 36

how is education seen within the Allegory of the Cave?

anon210557
Post 35

What are some examples of darkness and light? And what do the darkness and light represent?

anon135424
Post 33

Could this relate to libertarianism?

anon135423
Post 32

how could this possibly relate to moral education?

spiriteye
Post 31

Many individuals feel that the words "know thyself" refers to the "psychological personality." The correct way to write these words are "Know- Thy- Self" ..as the Self (upper case S) refers to the true inner and eternal Self which is the revelation, spiritual experience and calling of Socrates and Plato (and actually many others throughout human history).

This is why Socrates stated at the end of his life "they may kill my body but not me" (i.e., the Eternal Self-Existing- Consciousness that is in each human being).

anon111461
Post 30

Socrates's idea that reality is unavailable to those who use their senses is what puts him at odds with the common man, and with common sense. Socrates says that he who sees with his eyes is blind, and this idea is most famously captured in his allegory of the cave, and more explicitly in his description of the divided line. The allegory of the cave (begins Republic 7.514a) is a paradoxical analogy wherein Socrates argues that the invisible world is the most intelligible ("norton") and that the visible world ("(h)oraton") is the least knowable, and the most obscure.

Socrates says in the Republic that people who take the sun-lit world of the senses to be good and real are living pitifully in a den of evil and ignorance. Socrates admits that few climb out of the den, or cave of ignorance, and those who do, not only have a terrible struggle to attain the heights, but when they go back down for a visit or to help other people up, they find themselves objects of scorn and ridicule.

anon111286
Post 28

the cave is daily life i.e. unenlightenment. outside the "cave" refers to the spiritual enlightenment also known as nirvana, satori, the form of the good (pure spirit consciousness) the kingdom of heaven (Jesus), the "eternal now " (Nostradamus),and many other names. "Know thyself" means to "experience" thy self as an eternal spirit, (the practice of meditation). The ancient, true term for academy is "ashram" or spiritual school.

Subdue the earth, i.e., overcome the illusion of this world (light/energy or E=MC2) and "rest" in the eternal realm of "transcendental consciousness" aka the "form of the good" - the state of consciousness (aka spirit) which is the true purpose of this life.

anon110383
Post 27

What is the meaning of "the Allegory of the Cave" and how it relates to knowing the truth about ourselves and who we are? Explain the role of personal knowledge.

anon108681
Post 26

If applied to today, this is really about paradigms. How upbringing or stereotypes can alter what is actually happening around a person. You can see this every day.

For example, someone raised as a fundamentalist in any religion may perceive every other view point as misguided and incorrect, and even when presented with the truth, they may not accept it. The cave is what is shielding them from reality while the person who frees them is what causes a paradigm shift, or a change in perspective or knowledge.

anon101113
Post 25

I think everyone has their on individual "cave" when it comes to reality and how we all naturally perceive and interpret it. We unknowingly translate reality through the subconscious -- at least I feel we do anyway.

Dwelling inside everyone's subconscious is this defined concept of 'cave' unique and distinct, not quite similar amongst genders. Originating acutely in the sense of one's mind is where it formulates, through contrast of any and all counts of typical and impulsive patterns of thinking.

The rooted origin where applications commingle in one's mind is the 'cave'. If reality enters, the 'cave' simultaneously will begin consumption, and dissection of the reality presence. One's 'cave' will break down the reality to more easily calculate "answers' or truth, and even truth beyond actual reality. Thus the concept "cave" where the mind keeps resources, knowledge, and experiences used to map, and build the self needed truth structure.

The end and final result is the individual's self realization and unique point of view towards the reality conceived and the 'caves' perceptively found truth believed to be hidden or under-lined truth.

Possible eminent realms of ones "cave" could include: related motives, ideas, morals, values, religion, life, present, future, plans, goals, optimistic outlook, pessimistic outlook, libido, business, finance, race, gender, nationality and politics.

anon85156
Post 23

plato is basically saying that we need to make the journey to true knowledge and those who get a glimpse of it will either embrace it or not.

he is basically saying that our senses are deceiving us and we cannot always believe what we see and hear. As Descartes said in "the meditations", 'why trust those who once deceived us, our senses deceive us yet we still believe everything we sense'. Plato is making a valid point to agree with this.

Plato is making an analysis that our lives are a 'puppet show' and we haven't experienced things such as true beauty because it is too vast for us to conceive when we are trapped in the cave that represents our reality.

he is a rationalist philosopher and believes that we need to only believe what is certain, for example, maths, because it's indisputable once you have the answer.

anon70392
Post 21

is plato an idealist or materialist? why? i was just confused.

anon56108
Post 20

To understand the difference between appearance and reality, study Plato's Forms.

anon56107
Post 19

In the Allegory, Plato is trying to convey the difficulties of the Philosopher Kings (who are the only ones educated in Truth) communicating truth (sunlight) to the citizens (chained men).

sean789
Post 17

Are the distinctions among between apperance and reality? why or why not?

anon50583
Post 14

What has not been mentioned here is Plato's idea of a "statesman." If an enlightened person felt compelled to return to the cave to govern, and pass on his knowledge, would he not want to stay there forever, since he now knows reality outside the cave? This, if it could work, would create politicians that actually felt obligated to govern, but did not want it for the glory of the office. They would govern with the poor prisoners in mind, and not a "position of power". No grandstanding senators! Does that make sense?

anon48634
Post 13

As we can easily design and create what we are, we should conscientiously create who we are. We allow the things around us to create who we are, without thought to making any decision to our own outcome. We should become who we are because of our own decision. --Dasauhen

anon46998
Post 12

it is related to the allegory of the sun, which represents God. it's a conundrum by plato.

anon44814
Post 11

Perception of reality is perceived *by* the mind, like an illusion. What is truly reality is perceived *with* the mind, with underlying truth.

anon42755
Post 10

i'm doing this article about the republic and the problem is i haven't read the book so i don't know what to write about the importance of the allegory?

anon36683
Post 9

is there a continuation about the man lost in the forest?

anon27157
Post 8

We are reading a book called Athem in class and it deals with the same thing. The main character leaves the world of everyone being the same to the outside forest, he discovers the light or freedom, and he is glad and shocked that his fellow man stays the same.

anon24544
Post 7

ok so we were studying this in class and the secret meaning is actually about. Socrates tried to tell people that there was something more. he was sentenced to death so the truth is that always look further for the answer.

anon16382
Post 6

The allegory of the cave must be analyzed in the total context of the Republic. Plato, having established that a "Philosopher King" needed to rule the Republic, finds himself in a bit "dilemma," i.e. how do I find a "Philosopher King" from among the people who are unfit as leaders. He could not have imported a King that would not be justice.

Metaphysically, then "the one" had to come from among people. He had to break free from the darkness and climb up, to behold the light and embrace that wish is real. It is from this group that enlightened "Philosopher Kings" will be trained and prepared for leadership.

anon12369
Post 5

Why does Plato propose the philosophers of his academic to be the rulers turn by turn?

anon12023
Post 4

I believe that Aristotle is trying to comment on society's lack of knowledge and acceptance of what we call "truth." Plato is arguing that anyone who holds a truth has an obligation to share that truth, even if society fails to accept or acknowledge it.

Maddy
Post 3

In the Allegory of the Cave, what is Plato trying to get you to understand about reality and perception of reality?

anon5977
Post 2

possibly that many may embrace reality but few accept the perception of that same reality?

denise24
Post 1

In the Allegory of the Cave, what is Plato trying to get you to understand about reality and perception of reality?

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