The Allegory of the Cave

The+Allegory+of+the+Cave

Kieran Quebman

2500 years ago along the rocky shores of the eastern Mediterranean, specifically in Athens, the birth of modern thought was taking place. The West’s first philosophers were establishing themselves as intellectuals, articulating ideas that still hold relevance today. Plato, one of the most revered intellectuals in history, made a name for himself by opening the world’s first university in 428 BC outside of the town of Akademia in Greece. The study was focused on mathematics, natural science, astronomy, dialectics, philosophy, and politics.

 Plato’s magnum opus, The Republic, was finished around 375 BC. The Republic explores a society governed by a philosopher, run efficiently as possible. Supposedly, this society is completely optimized, but the citizens lack individual liberty. The governing philosopher functions as a “Big Brother” to reference Orwell- working for the good of the whole but never concerning itself with the rights of the individual.

The Republic is a full-length book, but certain sections can be read on their own without loss of generality. The most commonly amputated section is referred to as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”  In the “Allegory,”  Plato asks us to imagine a group of individuals, trapped deep in a cave from birth. These individuals are chained, so that they cannot move. Behind them is a fire, casting light onto the cave wall in front of them. Occasionally, their masters will descend into the cave and wave shadow puppets in front of the fire, casting these images onto the cave wall. The masters also make sounds to add to the show. The prisoners watch these shadows day-in and day-out, it’s all they’ve ever known. The prisoners hold competitions to see who can predict what shadow puppets will appear next, or what they will do. The winner of these competitions receives clout and respect from his/her peers. These prisoners don’t know they are in a prison, because they have been there since birth. They don’t know about the outside world, or what they are missing out on. 

Plato then asks us to imagine that one of the prisoners is somehow able to escape from his chains. At first the prisoner is incredulous. He turns around and sees the fire. After some investigation, he sees the puppets, and realizes that they are the same shapes he has seen dancing on the wall in front of him for his entire life. Imagine a situation similar to the Matrix, wherein Neo takes the Red Pill and realizes that he has been living in a simulation. The prisoner continues on out of the cave and initially is blinded by the sunlight. After his eyes adjust, he sees the real world for the first time. Green grass, animals, trees, the sky, he is amazed by all he has been missing out on. When the prisoner’s reality was simply shadows on the cave wall, he never could have imagined all that the world has to offer. 

Soon after discovering the outside world, the prisoner thinks of his companions chained up in the cave. He rushes back into the cave excited to share all that he has learned. When the prisoner attempts to reveal the information to the others, they become agitated, they resent the escapee and write him off as insane. The more the escapee pushes, the more aggravated they become. Eventually, they become so aggressive that Plato posits if they were not chained, they would tear the escapee limb from limb. 

How could this story apply to our modern lives? There’s no way our reality is just shadows flickering on the cave wall, right? The politicians and celebrities that flicker on your T.V, computer, or phone screens couldn’t have hidden motivations or objectives, right? Think of this story the next time someone offers you a different perspective or questions something you hold dear. Are you acting like a prisoner in the cave? There are countless lessons to learn and points of analysis to dive into in the Allegory of the Cave. This brief summary does not do the original text justice. If you feel so inclined, check out Plato’s Republic. A PDF version can be found online with ease.