Plato’s ‘Allegory of the cave’

31st August 2012

‘… the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good.’

Plato’s ‘Allegory of the cave’ like most philosophical discourse is unrestricted to any singular interpretation[1]. Some scholars further contend that Platos argument is “wrong” (Jaskaw, 2001; Heidegger in Borody, 1980). In it, Plato presents a metaphor contrasting beliefs and perceptions, demonstrating the effect of education on human psyche, and the progression of cognitive activity. His explanation transpires, independent of the prisoner’s perspective, as discourse between Glaucon[2] and Socrates[3], who presents an alternate axiom on the understanding and role of reality in human existence.

In summarizing ‘The Cave’ it is essential to consider its twin components of fictional metaphor and the Platonic tenets. Plato understands that people can think, and speak, without awareness of Archetypal Forms, but equates them to prisoners, confined in darkness, bound to the floor, and unable to turn their heads. To them, only a cave wall is visible, but behind them exists a fire, and a parapet from which puppeteers cast shadows. What the prisoners see and hear are reflections of unseen objects they cannot associate with ‘reality’ which are consequentially perceived as ‘reality’. Importantly, this conveys the notion that post-nascent human understanding of reality is falsely based on imperfect interpretations, and that general linguistic terms are not the ‘names’ of observable objects, but rather they identify invisible, mental constructs.

Following his[4] release, the prisoner’s recognizes the fire and objects previously dictative of his perception of reality, and realizes his error, understanding that these new images are the “true” reality. Plato describes the vision of ‘real’ truth as painful and distressing to the eyes and that the natural inclination is to retreat to the previous painless acceptance of ‘truth’. Therefore, comfort of the perceived, and fear of the unknown result in the prisoners forceful ascension from the cave. Plato’s allegory aims to describe the process undertaken to achieve a level of reflective understanding. Since human abilities of thought and speech are dependant on the Forms, linguistic terms derive meaning through ‘naming’ the Forms both perceived and participatory. Similarly, although concepts may be acquired through perceptual experience of physical objects, it would be erroneous to consider these equivalent to those that are discerned cognitively.

As the prisoner emerges into the sunlight, Socrates explains the bewilderment, fear, and blindness felt toward his newly determined reality. As the prisoner’s eyes adjust, he begins observing the existence of objects and individuals irrespective of medium. The climax occurs when the prisoner, erstwhile blind to the Forms, awakens to ‘reality and truth’. Socrates subsequently discusses the prisoner’s developing awareness, knowledge, and understanding, questioning whether the prisoner would desire to return to his formerly accepted ‘reality’, or remain in his newly understood perception of ‘reality’? Glaucon and Socrates both concede that the prisoner would tolerate any sufferance rather than return to his former life, since in returning he would metaphorically be reentering a world of darkness to face those still incarcerated whom, unable to comprehend what they have yet to experience, would laugh at, and mock him, for leaving the cave.

Plato’s apriorism rests on the tenets; that perceptions are imperfect reflections of Archetypal Forms, representing truth and reality; and that linguistic terminology does not name observable objects, but denotes unseen, mentally comprehensible, constructs. Plato’s Cave illustrates a complex model depicting human misconceptions about reality and of progressive development toward enlightened understanding of the path to complete awareness.




Plato 2008, ‘Book VII’, in Asscher, S. & Widger, D. (eds), The Project Guttenberg EBook of the Republic, Trans. B. Jowett, Project Guttenberg, viewed 24 August 2012, <;.

Borody, W.A 1980, ‘Heidegger on Plato’s Cave Alethology’, MA dissertation, McMaster University, viewed 4 August 2012, <;.

[1] Political connotations associated with this allegory are excluded from this summery as they predominate a later part of the text not covered by the extract. The extract adds to these latter areas by exploring Plato’s vision of what constitutes just leadership and a just society

[2] Glaucon is believed to have been Plato’s brother

[3] It appears that Plato frequently uses this method of expressing the ideas contained in his works through Socrates.

[4] The use of male personal pronouns in this essay reflects their use in the primary documents, as written by Plato


2 thoughts on “Plato’s ‘Allegory of the cave’

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