Plato’s cave allegory is an analogy of an individual’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment, as well as referring to his beliefs of the world of appearances, and the world of Reality. Plato’s fable “The Allegory of the Cave” reflects the vast wisdom of Plato, his teacher and the philosophers of his time. The story’s meaning and lessons are as significant today as they were then, and its inclusion in The Republic is well earned.
The intentions of Plato in sharing this story seem to be fairly simple. As with all of the works that he included in The Republic, he is attempting to convey a message that relates to government and leadership. This fable also tells us how, what some people believe to be true may be in fact the exact opposite to truth, and that people must always be open minded, just in case their beliefs are wrong.
In the story, the prisoners are convinced that the shadows they see are alive, real and able to speak to them. In fact, however, they are being lied to by puppeteers. Because they have seen this lie so many times, and because it is all that they have seen, for them, it has become the truth. As such, the puppeteers are able to control their lives, by speaking to these prisoners as the shadows. This lesson becomes quite relevant to today’s society. It is portrayed in works such as The Matrix and Animal Farm, where the characters are lied to, but because they hear the lie so often, they perceive it as truth. In reality, we find this message to also be evident in the forms of such things as propaganda, in which a message is repeated by so many times, that each person hears a relay from numerous sources. Eventually, because of the numerous sources and repetition of the message, it seems to them to become normal to hear and hence believable.
Messages of The Allegory of the Cave
This of course relates to our leaders and government. If such administrations were to use methods like propaganda to convince the public that, for example, the stock market was free trade when in fact it was government controlled, then the government would be able to effectively control the flow of money, and hence people’s lives, without anyone being the wiser. In the end, the ultimate message is that people are able to use lies to exploit others and so we must all be wary. This then relates to the second message conveyed by the work. The piece tells us that the prisoners have extreme difficulty in accepting the reality that the shadows they had seen weren’t real and how these prisoners would rather return to the shadows over staying in the light. At the end of the story, when a prisoner who has seen the truth returns to tell others, it is implied and can be seen from the reactions of the freed prisoners that those who still believe in the shadows would prefer to keep doing so.
These parts of the story bring to mind two intertwined messages. The first is that, in general, all people have their own views and beliefs on life, and they are happier living under whatever delusions they have convinced themselves of, rather than considering contradictory beliefs. Essentially, for most people ignorance is bliss. Just like the prisoners who are freed from the cave and forced to see the real world, people fear the knowledge of something that might interfere or contradict the beliefs they rely upon (Taylor, 110-22). For the most part, they would much rather go on not knowing, and turn from the light and long to return to the shadows.
The second seems to be a warning to do the exact opposite of what has been stated above. The fact that the characters in the story, whose views are wrong, are prisoners is very symbolic. Not only are these people prisoners of the puppeteers, they are also prisoners of their own beliefs. Because they do not want to find out about what is real, they are condemned to believe in what is not. The piece warns us that we must not blindly follow our own beliefs, without continually viewing and considering other views that may be true as well. If we do not always consider the ideas of others, we will essentially be trapped by our own adamant conviction in what we think is real. This lesson has become evident in countless cases throughout history, where beliefs about a geocentric universe, a flat earth, etc. were all held to e true and the introduction of the ideas we hold as true today was ridiculed and deemed ludicrous.
Human Nature in The Allegory of the Cave
Through this simple story, we are able to see a seldom-realized aspect of human nature, in that many of us blindly follow what we are told, and consequently believe. We can relate deeply to the fable, because, like the prisoners, we as a whole prefer to not know some truths, believe some lies, and have difficulty accepting some realities. By the end of the work, we are left with new thoughts about the reality of our beliefs and faith and are encouraged to re-evaluate our paradigms. There is no clear moral to this story; however there are many links and explanations about the contrast of the world of Forms, and the world of reality, but the main point is this: the path of a philosopher and journey to enlightenment is a long, difficult, painful, and lonely one.
This allegory was written to show a number of things. The main point in the piece is that humankind can function without any knowledge of what is going on around them. This allegory has a number of “prisoners” trapped in a cave, without the ability to turn their heads around. All the prisoners only can see the wall in front of the cave the way which they are facing. There is a fire behind the prisoners with objects in between them and the fire. However, all the prisoners can see is the shadows on the wall, and all they can hear are the echoes that the objects make in the cave. So, what the prisoners take for reality is really just the shadows of those objects.
When things pass along the wall the prisoners comment on them, saying that they see an object when all they really see is the shadow of the object. Plato is trying to say that what we see, and name, we can not really see. We can only grasp these things with our mind and name them. This means that people easily believe what has been put in front of them. Plato wants people to question and think more, rather then just telling what has been draped before their eyes. Most of the readings can relate to this theory because they are all trying to make us think more. Just like Plato’s prisoners, we take what society has put before our eyes as the truth.
Symbolical and Metaphorical Interpretations
The cave is a metaphor for human existence. The people in the cave accept the shadows on the cave wall as reality because this is all that they have experienced. The echoes they hear are assumed by them to be real for the same reason. Plato is trying to illustrate that people know little truth about the reality of the world. The philosopher is the escaped person who goes into the light and can see the true reality of the world around them. Plato argues that it is the duty of the philosopher to inform the people in the cave of the light. This means the philosopher’s role is to spread the word to the people of the true reality of the world (Nails, 233-36).
Plato described symbolically the predicament in which humanity finds itself and proposes a way of salvation. Throughout the conversation, ideas develop that are meant to teach people about themselves, their world, and how it should be viewed rather than the simple, uninvolved point of view that is common to most of the every day people of this world. The purpose of the “Allegory of the Cave” is to bring about clarification and explanation to people and give them motivation to help others to come out of their shells of darkness with this new knowledge or light. In order for man to become educated, they must search for knowledge according to Plato, and this is the knowledge that he refers to as light. The light brings the world into focus making the uneducated, educated.
The “Allegory of the Cave” shows how the teacher questions the actions, thoughts, and ideas of the student so the student learns to think on their own. Socrates explains that the quest for knowledge is not only a right, but it is also a duty and everyone has the ability to search for and find the light. The perception of life changes when one comes to light. You are able to see things you were previously not able to see and you learn things that you did not know. According to Socrates, once a person discovers himself and the light, it is his job to share this knowledge and understanding with the world. His purpose is now to become a writer of philosophy, to become a teacher in the school of thought and get others motivated to think for themselves and to pass it along to others. It depends on the level a person decides to do these respectable and honorable deeds, it is not enough. It is the educated man’s reason for being a part of this world that he has discovered the light.
- Nails, Debra (2006). “The Life of Plato of Athens”, A Companion to Plato edited by Hugh H. Benson. Blackwell Publishing. 233-36
- Plato, The Republic, Book VII, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1974), p. 168.
- Taylor, Alfred Edward (2001). Plato: The Man and his Work. Courier Dover Publications. 119-22