Allegory Of The Cave Summary

Plato

Allegory Of The Cave

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Allegory Of The Cave Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Allegory of the Cave by Plato.

“Allegory of the Cave” is a philosophical parable or analogy from Plato’s The Republic, written around 380 BC. Exploring themes of knowledge, perception, and the importance of education, it takes the form of a discussion between Plato’s brother, Glaucon, and his teacher and mentor, Socrates. Although this dialogue was almost certainly scripted by Plato, it is not clear whether the idea itself is Plato’s own or his record of Socrates’s thoughts.

The allegory begins with Plato’s Socrates describing a group of humans held in a deep, dark cave. They have been imprisoned there since childhood, their necks and legs bound so they cannot turn to see themselves, each other, or the rest of the cave. All they can do is stare ahead at the cave wall in front of them. Behind them, unseen, is a walkway with a low barrier on it, and behind that is a large, bright fire. A group of puppeteers moves along the walkway, with puppets raised above their heads. While the puppeteers’ own shadows are obscured by the barrier, the light of the fire casts the silhouettes of their puppets onto the far cave wall so that the prisoners see the shadow-shapes of humans, animals, and various objects flickering before them. When the puppeteers’ voices echo around the cave, they appear to the prisoners to be coming from these shadow creatures, not from the unseen humans speaking behind them. Having presented this strange scenario, Socrates suggests that, for the prisoners, the shadow display, which is all they can see, would be “reality.” They would not know that what they are seeing is an impression of an impression of a real thing—the shadow cast by a puppet that is inspired by a horse or the silhouette of mannequin in the shape of a human. As far as they are aware, the shadows are themselves the real object, the real horse, or the real human.

Socrates then adds to the scenario, proposing that one of the prisoners is released and may now look around and move freely about the cave. Suddenly, he would be able to look at the fire that had been behind him his whole life. The light of it would hurt his eyes as they are accustomed only to the shadows and, squinting, he would not be able to perceive the puppets clearly. If he was told at this point that the puppets—which for him are blurred and obscured in his painful vision—are reality, he would not believe it, and he would retreat back to what is familiar and comfortable: the shadows that do not strain his eyes and so appear clearest and most real to him.

Socrates takes this further, suggesting that, if someone were to forcibly drag the released prisoner from the cave and out into the sunlight, this reaction would be worse, at least for a short time. Facing the light of the sun for the first time in his life, the man would be temporarily blinded, and he would react to his pain and confusion with anger. However, as his eyes grew used to the light, he would slowly be able to see more clearly. At first, he would only be able to look at shadows but after a while he could look at the reflections people, animals, and objects cast in water and, after that, he could look upon the people, animals, and objects themselves. Eventually, he could look at the moon and the stars in the night sky and, last of all, at the sun in the daytime. Only once he can look at the sun itself, Socrates reasons, can the escaped prisoner begin to truly consider it.

Having looked upon the Earth and its inhabitants, and upon the stars and moon and sun, the man who had once been imprisoned in the dark would believe this reality to be far superior to the false reality he had believed down in the darkness. He would pity those still trapped there and would seek to bring them up to the light, to quite literally, enlighten them. However, upon descending back down into the cave, his eyes, now used to the bright light of day, would be temporarily blinded by the darkness as the sun had temporarily blinded him. The remaining prisoners would see the man’s blindness and believe that leaving the cave is dangerous and damaging and should be avoided at all costs. They would therefore conclude, Plato’s Socrates suggests, that anyone attempting to force them out of the cave should be fought off and even killed in order to defend themselves from the dangerous journey out into the light.

The allegory has been interpreted in a number of different ways over the years. One common reading suggests that it demonstrates that our perception and our senses, like those of the cave dwellers, are subjective and unreliable and cannot provide us with objective truth. This can only be found through abstract thought and philosophical reasoning. Another important interpretation states that the allegory highlights the complexities of education and ignorance, demonstrating not only how humans may be advanced and enlightened through education but also explaining why the ignorant may cling, sometimes violently, to their own ignorance. As one of Plato’s most famous pieces of writing, “Allegory of the Cave” has not only provoked great philosophical debate, it has also inspired many more popular reflections ranging from the 1999 movie The Matrix through Mumford and Sons’ song “The Cave.”