Plato and the Cave

The Analogy of the Cave

In Plato’s book The Republic the main character Socrates tells a story to his hearers about a cave and its inhabitants. The story is intended to illustrate the contrast between true knowledge which comes through education and the impressions we receive in the everyday world.

The Story
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Plato’s Cave Watch a video on YouTube

Prisoners are chained so that they can only see a wall of a cave in which they live. Behind them is a fire and a raised wall along which puppeteers move wooden shapes of men and animals. The light from the fire throws shadows on the wall, which the prisoners believe are real people. Sounds made by the puppeteers echoes through the cave and the prisoners assume that these sounds come from the shadows they see. At some point one of the prisoners escapes his chains. Initially when he turns round he is blinded by the fire and cannot see clearly. Once his eyes become accustomed to the light from the fire he realizes the deception and begins to move towards the exit of the cave. Struggling upward into the daylight his eyes are again blinded by the light from the outside world and as he emerges from the mouth of the cave he can see nothing because of the light from the sun. He sees at first only shadows and shapes, but later on, as his eyes adapt, he can view the real world and eventually he is even able to look at the sun. The story ends with the prisoner pondering what would be his fate if he were to re-enter the world of the cave and try to resume his old way of life.

Now look at the meaning

The cave

The visible world, where humans live

The man

The philosopher, perhaps Socrates

The prisoners

The rest of humanity who are unable to understand the words of men who are ‘enlightened’

The shadows and echoes

What we perceive as the whole of our reality. i.e. all empirical knowledge


The eternal and immutable world (true reality) – the world of Ideas the world of Forms

The sun

Enlightenment or the Form of the Good

The journey out

The progression of education and the skills of the philosopher

Return to cave

Socrates’ own example. He taught the citizens of Athens and was put to death

Caving with Plato

The theme of Plato’s Cave may have influenced to a greater or lesser extent both literature and the cinema.

Dante’s Divine Comedy – the main character Dante himself encounters a world where he cannot move about without great danger. This is an allegory which describes his journey through hell and purgatory to paradise. On another level it is thought to be the journey of the soul towards God.

John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress – Again an allegory and the theme of a struggle is evident. Christian begins his journey towards the Celestial City. He leaves behind him his old way of life and carrying his sins on his back he begins his upward journey. He encounters difficulties and dangers and many on the way think he is mad. Eventually he reaches ultimate reality in the  Celestial City.

The Matrix – this film is clearly bases on Plato’s story of the Cave. In the film the computer nurd Thomas Anderson is taken out of his humdrum office way of life and snatched  away by Morpheus who reveals to him that his day-to-day life has been an illusion – a simulation world based on 1999. Gradually Anderson changes his character into Neo and comes to terms with the world as it really is, in danger from the machines that are trying to control it.

HarryPotter – this parallel works to a degree providing one is prepared to think of the Dursleys as the people in the cave. They try and imprison Harry and protect him and themselves from the world of witchcraft and magic. Uncle Vernon destroys mail and all communications in an attempt to maintain suburban normality. The appearance of Hagrid on the island brings all that to an end and Harry is transported (not unwillingly as I remember) to the magical world of Hogwarts, where he sees the world as non-muggles see it. It is not a great comparison but there is something to be said for the idea that Harry’s self-awareness grows in every book.

A final thought on the cave illustration.

The same point could be made using the concept of the cinema. Cinema-goers sit and watch the screen and become totally absorbed in the actions. When the plot becomes sinister we sit in fear. , When the Jaws shark emerges from the sea we jump and young ladies grow tearful as Titanic sinks. These are images on a screen. They have no reality in life.

These are not real people. They are actors, images, copies of real life.

Like the prisoners in the cave we are still fooled by them. Or are we?

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