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The Allegory of the Cave is a story from Book VII in the Greek philosopher Plato's masterpiece "The Republic," written in B.C.E. 517. It is probably Plato's best-known story, and its placement in "The Republic" is significant. "The Republic" is the centerpiece of Plato's philosophy, centrally concerned with how people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice, and good. The Allegory of the Cave uses the metaphor of prisoners chained in the dark to explain the difficulties of reaching and sustaining a just and intellectual spirit.
The allegory is set forth in a dialogue as a conversation between Socrates and his disciple Glaucon. Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A great fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them. They have been chained in that position all their lives.
There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them is their shadows. Some of the others speak, but there are echoes in the cave that make it difficult for the prisoners to understand which person is saying what.
Freedom From Chains
Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to being freed. When he sees that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he is confused. Instructors can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but at first, he'll assume his shadow life was the reality.
Eventually, he will be dragged out into the sun, be painfully dazzled by the brightness, and stunned by the beauty of the moon and the stars. Once he becomes accustomed to the light, he will pity the people in the cave and want to stay above and apart from them, but think of them and his own past no longer. The new arrivals will choose to remain in the light, but, says Socrates, they must not. Because for true enlightenment, to understand and apply what is goodness and justice, they must descend back into the darkness, join the men chained to the wall, and share that knowledge with them.
The Allegorical Meaning
In the next chapter of "The Republic," Socrates explains what he meant, that the cave represents the world, the region of life which is revealed to us only through the sense of sight. The ascent out of the cave is the journey of the soul into the region of the intelligible.
The path to enlightenment is painful and arduous, says Plato, and requires that we make four stages in our development.
- Imprisonment in the cave (the imaginary world)
- Release from chains (the real, sensual world)
- Ascent out of the cave (the world of ideas)
- The way back to help our fellows
Resources and Further Reading
- Buckle, Stephen. “Descartes, Plato and the Cave.” Philosophy, vol. 82, no. 320, Apr. 2007, pp. 301-337. JSTOR.
- Juge, Carole. “The Road to the Sun They Cannot See: Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Oblivion, and Guidance in Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'." The Cormac McCarthy Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 2009, pp. 16-30. JSTOR.
- Ursic, Marko, and Andrew Louth. “The Allegory of the Cave: Transcendence in Platonism and Christianity.” Hermathena, no. 165, 1998, pp. 85-107. JSTOR.