Parable of the Cave
Greece -- I
said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened
or unenlightened. Behold! Human beings living in an underground
cave, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all
along the den.
Here they have been from their childhood,
and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot
move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains
from turning round their heads.
Above and behind them a fire is blazing
at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is
a raised way. And you will see, if you look, a low wall built
along the way, like the screen which marionette-players have in
front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all
sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood
and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some
of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and
they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows,
or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite
wall of the cave?
True, he said. How could they see anything
but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would
only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they
not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from
the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the
passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the
shadows of the images. That is certain. And now look again, and
see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and
disabused of their error.
At first, when any of them is liberated
and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and
walk and look toward the light, he will suffer sharp pains. The
glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities
of which in his former state he had seen the shadows. And then
conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an
illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being
and his eye is turned toward more real existence, he has a clearer
vision--what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that
his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring
him to name them--will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy
that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects
which are now shown to him?
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he
not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take
refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he
will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are
now being shown to him?
True, he said.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep
and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence
of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated?
When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he
will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called
Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world.
And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of
men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves;
then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and
the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by
night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections
of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place,
and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season
and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible
world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and
his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason
And when he remembered his old habitation,
and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not
suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity
Certainly, he would.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves
who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark
which of them went before, and which followed after, and which
were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions
as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors
and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say
with Homer, "Better
to be the poor servant of a poor master," and to endure anything,
rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
Yes, he said, I think that he would rather
suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in
this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the
sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain
to have his eyes full of darkness?
To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring
the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the
den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become
steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new
habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous?
Men would say of him that up he went
and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not
even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another
and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender,
and they would put him to death.
No question, he said.
This entire allegory, I said, you may
now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house
is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you
will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to
be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according
to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed--whether
rightly or wrongly, God knows.
But, whether true or false, my opinion
is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last
of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also
inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and
right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible
world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual;
and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally
either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
I agree, he said, as far as I am able
to understand you.
Moreover, I said, you must not wonder
that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to
descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into
the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs
is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted.
Yes, very natural.
And is there anything surprising in one
who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man,
misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner.
If, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed
to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts
of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of
images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions
of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?
Anything but surprising, he replied.
Any one who has common-sense will remember
that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise
from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going
into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much
as of the bodily eye.
And he who remembers this when he sees
anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready
to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come
out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed
to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled
by excess of light.
And he will count the one happy in his
condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or,
if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below
into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the
laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light
into the den.
That, he said, is a very just distinction.
But then, if I am right, certain professors
of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge
into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind
They undoubtedly say this, he replied.
Whereas, our argument shows that 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.
The Scholastic discussion & an
influence on Plato was a profound one, and Plato uses Socrates
as a major character in many of his works. In The Republic, Plato
presents an allegory that is useful in illustrating the difficulties
and rewards of critical, philosophical analysis. This allegory,
the allegory of the cave, may be read as a parable of political
Like all parables and allegories, the
richness of its teachings lies not in the literal details of the
story, but, rather, in the larger philosophical questions implied
by the details.
Just as the parable of the boy who cried
wolf, for example, is not really meant to teach the mechanics
of sheep herding or wolf tracking, but, instead, is a compelling
allegory because it teaches us about issues such as honesty and
human needs, so it is with Plato's allegory of the cave. It is
not really about caves at all.
It is about grappling with the questions
we need to understand in order to be enlightened about the world.
In The Republic,
Plato has the character of Socrates begin the allegory of the
cave by telling us that the allegory is supposed to illustrate
the process of achieving understanding and enlightenment.
This is why the allegory is so very useful
as a parable of political theorizing, for political theory is
a history of the search for enlightenment on the normative questions
What is the human
condition as it pertains to enlightenment or ignorance? In the
allegory, Socrates contends that, in order to begin answering
this question, we should imagine ourselves living in an underground
cave. As residents of this cave, we are unaware of the most fundamental
aspects of our environment.
For example, we do not know that we are
actually inside a cave, for we assume that the surroundings we
observe constitute the entire universe. We have no idea that above
us is a ground level, a sky, a sun, for we automatically believe
that all that we see is all that is real.
Our vision in this cave, Socrates explains,
is very limited. The cave is dimly lit, and discerning images
and shapes is difficult. However, since we have always lived in
this cave, we don't feel that it is dark and blurry. for, to us,
everything looks normal.
There are things
going on in this cave that we do not know about. We are shackled
so that we can only look forward. Having never experienced looking
backward, we do not know that this is even possible and, therefore,
we do not realize we are shackled.
Behind us are three important objects:
a fire casting light on the walls of the cave, a pathway leading
out of the cave, and groups of people moving objects that cast
shadows on the walls of the cave. We see only the shadows in front
of us, and have no clue that these are merely shadows being created
by moving objects. Having no reason to think otherwise, we consider
the shadows to be real.
Thus, our lives
consist of watching shadows. We are mesmerized by our world, not
knowing its vacuous nature. We are entertained, informed, and
reassured by the mundane and the sublime in our reality, not knowing
that both are merely artificial constructs. We are so certain
that we know reality -- after all, we are empirically observing
it -- that our complacency has become part of our nature. All
is right with the world, we feel.
happens to shatter life in the cave. A person stands and looks
around. Upon making these unprecedented movements and looking
into these new directions, the person feels intense discomfort.
Standing up, turning around, seeing the fire -- all of these bold
moves strain muscles and eyes unaccustomed to such "unnatural"
things. The individual experiences confusion, as his or her vision
and equilibrium have to adjust to the newness of standing and
The individual, Socrates continues, immediately
considers rejecting everything she/he sees; it all looks unfamiliar,
unreal, untrue, unnatural, wrong. It makes the individual feel
very uncomfortable. The individual may want desperately to turn
away from all these new things, but what if she/he does not? What
if the individual moves up the cave's pathway and above ground?
Here, the individual encounters more
shocks and becomes even more frightened and miserable. for the
light of the sun is completely overwhelming to someone who has
always lived in a cave. The individual is blind and lost.
Yet, slowly, things begin
to change. The eyes adjust and the individual begins to see not
only the sun, but also the land, the sky, the world. The individual
now realizes that there is an entire universe beyond the underground
The cave is not the world, living
in shackles is not living freely, watching shadows play along
a wall is not knowledge of what is real -- the former prisoner
now knows all these things.
individual begins to feel an urgent need to share this wonderful
knowledge with the others in the cave. Thus, in the allegory,
the individual goes back down the pathway, re-enters the cave,
and starts revealing to the others that there is a life above
ground. She/he tells the cave dwellers that they are in shackles,
that those shadows they have been watching all their lives (and
which their parents watched before them) are just images created
by movements they have never seen.
How do you think
the prisoners respond to these claims? In the allegory, the prisoners
decide that the individual is mad, dangerous, or both. They assume
the individual's vision has been ruined. The individual has lost
touch with reality, if he or she thinks that looking backward
The individual is talking nonsense, the
cave dwellers conclude. If the individual persists in trying to
liberate the others, Socrates is very clear on what will happen:
The individual will be killed by the cave dwellers.
The journey of
the individual in Plato's allegory is relived, perhaps, by all
of us when we think critically about politics. Critical thinking
is difficult, sometimes unsettling, and often productive of conclusions
at odds with the status quo of our caves. Thinking critically
about the purposes of the state may lead us to believe that the
accepted wisdom of our society is no more real than a shadow on
As a result, political theory has produced
ideas that are often controversial and sometimes elicit strong
opposition. Socrates himself was considered dangerous and was
condemned to death by Athens.
Eighteenth-century conservative theorist
Edmund Burke was sometimes vilified by opponents, and liberal
theorists like 18th-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft have been
ridiculed for challenging contemporaries to throw off their shackles,
to live boldly, and create a life beyond the cave.
Whenever theorists ask questions about
the normative issues of politics, offering paths out of the cave,
they enter controversial territory. Taking a college course on
the internet with no professor present is itself an example of
"creating a life beyond the cave" that is highly controversial
and suspect among many professors.
Note: Plato's allegory of the Cave, from "The Republic"
Book VII, in The Wisdom and Ideas of Plato.
A Faucet Premier Book, Greenwich, Conn., 1966.]