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Plato's Allegory of The Cave: Meaning and Interpretation

Plato's Allegory of The Cave: Meaning and Interpretation
Plato, in his classic book The Republic, from which the Allegory of the Cave is extracted, says the most important and difficult concepts to prove, are the matters we cannot see, but just feel and perceive. Plato's allegory is a depiction of the truth, and he wants us to be open-minded about change, and seek the power of possibility and truth.
Swapnil Srivastava
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2018
Did You Know?
... that the Hollywood hit, "The Matrix" mirrors Plato's Allegory of the Cave in a number of ways. From the cave that represents the matrix that humans are trapped and imprisoned in, to the machines who controlled what humans saw or heard as the puppeteers who cast the shadows of objects on the wall.
Plato was a Greek philosopher and mathematician who is said to have laid the basic foundation of Western philosophy and science. His classical philosophies on human nature reveal the basic truth as well as flaws in the psychological evolution of mankind. In his book - The Republic, Plato covers and explains the effect of many interesting aspects like libertarianism, afterlife, truth, justice, etc., on society from the perspective of a philosopher.

The Allegory of the Cave is a hypothetical scenario, described by Plato, in the form of an enlightening conversation between Socrates and his brother, Glaucon. The conversation basically deals with the ignorance of humanity trapped in the conventional ethics formed by society. It covers both the fallen and risen state of mankind, from the phase where the man is in search of truth and once he is made aware, all he wants to do is share it with others and free them from the bondage of ignorance.
Allegory of the Cave
Platos Allegory of The Cave
Prisoners in the Cave
While describing the story, Socrates asks Glaucon to envision an underground cave inhabited by prisoners, who have been in the cave from their childhood with their legs and necks shackled by chains, so that the movement of their face is restricted, and they can see nothing but the wall in front of them. This restricted movement limits their visibility only to the wall, thus circumscribing the scope of any encounter beyond it. There is an enormous fire blazing at a distance, above and behind the prisoners, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised walkway meant for objects to pass. The shadows of all sorts of objects (animal, jar or tree), as shown in the image, fall directly on the wall. Thus providing the sole view for the prisoners, and say there was an echo/voices that came from the wall because of the puppeteer, the prisoners would perceive it to be the voices of those passing shadows. Hence, the only way for the prisoners to get acquainted with their surroundings is to decipher or interpret the shadows and consider them to be a part of the real world. They start naming each and every object, and amongst themselves declare the quickest one to observe the passing shadows and point out which followed after or before or were together as the winner, with intellectual knowledge and ability.

Socrates further says, what if a prisoner is released, by someone and is forced to suddenly stand, move his neck and made to look towards the fire and the objects whose shadows he had seen before. Wouldn't all this hurt and confuse him, if someone were to tell him that the shadows he saw earlier were all an illusion. But what he sees now is the reality and then somebody drags this prisoner to see the outside world and hold him in the presence of the Sun. He, like all the prisoners being accustomed to dim light, turns his gaze away from the bright sun. His vision being temporarily overcome by the intense light, the outside world was beyond his comprehension.

Slowly he gets used to the existence of the new world, which delineates the fallacy of that inside the cave. Now, on an intellectual journey, he discovers the real shadows of the outside world, the reflection of objects in the water, the beauty of mother nature, skies, stars, moon, an almost divine experience of the newly found mystical world. Next, he begins to study the Sun and its surroundings. Leading him to reason the Sun as the cause of all things, from the seasons to the years. All of this his fellow prisoners are unaware about.

He considers himself lucky and blessed, for the change he undergoes and pities the prisoners living in the same old habitat. In his old situation, he remembers how they would compete to recognize each passing shadow, that of which is nothing compared to what he is able to grasp and see now.

Now, what if this prisoner were to return to the cave, and find the other prisoners busy competing and asking him to join in, wouldn't the shadows appear blur to him because his sight is still weak by the sudden exposure and before he could adjust to the darkness, the prisoners start to ridicule him for having lost his eyesight. They would remark that it would have been better, if he had stayed in the cave. And if someone, were to repeat this or release another prisoner, that culprit should be caught and put to death.

He tries to persuade his companions, that outside there is a more real world, and what they saw were mere shadows of the real objects. He tries to point out the deep-rooted ignorance of the fellow prisoners, who are trapped within their own confinement of pseudo intellectualism. But the prisoners try to resist enlightenment and condemn him for moral misconduct and loss of ethical values.
Possible Interpretations
All of us have an individual 'cave' of our own, where we live a comfortable, happy and familiar life. But in reality, we are 'prisoners" of the truth'. We prefer living a dull, mundane life and blindly follow the set social norms, than question or challenge the authenticity of the 'shadows' that we have been seeing since childhood. The one who does question is often ridiculed and despised. The 'liberated man' here is like the philosophers who think beyond the set norms, question the reality and keeps accumulating new experiences and knowledge. Society often condemns, prosecutes and laughs at them, yet these philosophers are willing to voice their opinions and face the truth.
If we were to interpret the allegory in a political sense, then most of us would find it to be well grounded in logic and reason. Where politicians resemble the puppeteer who cast or control what we should and shouldn't see. They manipulate the masses who perceive the shadows they see as reality. The prisoners who are content with what they have, rarely question or doubt the leaders and their political motives. Plato argues that the one who is aware of the truth should be the one in charge of leading society. As they rule to make the truth known to all alike, without exploiting or misleading the masses.
This cave metaphor can also be interpreted on religious grounds, where understanding the existence of a higher power is limited to the prisoners living within the boundaries of the cave. The prisoners view the shadows as real objects. They claim to understand the world based on these shadows and so are not able to perceive the truth. Anything that goes beyond these values, tends to lie in the domain of unconventional thoughts, which are often resisted or opposed by powerful religious leaders, who decide and control, what human beings believe or see. When the situation changes and one prisoner is set free, at first he finds it difficult to adjust, but slowly starts searching and questioning reality. The freed man then feels that it is his moral duty to go back and make others aware of the truth that he has just discovered, whether they are worth saving or not. They might deny or hurt him, but still the man enlightened with the truth wants to help the ignorant society.
The creativity of Plato, along with his deep understanding of human nature, compels him to create a scenario which shows mankind the true picture of an imaginary world. We all may acquire and comprehend the world around us by our experience of physical objects, but it would be a mistake to limit ourselves to the conventional thoughts indentured by our stubbornness towards change.