Plato and the Allegory of the Cave
A Level: OCR
I decided to take on this fascinating topic thanks to a request from Claire Glover, who teaches the OCR A Level specification at a thriving sixth form college. Obviously, it's an incredibly popular topic with a whole host of readily available resources; however, reading the text in Robin Waterfield's wonderfully readable translation, and following along using Julia Annas's excellent introduction to the Republic (as suggested by the syllabus), revealed just how much nuance often gets glossed over. I can't confess to doing the entire topic justice here, although I've tried my best within the confines of a 10 minute treatment; nevertheless, I hope it points students in the right direction and encourages them to read Plato's allegory of the cave for themselves. Even better, I hope it convinces you to dip into An Introduction to Plato's Republic if you haven't already, because Julia Annas's insights are a great support to any critical reading of the text.
1. What is Plato's allegory of the cave?
Plato's cave is an allegory, which is fundamentally different from an analogy because it's extended. In brief, an analogy involves a simple comparison between one thing and another for explanatory purposes; an allegory works in a similar way, but involves a much more complex comparison in which numerous elements are involved. Typically, allegories take the form of stories, poems, or images. To illustrate the difference, William Paley's watchmaker argument is an analogy, because it involves a simple comparison between the relationship a watchmaker has with a watch and the relationship God has with life on Earth. On the other hand, George Orwell's novella, Animal Farm, is an allegory, because it tells the history of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in the form of a fictional story in which animals seize control of a farm by overthrowing the farmers. In Animal Farm, the farmers represent the Russian royal family (which was overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917), whilst the pigs represent the communist bureaucracy under Joseph Stalin; various fictional scenes on the farm were inspired by historic events from the early days of the Russian revolutionary regime. Whilst Plato's allegory of the cave is nowhere near as long as Animal Farm, it is still considerably more complex than a simple analogy between one thing and another. The allegory of the cave purports to reveal hidden truths about the real world, and has proved to be one of the most evocative and enduring allegories of all time.
This brings us to the nature of the allegory, which can be roughly divided into two halves. The first half involves the character of Socrates painting a mental picture for his conversational sparring partner, Glaucon, and involves the most famous imagery from the passage. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a group of prisoners chained together in a cave; they're restrained in such a way that they can only see a single wall, upon which puppeteers cast shadows using a fire that's located behind the heads of the prisoners. In this way, the prisoners are stimulated by a never ending shadow puppet show, but are unable to see either the puppeteers or the models being used to cast shadow puppets on the cave wall. It's against this backdrop that Socretes asks Glaucon to imagine the spontaneous escape of one of the prisoners. It's not entirely clear what brings this about, but one of the prisoners manages to break free of his bonds and turn around. The escapee then sees the puppeteers with their models and the fire behind them; he's dazzled by the light, but this is only the beginning of his journey. In the second half of the allegory, the escapee stumbles up through the earth and out of the cave; here, he's blinded by the Sun, but eventually his eyes adjust to how bright it is. Up on the surface, the escapee finds the real manifestations of the things that the puppeteers manipulate models of for the prisoners. According to Plato, the escapee is finally seeing reality, rather than the shadow of an imitation copy on the cave wall.
2. How does the allegory of the cave work?
In the first instance, Plato's cave appears to be a commentary on how human beings are imprisoned by both their societies and their natures. When the character of Socrates finishes describing conditions in the cave, Glaucon interjects that he has painted a very strange picture of very odd prisoners, but Socrates disagrees: he retorts that we are all like the prisoners. In An Introduction to Plato's Republic, Julia Annas draws our attention to this comment, and alerts us to the fact that Plato is not simply commenting on the constraining social conventions of his time: yes, societies enslave people to social conformity, but so do our natures. Socrates's contention that all of us are prisoners underlines the idea that ignorance of reality is imposed on us by being human as well as by being citizens. In this part of the passage, Plato made clear that most people live their lives in the cave watching the shadows cast by imitation copies of reality; the copies are manipulated by hidden puppeteers, and it is possible that these represent leaders in society. In any event, the upshot of this distressing situation is that the prisoners think the shadows on the wall constitute reality; they never understand that they're only seeing the shadows cast by imitation copies of forms like beauty and justice. In fact, only when one of the prisoners mysteriously frees himself from the shackles of the cave does he realise that what he thinks is reality is a shadow; and not even a shadow of the real thing, because to see that he has to travel out of the cave entirely.
The allegory of the cave isn't just a metaphor for intellectual liberation from the constraints of society or nature though; it's trying to do several other things as well. One of these things is to relate the imagery of the cave back to the analogy of the Sun, which is found earlier in the sixth book of the Republic. When the escapee finally emerges from the cave, he is blinded by the brilliant daylight; however, after his eyes have adjusted, he is not only able to see the world around him, but he is also able to rest his gaze on the Sun itself. For Plato, the Sun was analogous to the Form of Good, which is the form by which the rest of reality is made visible (something he clarified in his earlier analogy). Another thing the allegory of the cave manages to contemplate is the possibility of an enlightened escapee (i.e. a philosopher) returning to the world of petty and inconsequential human concerns found in the cave. The character of Socrates claims that no escapee would ever voluntarily return underground; however, in the passage that follows, Plato described how it was necessary for enlightened escapees to return to the cave in order to benefit the prisoners within. There is, however, a major tension here, because, by Plato's own admission, attempting to liberate the prisoners is not only an unattractive job for an escapee, it is also one that could prove extremely dangerous (as Plato alluded to, Socrates was convicted of corrupting the young of Athens and sentenced to death for his own attempts to free the thinking of others).
3. Why is the allegory of the cave important?
Plato's allegory of the cave is important for loads of reasons, although I've taken three from my reading of An Introduction to Plato's Republic by Julia Annas. First, it is pessimistic, which seems like an odd choice; nevertheless, I think this negative quality makes the allegory really important, at least in illuminating what Plato really thought about the prospects for his fellow human beings. Although the imagery of the free thinker escaping the shackles of society and his nature, striving upwards through the earth, and enlightening himself on the surface, is incredibly positive, most people remain imprisoned by their preoccupation with petty and inconsequential concerns. Ultimately, Plato thought that most human beings will remain imprisoned by their own ignorance and easily manipulated by the puppeteers of society and nature. This isn't a particularly upbeat outlook, and might explain why his solution to the problems with democracy was to install philosopher kings to govern the state.
Second, the allegory of the cave is really powerful. As I've already intimated, Plato's imagery is tremendously evocative and enduring; it has inspired hundreds of works of literature and film (including The Matrix, Shutter Island, and The Conformist), and continues to be written about and drawn upon for inspiration today. There is something powerfully moving about the imagery, and fascination with it has spanned millennia. This brings us to the final reason, which is that the allegory of the cave is problematic. We don't have time to review all the issues with it here; however, as Julia Annas points out, it produces persistent issues about exactly what Plato meant and a number of unanswered questions remain (like how exactly the prisoner manages to free himself in the first place). These knotty problems mean that Plato's cave continues to fascinate, and, even in the twenty-first century, new thoughts and interpretations of it continue to be articulated.
Plato and the Allegory of the Cave Presentation and Resources