An excerpt from Plato’s Republic, the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is a classic commentary on the human condition. It is a story of open-mindedness and the power of possibility.
‘THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE’ BY PLATO: SUMMARY AND MEANING
The ‘Allegory Of The Cave’ is a theory put forward by Plato, concerning human perception. Plato claimed that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion and that, in order to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical reasoning.
‘The Allegory of the Cave’ by Plato
In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato distinguishes between people who mistake sensory knowledge for the truth and people who really do see the truth. It goes like this:
- Imagine a cave, in which there are three prisoners. The prisoners are tied to some rocks, their arms and legs are bound and their head is tied so that they cannot look at anything but the stonewall in front of them.
- These prisoners have been here since birth and have never seen outside of the cave.
- Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between them is a raised walkway.
- People outside the cave walk along this walkway carrying things on their head including; animals, plants, wood and stone.
- So, imagine that you are one of the prisoners. You cannot look at anything behind or to the side of you – you must look at the wall in front of you.
- When people walk along the walkway, you can see shadows of the objects they are carrying cast on to the wall.
- If you had never seen the real objects ever before, you would believe that the shadows of objects were ‘real.’
- Plato suggests that the prisoners would begin a ‘game’ of guessing which shadow would appear next.
- If one of the prisoners were to correctly guess, the others would praise him as clever and say that he were a master of nature.
- One of the prisoners then escapes from their bindings and leaves the cave.
- He is shocked at the world he discovers outside the cave and does not believe it can be real.
- As he becomes used to his new surroundings, he realizes that his former view of reality was wrong.
- He begins to understand his new world, and sees that the Sun is the source of life and goes on an intellectual journey where he discovers beauty and meaning
- He see’s that his former life, and the guessing game they played is useless.
- The prisoner returns to the cave, to inform the other prisoners of his findings.
- They do not believe him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free.
‘ The Allegory of The Cave’ by Plato – The Meaning
The Allegory of the cave by Plato should not be taken at face value. In essays and exams, whoever is marking it expects you to have a deeper understanding of the meaning of the theory. You can then use these to think about criticisms and then to form your own opinion.
- In Plato’s theory, the cave represents people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world – empirical evidence. The cave shows that believers of empirical knowledge are trapped in a ‘cave’ of misunderstanding.
- The Shadows represent the perceptions of those who believe empirical evidence ensures knowledge. If you believe that what you see should be taken as truth, then you are merely seeing a shadow of the truth. In Plato’s opinion you are a ‘pleb’ if you believe this (their insult for those who are not Philosophers)!
- The Game represents how people believe that one person can be a ‘master’ when they have knowledge of the empirical world. Plato is demonstrating that this master does not actually know any truth, and suggesting that it is ridiculous to admire someone like this.
- The escaped prisoner represents the Philosopher, who seeks knowledge outside of the cave and outside of the senses.
- The Sun represents philosophical truth and knowledge
- His intellectual journey represents a philosophers journey when finding truth and wisdom
- The other prisoners reaction to the escapee returning represents that people are scared of knowing philosophical truths and do not trust philosophers.