When thinking of great ancient philosophers, there are two major names, among others, that everyone knows— Socrates and Plato. Plato, the student of Socrates, is the reason we know Socrates’ core philosophy, and himself contributed an immense amount of knowledge in topics ranging from ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and even political theory. Around 380 BC Plato wrote his most famous dialogue, The Republic, which is primarily about ethics and politics, and in general discusses justice in reference to individuals and the State.
In Book VII of The Republic, Plato introduces the “Allegory of the Cave.” First I will set up the allegory, then I will discuss the dualism of Plato’s divided line theory, how the theory relates to the allegory, and explain what some of the elements represent. Finally I will discuss how the allegory relates to the self, the State, and the world around me as a whole. The “Allegory of the Cave” is still extremely well known today due to the many ways in which one can interpret it. Ultimately, it serves to describe the condition plaguing our society and the way in which we can achieve a more ordered and just State, namely by rule of philosopher kings.
In the allegory there is a group of prisoners that have lived in the cave since birth with no knowledge of the outside world. The prisoners are chained by their legs and neck so they cannot move their bodies, nor their heads, they can only see what is directly in front of them. Above and behind them in the distance is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a walkway with a low wall.
The wall serves as a sort of screen, and when people walk along the walkway carrying different objects, they form shadows on the cave wall in front of the prisoners. All that the prisoners can see are each other’s shadows and the shadows of the objects passing by. They give names to the shadows and develop a guessing game based on the order the shadows will appear, and those who guess correctly the most are deemed as greater or better than the other prisoners. When passersby speak, the prisoners think it is the shadows that are speaking. To the prisoners “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of images.”1 Suddenly a prisoner is released from his bonds, and upon turning towards the light of the fire he experiences pain and is unable to see the former reality of the shadows.
At first it seems like the shadows were more real than the new objects that he does not recognize and can barely see. Once the prisoner is taken out of the cave to the world above, he will experience even more pain since the light of the sun is even brighter than the light of the fire. At first he will see shadows the best, then the reflections of people and objects in the water, then objects directly, then at the sun, whose light is the source of all of the things he sees. It is only by gaining the ability to look directly at the sun that he can begin to think and reason about it. Once he achieves this, he will pity those still stuck in the false reality of the cave, and will feel obligated to return. Upon returning, he will be blinded again as his eyes adjust to the darkness, and will no longer be interested in the game of shadows since he knows this is not actual reality. The other prisoners will surely think the ascent caused him to become stupid and blind, and will violently resist being freed.
To begin tackling the interpretation of the allegory, it is important to briefly explain Plato’s divided line theory and how it applies to the cave and the outside world. This theory divides the world into two realms, the upper world of reason and the lower world of sensory perception. Each world is then divided into two more categories— the lower lower, the lower upper, the upper lower, and the upper upper. The lower lower is the world of images, which would be copies of actual objects.
This realm accurately depicts the reality of the prisoners chained inside of the cave since all they know as reality are the shadows of actual objects, which are just flawed representations of objects. The lower upper is the world of objects, which depicts the reality of the prisoner once he escapes from his bonds and, by the light of the fire, begins to see the real objects that were responsible for creating the shadow reality he previously knew. The upper lower is the world of forms, which are abstract concepts that we inherently know, such as the form of pure beauty, roundness, or justice. This represents the world to the prisoner once he ascends out of the cave and becomes accustomed to the sunlight enough to look at objects directly and learn their characteristics. The final and greatest realm is the upper upper, which is the form of pure goodness. This is represented as the stage in which the prisoner is finally able to look directly at the sun.
When discussing what the allegory tells us about ourselves and the outside world, there are many different interpretations. Plato introduces this allegory as an analogy to explain what it is like being a true philosopher trying to educate the masses. A very basic understanding of the text will tell us that the prisoners still in the cave represent the majority of society who are so preoccupied in the bliss of their own ignorance and false reality that they become outraged when confronted with true reality. The prisoners, like most people, do not bother to question the world around them and choose to blindly follow the norms and assumptions imposed unto them by society.
The prisoner’s escape from the cave represents the minority of people who use education to ascend to the intellectual world, to gain knowledge in order to question the assumptions they are supposed to blindly follow. The sun represents the form of pure goodness, and the pain and discomfort that comes when exposed to the light represents the difficulty one can experience when faced with true reality in that our first instinct is to fight it. In reference to the sun Plato writes, “my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is only seen with effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right… and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual…” [1; p35].
The second half of the allegory is a dialogue on what a just State should look like. Once fully educated on the forms, the prisoner is obligated to return to the cave and serve as a ruler of the State. This obligation represents our duty to share our knowledge with our community, and Plato makes the argument that the problem of States is that “men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst .”
Plato argues that the leaders of the State should be those well versed in the forms, philosopher kings, because philosophers are the only people who understand true reality and the only ones who look down upon political ambition. Rulers who maintain power for political ambition are only in it for their own private gain, which leads to disorder; therefore, according to Plato, philosopher kings are the only people who are capable of ruling for the sake of order and what is just. It is widely understood that, ultimately, Plato used The Republic as a means to critique Greek political life and democracy, especially Athenian democracy .
The allegory, and The Republic in general, still raises many ontological, epistemological, and political questions. For one what is the nature of reality and how can we be certain that our reality is nothing more than the modern equivalent of shadows on a cave wall? Does the soul actually have inherent knowledge of the forms, and if not where does this knowledge come from and where do we acquire it?
Is rule by philosopher kings possible, or would it end up functioning as another oligarchy? Regardless of the answers, “The Allegory of the Cave” is an important parable for education. Like the prisoners, we must break away from the chains of ignorance by using reason. We must educate ourselves in order to get out of the cave, and once we begin philosophizing we can finally learn the truth of the outside world. Once we have learned the truth it is our moral obligation to help others reach the same truth, in turn creating a more stable, interdependent, and just State.