Allegory of the cave

Allegory of the cave

The Allegory of the Cave is an allegory used by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work "The Republic". The allegory of the cave is told as a fictional dialog between Plato's teacher Socrates, and his own brother, Glaucon, at the beginning of Book 7 (514a–520a). It is related to Plato's metaphor of the sun (507b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–513e) which immediately precede it at the end of Book 6. Allegories are summarized in the viewpoint of dialectic at the end of book VII and VIII (531d-534e). The allegory of the cave is also commonly known as Myth of the Cave, Metaphor of the Cave, or the Parable of the Cave.


Imagine prisoners who have been chained since their childhood deep inside a cave: not only are their arms and legs immovable because of chains; their heads are chained in one direction as well so that their gaze is fixed on a wall.

Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which puppets of various animals, plants, and other things are moved. The puppets cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. Behind this cave there is a well-used road, and upon this road people are walking and talking and generally making noise, which echoes off of the wall. The prisoners, then, believe that these noises are coming directly from the shadows they are watching pass by on the cave wall.

The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game: naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of objects. They are thus conditioned to judge the quality of one another by their skill in quickly naming the shapes and dislike those who play poorly.Fact|date=June 2008

Suppose a prisoner's chains break, and he is able to get up and walk about (a process which takes some time, as he has never done it before). Eventually he will be compelled to explore; he walks up and out of the cave, whereby he is instantly blinded by the sun. He turns then to the shadows on the floor, in the lakes, slowly working his way out of his deluded mind, and he is eventually able to glimpse the sun. In time, he would learn to see it as the object that provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen.

(This part of the allegory, incidentally, closely relates to Plato's metaphor of the sun which occurs near the end of "The Republic", Book VI.) [Plato, & Jowett, B. (1941). Plato's The Republic. New York: The Modern library. OCLC: 964319]

Once enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would not want to return to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, but would be compelled to do so. Another problem lies in the other prisoners not wanting to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner's eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be one of the ones identifying shapes on the wall. His eyes would be swamped by the darkness, and would take time to become acclimated. He might stumble, Plato asserts, and the prisoners would conclude that his experience had ruined him. He would not be able to identify the shapes on the wall as well as the other prisoners, making it seem as if his being taken to the surface completely ruined his eyesight.("The Republic" bk. VII, 516b-c; trans. Paul Shorey). [ Plato, & Shorey, P. (1930). The Republic. London: W. Heinemann, ltd.]


Plato believed that truth was gained from looking at universals in order to gain understanding of experience. Humans had to travel from the visible realm of image-making and objects of sense, to the intelligible, or invisible, realm of reasoning and understanding. "The Allegory of the Cave" symbolizes this trek and how it would look to those still in a lower realm. Plato is saying that humans are all prisoners and that the tangible world is our cave. The things which we perceive as real are actually just shadows on a wall. Just as the escaped prisoner ascends into the light of the sun, we amass knowledge and ascend into the light of true reality: where ideas in our minds can help us understand the form of 'The Good'.

Socrates himself interprets the allegory (beginning at 517b): "This image then [the allegory of the cave] we must apply as a whole to all that has been said"—i.e., the preceding analogy of the divided line and metaphor of the sun.

It has been up to scholarly debate in 20th century how exactly these three sequential comparisons can be coherently bound together. The main problems arise from the allegory of the cave having three cognitive stages and the divided line having four of them, where the first division (shadows, reflections) seems not to be needed to apply to the cave and is hard to be interpreted ontologically, i.e. in the manner of the cave at all. The metaphor of the sun seems to assert that from seeing things in the light of the sun we can raise to seeing ideas in the light of the Good, while in the cave it is not evident that it can not be done without helping and forcing prisoners to look at the light.

Plato's own remarks on the allegory

In particular, Plato likens "the region revealed through sight"—the ordinary objects we see around us—"to the habitation of the prison, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the sun. And if you assume the ascent and the contemplation of the things above is the soul's ascension to the intelligible region, you will not miss my surmise... My dream as it appears to me is that in the region of the known the last thing to be seen and hardly seen is the idea of good, and that when seen, it must point us to the conclusion that this is indeed the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful, giving birth in the visible world to light, and l the author of light and itself in the intelligible world being the authentic source of truth and reason..." (517b-c). After "returning from divine contemplations to the petty miseries of men", one is apt to cut "a sorry figure" if, "while still blinking through the gloom, and before he has become sufficiently accustomed to the environing darkness, he is compelled in courtrooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the images that cast the shadows and to wrangle in debate about the notions of these things in the minds of those who have never seen justice itself?" (517d-e)

Movements between stages

Since the allegory is by Socrates' words about education, it should be interpreted from the viewpoint of conditions for taking steps toward higher stages, i.e., conditions for education.

There are four steps described: (1) prisoners who think that shadows are reality; (2) prisoners who are freed and forced to look at the things that are used to cast shadows on the wall and do not recognize these as sources for shadows; (3) prisoners who are freed and dragged along to the outside of cave; (4) free men returning to the cave to former fellow-prisoners.

Step (3) has also four sub-steps of looking at (a) shadows, (b) things that cast shadows, (c) heavenly bodies, (d) sun as the source and guarantee of all the things outside cave.

Substeps beneath step (3) cohere notably with analogy of the divided line. Confrontation between cave and outside can be explained by metaphor of sun, but there is one major difference: in the cave one cannot deduce from whatever position that burning artificial light and things that are carried are the source for shadows. Metaphor of the sun argues but that this kind of deduction is possible.

All the steps have their proper interpretation from the ontological, epistemological and ethical points of view to any one who understands this basic idea of knowledge.


External links

* [ Interpreting Plato's Cave]
* [ Video interpretation of the Cave] by students at American University on YouTube
* [ Plato: The Allegory of the Cave, from The Republic] at Washington State University
* [ 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

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