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The True Role of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Updated on May 10, 2012


This essay will provide an argument and evidence for the proposition that Plato’s famous allegory of the cave plays multiple roles and can be understood as a reference to Plato’s theory of the forms, as a metaphor for the process an intellectual experiences on the search for wisdom and knowledge of the forms and as a way to portray parts of his political philosophy. In contrast to this the religious interpretation of this piece of writing seems to be a misunderstanding of his largely logical and sceptical approach to philosophy and belief.

It seems very apparent that Plato’s philosophy concerning the forms is being proposed within the allegory of the cave. He argued that humans can be ignorant of a fact - meaning they do not hold a true belief about a given conclusion or philosophical position. The second option is that people have a belief about a proposition which can be either true or false - depending not on logic or reason but simply luck. The last possible option is that someone has true knowledge of a subject, meaning in the context of Plato that they have logically deduced one of the forms (Adamson, 2012). The forms are a collection of concepts that are both unchanging and factual - similar to mathematics (Milligan, 2012) and are logically true despite changing sensory perceptions. This includes the form of the good which is equivalent to the ultimate unchanging source of goodness that can be emulated in everyday experience. In the allegory of the cave the sun is a clear metaphor for the truth of the forms. This is apparent because as his prisoner exits the cave he perceives, first, the world around him illuminated by light. He then has the intense revelation that the source of the light is the sun above him. This resembles how Plato described the forms in a number of ways. Firstly the source of the light is not the object itself but rather from the “form” of light - the sun. This is similar to how Plato views the form of the good because although one can perceive goodness in the world around them he believes that these perceptions are only good because of the fact they emulate or partake in the form of the good, which is unchanging. Secondly it is similar because the revolutionary experience he has when he realises this is similar to the experience that Plato believes an individual has when he comes to know the truth of the forms. Some argue that other interpretations of the cave are more convincing but considering the central place of the forms in Plato’s philosophy and the similarities between the metaphor and his beliefs it seems extremely likely that this was the meaning of the latter section of the tale. The fact that the protagonist is at first shocked and hurt by the light can also be interpreted as Plato’s belief that experiencing the reality of the forms can at first be quite frightening.

It is also argued that the allegory of the cave is partly a way to describe the perspective of someone advancing intellectually (Wright, 1906) towards knowledge of the forms, or wisdom. The first aspect which points to this conclusion is that the prisoners living within the confines of the cave are content and accepting of their own interpretation of reality and that once one of them escapes from the cave he is in awe of how ignorant he was beforehand of the truth of reality (Blackburn, 2012). They believe that all there is to life is the reality they perceive around them in the form of shadows on the wall they are chained too. Due to Plato’s philosophy of the forms this seems to be how he thinks the philosopher would view how average people perceive the world. They are unaware of a greater reality which Plato thinks is only accessible to the intellectual - the reality of the forms. The interpretation of the allegory as the process an intellectual experiences on his way to knowledge of the forms is also supported by the fact that in the tale the protagonist is unwilling to continue living in ignorance of the truth even though he may become an outcast (Blackburn, 2012). This is how Plato argues the nature of wisdom functions. He also states that the enlightened prisoner goes back to tries to educate his fellow prisoners back in the cave even though this attempt fails because they cannot conceive of something so out with their own reality. This viewed in respect of socrates wanderings and attempts to spread the truth of reality as well as the fact Plato himself wrote philosophical texts shows us that it was a belief of his that once an individual had become knowledgeable of reality it is his duty to educate his fellow man. Some debate this point by arguing that at the beginning of the text he refers to the prisoners as “people like us” implying that even he as a philosopher is unaware of the true form of the good. It seems to me, however, that it is just as likely that Plato uses this terminology as a way to make people empathise with the prisoners or in reference to how the average human lives. As well as this in context of the entire story it appears that Plato views himself more like the escaped prisoner, the philosopher, rather than the ignorant and unaware prisoners within the cave as he himself is aware of the forms. These points point to the conclusion that - at least in part - It is a metaphor for the philosophers experience as he progresses towards wisdom.

A third interpretation which seems to be valid is that the allegory of the cave is partly a political metaphor. This is apparent for a number of reasons. One is that as the seventh book of the republic - a discourse written by Plato on his ideal society and the correct function of politics - it is likely to have a partly political motive. Within the republic Plato argues that the philosophers, or individuals with knowledge of virtue and truth, should be the ones to lead society (Blackburn, 2012). The allegory could therefore be an attempt to help define the philosopher as to allow the reader to understand his arguments for their positions as philosopher kings. Another example is that in his allegory there are malicious individuals who stand in front of a fire as to be able to create shadows which the prisoners perceive as incorrectly reality. They are both aware of a slightly higher level of truth and capable of manipulation of average peoples perception but still unaware of the nature of the forms and of the form of the good. This can easily be seen as a metaphor for politicians and the way politics functions and if so shows Plato’s disdain for it. If we entertain this as a political aspect it can be seen as an additional argument for why philosophers should be the ones to lead rather than those who simply have the ability to manipulate the masses. This is because the philosopher is knowledgeable about the forms of the virtues and the good and is more likely than politicians to apply them to society. It can be argued that this is an invalid interpretation caused by our contemporary western perspective on politics. It could instead be a metaphor for any kind of false or unenlightened teacher or simply anyone who wishes to manipulate your worldview. Within the context of the republic in which the allegory is contained, however, It seems much more likely that this was a political metaphor and an argument that relates to his position that philosophers rather than politicians should rule - despite the fact that they receive no benefit from such an undertaking (Blackburn, 2012).

Another common interpretation of the tale in religious circles such as christianity is that the allegory is a metaphor for religious illumination or a religious epiphany (Blackburn, 2012). They argue that it is similar to the experience of various individuals who have divine visions that lead to greater religious knowledge, such as god's existence or even his will. Although the experience the prisoner has when he escapes the cave may appear to be a religious epiphany if we accept that the sun is a metaphor for the forms or philosophical knowledge then Plato’s argument that the only way to access the forms is through the use of logic and the study of philosophy seems contradictory. Religions such as the Christian religion often base their arguments on faith and belief. Plato was fervently against beliefs because - as previously mentioned - he thought that beliefs could be both true and false and so are not sufficient to discover the truth or the forms (Adamson, 2012). Knowledge, or justified true beliefs, was the only way to access the forms in his worldview. This seems to point towards the idea that the allegory of the cave was a metaphor for philosophical revelations rather than faith based religious ones. It is true that Plato’s protagonist has a revelation when he first perceives the sun but painting it as a religious experience seems inaccurate due to his devotion to pure logic as opposed to faith or belief.

The Interpretations of Plato’s allegory of the cave are varied but there seems to be very strong arguments for its perception as a metaphor for the process a philosopher goes through on his way to knowledge of the forms as many of Plato’s beliefs and his own experiences are extremely apparent in the text. The metaphor of the sun also seems to show a clear reference to his theory of the nature of forms and especially the form of the good (or the unchanging source of the good that is mimicked in everyday perception). The argument that it is a partly political piece is also supported strongly by both its context within the republic and the manipulative “puppeteers” who create the shadows which the prisoners see as reality and so also seems like part of the true interpretation. The religious interpretation however seems less likely due to Plato’s obsession with logic and rationally deduced knowledge and his disdain of unproven beliefs.

It is therefore logical to suggest that the role of the allegory of the cave was partly political, partly to describe the nature of the forms and partly to describe the experience that a philosopher has on his way to wisdom. It is equally logical to say that the purpose of the allegory was not to show the nature of a religious epiphany but rather as a metaphor for the experience of the reality of the forms and especially the experience of the true form of the good.


Works Cited

Adamson, Peter. "26. Ain't No Sunshine: The Cave Allegory of Plato's Republic." Audio blog post. Http://www.kcl.ac.uk. Unknown, 2012. Web. 2012. <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ikings/index.php?id=515>.

"History Of Philosophy." PH2520. Aberdeen University, Aberdeen. 2012. Lecture.

Partenie, Catalin. "Plato's Myths." Http://plato.stanford.edu. Stanford University, 2009. Web. 2012.

Warburton, Nigel. "Philosophy Bites." Interview. Audio blog post. Www.philosophybites.com. 2012. Web. 2012. <http://ec.libsyn.com/p/f/f/b/ffb30ad66308a7ee/BlackburnPlato.mp3?d13a76d516d9dec20c3d276ce028ed5089ab1ce3dae902ea1d01cb8331d3cb5cf17b&c_id=1778976>.

Wright, John Henry. "The Origin of Plato's Cave." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. Vol. 17. Cambridge: Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 1907. 131-42. Print.

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    • profile image

      m. munro 3 years ago

      plato was correct in doubting the belief system----by way of thought----it seems to me for every wrong or imbalance----there is a correction---and that correction is beyond our comprehension.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      Nicely written and researched - i like the way you presented the information here. Interesting topic, and of course it has prompted discussion for many ages of mankind.