Significance of Plato’s Theory of an Allegory of the Cave

‘Allegory of the cave’ is one of the most cited allegories in the history of western thought in which Plato illustrates his dualistic theory of reality at the beginning of book VII of the Republic. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato described symbolically the predicament in which mankind finds itself and proposes a way of salvation. The Allegory presents, in brief form, most of Plato's major philosophical assumptions: his belief that the world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it, and that the real world can only be apprehended intellectually; his idea that knowledge cannot be transferred from teacher to student, but rather that education consists in directing student's minds toward what is real and important and allowing them to apprehend it for themselves; his faith that the universe ultimately is good; his conviction that enlightened individuals have an obligation to the rest of society, and that a good society must be one in which the truly wise (the Philosopher-King) are the rulers.

At the beginning of the allegory, Plato asks us to imagine some men living a large cave facing the inside wall of the cave where from childhood they have been chained by the leg and by the neck so that they cannot move. They have never seen the light of day   or the sun outside the cave. Behind the prisoners a fire burns and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way on and behind the raised way there is the entrance to the cave. Along the raised way people walk carrying all sorts of things which they hold so that they cast shadows status of men, animals, and trees on the wall before them. The prisoners, facing the inside wall behind them on which the object are being carried all they can see are the shadows these objects cast on the wall of the cave.

The prisoners live all their lives seeing only shadows of reality and the voices they hear are only echoes from the wall. If they were freed and able to turn around and see the realities, which produce the shadows, they would be blinded by the light of the fire. And they would become angry and would prefer to regain their shadow world. But if one of the prisoners were freed and turned around to see in the light of fire, the cave and his fellow prisoners and the roadway, and if he were, then, dragged up and out of the cave into the light of the sun, he would see the things of the world as they truly are and finally he would see the sun itself. Now he would understand what he and his fellow prisoners saw on the wall, how shadows and reflections differ from things as they really are in the visible world and that without the sun there would be no visible world.

Each historical generation since Plato’s time has been tantalized by the question, how does the allegory of the cave apply to our time, to our society? The  question tantalizes us too. But in fact the Allegory of the cave remains relevant and moving for many people in our own time. It is an allegory of sleep and waking of our time as asleep in the dark of the cave and needing to awake to a clear vision of the world. It is an allegory of our time as needing to be born again, to emerge from the darkness of corruption into the light of truth and morality. It is an educational allegory of our time as needing to ascend through stages of education from the darkness of intellectual and moral confusion in its everyday beliefs, to the light of true knowledge and value. It is a religious allegory of Christian conversion from   the cave of self love and self gratification to the love of God and devotion to the truth. The allegory of the cave may be viewed as a devastating criticism of our everyday lives as being in bondage to superficialities and also of much of the sins of our time. It is of course a political allegory. The life in the cave is the life of politics. Both the leaders and the public are ignorant and corrupt, without true knowledge of themselves, or of the world motivated by greed, power and self gratification. They are chained in bondage to ignorance and passions, to mysteries for or against fleeting issue believing in current ideologies which are the illusions, the shadows on the walls of the cave. 

It is an allegory of the Philosopher king. The liberated one, having made the ascent to know the truth and the good, has a mission to return to the cave, to bring entanglement to bring the good news, even though he may be killed for his service. 

Thus, Plato establishes his view of appearance and reality with the help of his Allegory of cave.