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Allegory of the Cave Summary

Summary of Allegory of the Cave: What Did Plato Actually Mean?

The following article provides a crisp, yet complete allegory of the cave summary. Read on to know how Plato, through "allegory of the cave", brings forth the human tendency to lead life ignorantly and blindly...
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Rewind to 2400 years ago, there was a man, whom we today know as the Greek philosopher Plato, who understood humans very deeply. He knew that all human beings are averse to change. He knew that human beings are comfortable living a known, shallow life. He knew that they believed in and were so dependent on the norms and ethics of the society that they would never be able to survive without them. So, even if at some level they felt that the norms were not in accordance to what they believed in, they never questioned them.

Through allegory of the cave symbolism, Plato brings to light all these traits of human nature i.e. walking a known path rather than leading a life full of obstacles and challenges to find the "real truth". To simplify this philosophy topic, given below, in short, is the summary of the allegory of the cave.

Understanding Allegory of the Cave

Humans are Prisoners in a Cave
According to Plato's allegory of the cave, the way we perceive things around us and the way we lead our lives, is actually not the "truth". We human beings are leading ignorant, incomplete lives, following the paths, rules, norms, ethics, set by the previous generations, without questioning them. Plato brings up this plight of humans by depicting them as prisoners in a cave. These prisoners are sitting facing a wall, tied in chains, with a fire between them and the wall, which makes shadows on the wall. The prisoners mistakenly think that these shadows on the walls are the "reality", cause that is what the fellow prisoners or the ones before them conveyed.

Questioner Escapes to Explore the "Truth"
Generations come and generations go and the prisoners lead the same unaware and ignorant lives in the dark caves, until one of the prisoners starts questioning. This prisoner breaks the chains that bind him and in order to know the real truth, escapes the caves into the unknown world. In the outside world, this questioner faces lots of challenges as he is not used to the sunlight, to the presence of nature and all its elements around him. The questioner, in spite of these obstacles, starts exploring this new world to seek reality. He treads on a lonely, unknown path to discover the truth, but does not give up his questioning spirit.

Philosopher Returns to Guide
At some point, this questioner, thinks of going back to the caves to tell the other prisoners about the reality. To tell them that there is a beautiful world out there, waiting for them, and that there is more to life than just the cave and its "imaginary reality" as depicted by the shadows. When the questioner, now a philosopher, shares this newfound knowledge with the other captives of the cave, he is met with disbelief. People think of him as a pariah who should be removed from the society, to preserve its belief systems. People are averse to any kind of change, which the philosopher tries to bring about with his knowledge of the real truth, as they have become used to and dependent on the norms and ethics, handed over to them by their predecessors.

Through this, one can conclude that most of the human beings would rather live a comfortable, happy and familiar life, than a life full of challenges and pain, which would ultimately lead them to the "larger truths of life". Most human beings are contended with the "consensus reality", i.e. the reality agreed by all, even if it is as imaginary and as unreal as the shadows on the walls of the cave. Humans are contended that they have the security of a family, of a society, of religion around them. However, according to Plato, there will come one questioner, one philosopher, from time to time, who will critically look at himself and the world around him, who will wonder why things are the way they are and then will make his own decisions regarding how things should be.