Allegory of the cave

Allegory of the cave

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The Allegory of the Cave—also known as the Analogy of the Cave, Plato's Cave, or the Parable of the Cave—is an allegory
Allegory
Allegory is a demonstrative form of representation explaining meaning other than the words that are spoken. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation...

 used by the Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 philosopher Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 in his work The Republic to illustrate "our nature in its education and want of education
Education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

" (514a). It is written as a fictional dialogue between Plato's teacher Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

 and Plato's brother Glaucon
Glaucon
Glaucon son of Ariston, was the philosopher Plato's older brother. He is primarily known as a major conversant with Socrates in Republic, and the interlocutor during the Allegory of the Cave...

 at the beginning of Book VII (chapter IX in Robin Waterfield
Robin Waterfield
Robin Anthony Herschel Waterfield is a British classical scholar, translator, editor, and writer of children's fiction.-Career:Waterfield was born in 1952, and studied Classics at Manchester University, where he achieved a first class degree in 1974...

's translation) (514a–520a). The Allegory of the Cave is presented after the metaphor of the sun (507b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line
Analogy of the divided line
Plato, in his dialogue The Republic Book 6 , has Socrates explain through the literary device of a divided line his fundamental metaphysical ideas as four separate but logically connected models of the world. The four models are arranged into a first pair for the visible world, and a second pair...

 (509d–513e). Allegories are summarized in the viewpoint of dialectic
Dialectic
Dialectic is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to Indic and European philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in Ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues...

 at the end of Book VII and VIII (531d–534e).

In the dialogue, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

The Allegory is related to Plato's Theory of Forms
Theory of Forms
Plato's theory of Forms or theory of Ideas asserts that non-material abstract forms , and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. When used in this sense, the word form is often capitalized...

, according to which the "Forms" (or "Idea
Idea
In the most narrow sense, an idea is just whatever is before the mind when one thinks. Very often, ideas are construed as representational images; i.e. images of some object. In other contexts, ideas are taken to be concepts, although abstract concepts do not necessarily appear as images...

s"), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge. In addition, the Allegory of the Cave is an attempt to explain the philosopher's place in society: to attempt to enlighten the "prisoners".

Inside the cave


Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 begins by describing a scenario in which what people take to be real would in fact be an illusion. He asks Glaucon
Glaucon
Glaucon son of Ariston, was the philosopher Plato's older brother. He is primarily known as a major conversant with Socrates in Republic, and the interlocutor during the Allegory of the Cave...

 to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their arms and legs held in place, but their heads are also fixed, compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads "including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials". The prisoners watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.

Socrates suggests the prisoners would take the shadows to be real
Being
Being , is an English word used for conceptualizing subjective and objective aspects of reality, including those fundamental to the self —related to and somewhat interchangeable with terms like "existence" and "living".In its objective usage —as in "a being," or "[a] human being" —it...

 things and the echoes to be real sounds, not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard. They would praise as clever whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world, and the whole of their society would depend on the shadows on the wall.

Release from the cave


Socrates then supposes that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they were and could not name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees.

"Suppose further," Socrates says, "that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn't he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real? What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave: wouldn't the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn't he be distressed and unable to see "even one of the things now said to be true," viz. the shadows on the wall (516a)?

After some time on the surface, however, the freed prisoner would acclimate. He would see more and more things around him, until he could look upon the Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

. He would understand that the Sun is the "source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing" (516b–c). (See also Plato's metaphor of the Sun, which occurs near the end of The Republic, Book VI)

Return to the cave


Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man. "Wouldn't he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn't he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn't he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn't it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it's not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn't they kill him?" (517a)

Remarks on the allegory


Socrates remarks that this allegory can be taken with what was said before, namely the metaphor of the Sun
Plato's metaphor of the sun
Plato, in The Republic , uses the sun as a metaphor for the source of "illumination", arguably intellectual illumination, which he held to be The Form of the Good, which is sometimes interpreted as Plato's notion of God. The metaphor is about the nature of ultimate reality and how knowledge is...

, and the divided line
Analogy of the divided line
Plato, in his dialogue The Republic Book 6 , has Socrates explain through the literary device of a divided line his fundamental metaphysical ideas as four separate but logically connected models of the world. The four models are arranged into a first pair for the visible world, and a second pair...

. In particular, he likens

"the region revealed through sight"—the ordinary objects we see around us—"to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the Sun. And in applying the going up and the seeing of what's above to the soul's journey to the intelligible place, you not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. At all events, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the region of the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of good
The Form of the Good
Plato describes "The Form of the Good" in his dialogue, the Republic, speaking through the character of Socrates. The Sun is described in a simile as the child or offspring of the Form of the Good , in that, like the sun which makes physical objects visible and generates life on earth, the Good...

; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is indeed the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful—in the visible realm it gives birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible realm, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence—and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it" (517b–c).


After "returning from divine contemplations to human evils", a man
"is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when—with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness—he is compelled in courtrooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?" (517d–e)

See also

  • Metaphor of the sun
  • Analogy of the divided line
    Analogy of the divided line
    Plato, in his dialogue The Republic Book 6 , has Socrates explain through the literary device of a divided line his fundamental metaphysical ideas as four separate but logically connected models of the world. The four models are arranged into a first pair for the visible world, and a second pair...

  • The Form of the Good
    The Form of the Good
    Plato describes "The Form of the Good" in his dialogue, the Republic, speaking through the character of Socrates. The Sun is described in a simile as the child or offspring of the Form of the Good , in that, like the sun which makes physical objects visible and generates life on earth, the Good...

  • Plato's Republic in popular culture

External links