Author: Spencer Case
Categories: Historical Philosophy, Philosophy of Education, Metaphysics, Epistemology, or Theory of Knowledge
Word count: 998
Plato (428/427–348/347 B.C.E.) was an ancient Greek philosopher who wrote play-like dialogues, often using his late teacher, Socrates, as his mouthpiece.
Plato’s book The Republic is a dialogue about justice. It contains the “Allegory of the Cave”, a fanciful story that illustrates some of Plato’s ideas about education and the distinction between appearance and reality.
This essay introduces the Allegory and explains its meaning.
1. The Story
In Republic Book VII, Socrates is talking with Plato’s brother, Glaucon. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a group of people held captive in a cave since childhood, chained so that they can’t move their heads and can only see the cave wall in front of them. A fire blazes behind them, and puppeteers on a platform cast shadows on the cave wall. The prisoners spend their time discussing these shadows and the echoes they hear, which they assume are noises made by the shadows. This is the only “reality” they know.
One day, a prisoner is released and made to walk out of the cave. The ascent is arduous. The light from the fire, and then from the mouth of the cave, hurts his eyes. It intensifies until he steps outside into the blinding sunlight. As his eyes adjust, the freed prisoner is gradually able to see the things around him—only shadows at first, then ordinary objects such as trees and rocks. The last thing he’s able to see clearly is the sun because it’s the brightest.
Now that the freed prisoner is outside, he wouldn’t return to captivity in the cave for anything. But he pities those still trapped there. So he decides to help them escape. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. When he returns to the cave, the prisoners find his testimony unbelievable. Worse, his eyes aren’t used to the darkness, so he can’t see the shadows as well as he could before.
In time, his eyes would adjust and he’d understand the shadows better than any of the prisoners, since he’d seen the real objects that the shadows represent. Still, in the prisoners’ eyes, he’s a fool. If he tried to release them, they’d kill him for his effort.
Socrates tells Glaucon that the prisoners are like us: most of us are ignorant. The journey out of the cave represents our journey from ignorance toward knowledge of what’s most real. The words “most real” might sound strange. We usually think that things are either real or unreal. But, for Plato, some things are more “real” than others.
Plato thinks that two kinds of things exist: changing things we perceive with our senses, i.e., physical objects, and unchanging forms we only “see” intellectually. Physical objects are imperfect imitations of the forms, like shadows. They derive their existence from the forms, and so the forms, for Plato, are more real than the objects.
To take a concrete example: horses are real, but the form of the horse, which we can think of as an ideal horse, is more real than any individual horse can be, since all horses derive their being from “participation” in it.
There’s also a hierarchy among the forms. The greatest form, the “Form of the Good”—the sun in the Allegory—is the ultimate source of all that exists. We can almost think of the Form of the Good as God except that it isn’t a person. Philosophical knowledge, the highest form of knowledge, is knowledge of the forms, and above all, knowledge of the Form of the Good.
The Allegory tells us that education of the most noble sort—philosophical education—is a painful process for the few who can achieve it, at least in its early stages. For most people, philosophical knowledge will be out of reach. The masses don’t know their own ignorance and resent those who try to enlighten them. Undoubtedly, when Plato made Socrates say that some prisoners would even want to kill the freed companion trying to liberate them, he had in mind Socrates himself.
Socrates was famous in the Greek city-state of Athens for asking supposedly knowledgeable citizens hard questions about things like “knowledge” and “holiness.” These interrogations often exposed his interlocutors as being less knowledgeable than they claimed to be and made Socates some enemies. In 399 B.C.E., Athens executed Socrates by forcing him to drink hemlock, a poison, after a jury convicted him of “corrupting the youth” and failing to respect the gods. Socrates insisted on his innocence but accepted his fate.
Athens was a democracy at the time of Socrates’ execution, and Plato thought that this tragic episode highlights the problem with democracy: the majority can’t be entrusted with power. Plato thought political power should instead be concentrated in the hands of an elite like Socrates—and, of course, himself—who were capable of philosophical knowledge. But this would only work in a city prepared for that kind of leadership.
The Allegory of the Cave encapsulates many important and distinctive ideas in Plato’s philosophy. However, elsewhere in his writings, Plato expresses ideas about education that don’t neatly square with the symbolism of the Allegory.
According to the Allegory, even the students who are capable of philosophy, whom the freed prisoner represents, are placed in a passive role, struggling against the teacher at every step. At least that’s true until they breach the surface, at which point they have philosophical knowledge. The contrast between teacher and student is very stark. The teacher knows what’s outside of the cave and the student doesn’t have an inkling, and can contribute little to the journey.
Elsewhere, Plato paints a different picture. In some of his dialogues, Socrates claims not to know the answers to the questions he’s asking, and he views philosophical investigation as a cooperative exercise with his students. He’s open to the idea that his students might provide objections to his ideas, or raise ideas he hasn’t considered. Maybe this cooperative model is a better way to think about education.
 See Plato’s Form of the Good by Ryan Jenkins.
 See Plato’s Apology and Plato’s Crito: When Should We Break the Law? by Spencer Case.
 See Plato’s Meno 79d–80e. Socrates claims he is just as much in a state of aporia—meaning doubt or perplexity—as those he is trying to enlighten through philosophical conversation.
Plato. Apology. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive.
Plato. Meno. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Online. The Internet Classics Archive.
Plato’s Crito: When Should We Break the Law? by Spencer Case
Plato’s Form of the Good by Ryan Jenkins
About the Author
Spencer Case has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder, where he is currently a lecturer. He hosts Micro-Digressions: A Philosophy Podcast and does a lot of writing, academic and otherwise. SpencerCasePhilosophy.com
One thought on “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: the Journey Out of Ignorance”
Comments are closed.