Wednesday, March 9

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

This allegory is learned at the beginning of any course on philosophy and raises many interpretations and discussions.
The Allegory of the Cave
"Plato recognized that the picture of the Divided Line may be difficult for many of us to understand. Although it accurately represents the different levels of reality and corresponding degrees of knowledge, there is a sense in which one cannot appreciate its full significance without first having achieved the highest level. So, for the benefit of those of us who are still learning but would like to grasp what he is talking about, Plato offered a simpler story in which each of the same structural components appears in a way that we can all comprehend at our own level. This is the Allegory of the Cave.
Suppose that there is a group of human beings who have lived their entire lives trapped in a subterranean chamber lit by a large fire behind them. Chained in place, these cave-dwellers can see nothing but shadows (of their own bodies and of other things) projected on a flat wall in front of them. Some of these people will be content to do no more than notice the play of light and shadow, while the more clever among them will become highly skilled observers of the patterns that most regularly occur. In both cases, however, they cannot truly comprehend what they see, since they are prevented from grasping its true source and nature. (Republic 514a)
Now suppose that one of these human beings manages to break the chains, climb through the torturous passage to the surface, and escape the cave. With eyes accustomed only to the dim light of the former habitation, this individual will at first be blinded by the brightness of the surface world, able to look only upon the shadows and reflections of the real world. But after some time and effort, the former cave-dweller will become able to appreciate the full variety of the newly-discovered world, looking at trees, mountains, and (eventually) the sun itself.
Finally, suppose that this escapee returns to the cave, trying to persuade its inhabitants that there is another, better, more real world than the one in which they have so long been content to dwell. They are unlikely to be impressed by the pleas of this extraordinary individual, Plato noted, especially since their former companion, having travelled to the bright surface world, is now inept and clumsy in the dim realm of the cave. Nevertheless, it would have been in the best interest of these residents of the cave to entrust their lives to the one enlightened member of their company, whose acquaintance with other things is a unique qualification for genuine knowledge.
Plato seriously intended this allegory as a representation of the state of ordinary human existence. We, like the people raised in a cave, are trapped in a world of impermanence and partiality, the realm of sensible objects. Entranced by the particular and immediate experiences these things provide, we are unlikely to appreciate the declarations of philosophers, the few among us who, like the escapee, have made the effort to achieve eternal knowledge of the permanent forms. But, like them, it would serve us best if we were to follow this guidance, discipline our own minds, and seek an accurate understanding of the highest objects of human contemplation."


Stories of a Dream said...

Doesn't the allegory even further? If it weren't for the cavemen to be chained, they would kill the escapee.

The one thing I don't like about Plato and especially this allegory that if anyone disagrees then the simple reply is that this person hasn't seen the light yet and as a consequence has no right to talk.

I thought that Plato does approve of some forms art, of music, but only when it is dedicated to the gods. And if I remember it correctly, but I very well might not, then in his ideal of an upbringing children were even required to learn to play an instrument. That's probably also because the practise of music can be seen as a purely mathematical exercise.

I find Plato's ideas of an ideal state intriguing if not amusing. Although it sometimes doesn't seem to differ much from stalinism or communism at best.

P.S.: nice blog!

Ana said...

Yes, I remember when I read the part he describes the citizens as being "gold", "silver" or bronze" it was quite shocking and felt the same.
He banishes poets from the Republic and art is 3 times away from truth since it represents something that is already a copy of the "real".
I agree with you.
I posted this allegory because this is taught and I think people must know it a little bit.
Never thought someone would comment here.

Anonymous said...

well i must thank you guys for posting it.This is the given topic to me which i will discuss next week on our Literature subject. your comments somehow enlighten my mind and answer some of questions that i still have in mind regarding this allegory..

dewayne2k8 said...

very interest post on the allegory the cave, Ana you have to understand that in society us as humans will never get to that enlighten stage where we all at the same time will understand the world,the universe or people even. there is some or many that rather be ignorant or know they are ignorant and rather not seek truth to enrich themselves and break from of a hold to false forms. especially in the U.S. where this country is built upon the individual seeking his own wealth or happiness or success at his own free will or he can just be a dumb-ass for the rest of his life and believe what he wants cause instead of us being able to work together as a collective and know that if we seek higher truths/status it makes us all better. so some people like the prisoners in the cave will never believe the escapee that saw the real world for what it was or even one may believe him cause he wants to know whats out there besides the shadows on the wall. it all depends on the man and if he has what it takes to think out the box...

Ana said...


I'm glad it helped. :)


It's not only in America. The vast majority of people are not taught to think out of the box.
They are indoctrinated by constant propaganda.