Plato’s Cave: Understanding the Allegory | #Philosophy

Plato’s Cave is without a doubt one of the allegories that have shaped the western world. In a previous video we discussed Plato’s life and philosophical ideas. You might remember that the ancient Athenian philosopher is well-known for his work “Republic” («Πολιτεία», 375 BC) and the allegories included in it, such as “the Chariot”, “Atlantis”, and “the Cave”. Today, Helinika will provide you with the summary of “the Cave”, which will be followed by an analysis. Let’s dive in together.

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The Background of the Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Republic is a written dialogue between Socrates and Glaukon, Plato’s older brother. The main subject is justice – specifically what it means to be just and how to rule a just city-state. To this day, it is not clear if this specific dialogue is fictional or real; whether it represents Plato’s or Socrates’ ideas. However, most scholars agree that it was probably Plato who came up with the allegory.

Summary of Plato’s Cave

In Book 7 of the “Republic”, Socrates and Glaukon start talking about the importance of education. Socrates asks Glaukon to imagine an underground house, something similar to a cave. A group of people are held captives since childhood there. The three prisoners, as Socrates calls them, have their limbs tied in a way that does not allow them to move nor change the position of their heads. They are constantly facing a blanc wall and they cannot see themselves or the rest of the people around them.

Behind the prisoners, there is a source of light coming from a fire. Right in front of the fire, various sculptures (idols – είδωλα) depicting everyday objects are being moved by a group of people who can be compared to shadow puppet masters. The prisoners are unaware of the shadow play happening right behind them. All they can see are the shadows of the sculptures that are cast on the blanc wall they are facing and they believe that the shadows are the only real objects existing: the shadow of a tree is a tree, the shadow of a woman is a woman, the shadow of a horse is a horse etc. The prisoners would also play games with each other, such as guessing what shadow would be cast next on the wall. The winners would be praised and considered experts of natural sciences.

Socrates then hypothesized what would happen if a prisoner was freed and was able to see what was happening around him. The prisoner would be in pain by looking straight at the source of the light in the cave, which is the fire. He would immediately look away from the source of the light, since it would be too painful to look at. But, if he then spent a bit more time trying to adjust to the bright light, his vision would become clearer and clearer. He would be able to notice the fire and the idols behind him.

The same goes when the person would now discover the exit of this cave. Direct sunlight is much brighter than the fire in the cave. He would need even more time to see the natural environment around him and distinguish the shadows from the idols and the idols from the true forms of the objects they are depicting. The freed prisoner would then be able to look at the sun and understand how everything is related to it, such as the change of the seasons.

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Socrates then suggests that the freed prisoner would rather stay on the surface of the Earth rather than going back into the cave and pretend he is believing what the prisoners believe. But the need to reveal the truth to the other prisoners would be too strong.

Socrates then hypothesizes what would happen if the freed man would go back into the cave. He would need time to adjust into the darkness and he would probably bump into some obstacles in the cave. The prisoners would find his behavior odd and things could only get worse if he tried to convince them of the things he had witnessed inside and outside of the cave. The others would probably make fun of him, then get aggressive, and if he did not stop talking about the truth, they would physically attack him.

Socrates and Glaukon agreed that people shouldn’t judge anyone who may seem confused. They could be trying to adjust from the light of knowledge to the darkness of ignorance or the opposite. And this is something that educators should always keep in mind. They should recognize that humans possess the ability to see the light (the truth) and, instead of forcing the light into their eyes, they should show them the right way and let them explore the opening of the cave all by themselves.

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Symbolisms in Plato’s Cave

As an allegory, Plato’s cave is full of symbolisms. Let’s see the most important ones:

  • The Cave: it represents ignorance, empirical knowledge, and the absence of critical thinking. As a whole, it also symbolizes a failed society that is governed by demagogues and uneducated people.
  • The Fire: the fire in the cave is bright but not as bright as the sun; it symbolizes superficial knowledge and believing in something, instead of understanding it.
  • The Prisoners: they represent ignorant people who can be easily manipulated by demagogues.
  • The Escaped Prisoner: he is the philosopher, the prisoner who manages to escape from the world of senses and reach the world of ideas.
  • The Shadow Players: the people moving the objects behind the prisoners are the demagogues who trick the prisoners into relying onto the things they see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. They also represent sophists – the private tutors of that time who, according to Plato, sell deception.  
  • The Chains: the chains of the prisoners are the five senses that keep people from exploring reality through logic.
  • The Shadows: the shadows on the walls symbolize the perceptions of our senses.
  • The Idols/Sculptures: the idols moving behind the prisoners are the physical items that can be perceived through our senses.
  • The Real Objects: the objects found outside of the cave are the ideas upon which the idols are based on. They are closer to reality than the idols and shadows.
  • The Sun: it represents the absolute truth and the source of reality.
  • The Duality Between Darkness and Light: the darkness represents ignorance, while light symbolizes the world of ideas that can be reached only with cognitive processes and not with our senses.  

Analyzing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

As mentioned in the beginning, Plato’s Cave revolves around education and what it means to be a good teacher. There are also some clear hints of his disappointment for Socrates’ death. On a deeper level, however, it is a story that advocates rationalism over empiricism. But let’s take things from the beginning.

When Plato wrote the “Republic”, it was very common to hire private tutors to teach you how to excel in philosophy, rhetoric, music, mathematics, and other subjects. These tutors were called sophists (derives from the Greek «σοφία»= wisdom), which in Greek implies that they possessed some type of wisdom. Plato, however, was skeptical towards them, just like Socrates.

That is because the sophists were basically the predecessors of empiricists. They believed that knowledge comes from sensory experience – touch, smell, vision, taste, and hearing. Plato, on the other hand, was a rationalist. He stated that truth is not sensory but intellectual.

Since Plato believed that our senses cannot provide us with true knowledge, he depicted sophists as puppet masters in a shadow play; keeping people chained to their sensory experiences. The philosopher was also critical of the teaching style of sophists. The latter were presenting themselves as leading experts and they were paid to make their students memorize the knowledge they have acquired from experience.

As Plato and Glaukon agree on in the end, the good teacher is the philosopher not the sophist. The one who helps the student find the truth through reasoning, rather than someone who believes his students are “blind” – in other words, incapable of reasoning.

The allegory is also a cautionary tale of any reasonable person who may try to converse with an ignorant person. The ignorant person might find the reasonable person funny or weird. If the reasonable person tries to reason with them, they will probably become defensive and if they feel threatened, they will become aggressive.

Plato’s bitterness for Socrates’ death is clear in this allegory. Socrates, Plato’s teacher and one of the most controversial thinkers of his time, was sentenced to death at the age of 71 on 399 BC. He was imprisoned and poisoned after being accused of corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings.

Plato’s Cave can be interpreted in different ways today. Many people see a connection between the shadows on the cave’s wall with the TV screens on a modern home’s walls. Do the things we watch through these screens mislead us? Do they help us think reasonably and discover the world of ideas or do they keep us locked in the realm of sensory experiences?

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Modern References of Plato’s Cave

Plato’s Cave has significantly influenced western society. A great example of that is the broad use of the duality of light and darkness which still represents knowledge and ignorance.

Let’s not forget that the Age of Reason in European history (17th and 18th centuries) is known as the Age of Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment did not abolish the evidence of senses, it did place reason as the primary source of knowledge. It was an era that put an emphasis on scientific method and reductionism. We often compare that time with the “Dark Ages” of the Early Medieval Period.

Even the Illuminati, the members of the Bavarian Enlightenment-era secret society that wanted to oppose superstition and religious influence over public life, were influenced by the Cave’s symbolisms. Illuminati means “Enlightened” – although the name is associated with fictional secret societies with darker motives today.   

Over the years, many historical figures have quoted Plato’s Cave or used its symbolisms in their speeches. Civil rights movement activist Martin Luther King has been quoted saying: “Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”

There are also plenty of books, plays, and movies that seem to be inspired to some level to Plato’s Cave. The biggest reference could not be other than the “Matrix’ (1999). Although the plot is an allegory for transformation, the influences of the Cave’s symbolisms are everywhere in the film. A great example is the existence of two worlds, the imprisoned people, the illusions, and the weaknesses of our senses.

What is quite interesting is that Plato’s Cave is also used by many conspiracy theorists to validate their beliefs based on the fact that these beliefs are supported by a minority of people. However, many of these theories are based on sensory experiences – something that completely contradicts Plato’s allegory.  

What We Can Learn from Plato’s Cave:

  1. We cannot rely on our five senses.
  2. Truth can be painful at first but, with time, you will never want to go back to ignorance.
  3. If you acquire knowledge that few people possess, don’t expect everyone’s approval.
  4. Forcing the truth on someone will make them defensive.
  5. Instead of arguing with ignorant people, guide them to the right path and let them find the truth on their own.

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