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The Allegory of the Cave: Facts, Meaning, and a Brief Summary

One of Plato's most significant philosophical works, the Allegory of the Cave comes across as an interesting section of the great Greek philosopher's masterpiece on political theory and philosophy, The Republic.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Oct 11, 2018
Change is the most inevitable phenomenon in nature, yet all of nature's creatures are averse to it! We can see such aversion in the annals of creation since the very beginning. The extinction of the giant reptiles - dinosaurs - owing to the changing face of Earth is the most significant example!
As creatures became more complex, their ability to adapt to change diminished in magnitude! Human beings, the most complex of all creatures, find it excruciatingly difficult to accept change and go with the flow of it.
Owing to their superior intelligence, they have been able to adapt to physical and material changes very well but it is intellectual and social change that scares them the most! The majority of us show our aversion towards social and intellectual revolution either by way of ignorance or avoidance.
The Allegory of the Cave is a philosophy which admits the fact that mankind feels comfortable with life as long as it is surrounded by a citadel of conventions - the idea of even a small crack in the wall of the citadel, which may allow a ray of intellectual and philosophical revolution to enter the secure precincts, is enough to unnerve the common majority!
Let's take a look at the underlying idea, philosophical nuances and allegorical aspects behind Plato's Allegory of the Cave. This allegory beautifully explains differences in human nature and societal ethics when staring revolutionary ways of thinking and living in the eyes. Before proceeding thereon, let's quickly glance at some facts about this work.
Facts
✶ This philosophical work is known by many other names such as The Cave Analogy, Metaphor of the Cave, Parable of the Cave, Plato's Cave and Myth of the Cave.

✶ The Allegory of the Cave is not an independent work in itself. It is a part of Plato's mega politico-philosophical literary work The Republic.
✶ The allegory is presented in the form of a fictitious conversation between Plato's mentor, Socrates, and his brother Glaucon.

✶ The Cave Analogy is preceded by two other allegories - the Analogy of the Divided Line and the Metaphor of the Sun.
Meaning
The Cave Allegory is presented as a metaphorical acknowledgment of man's acceptance of conventions and his reluctance to dig beneath the surface to uncover different ways of thinking and living.
The Allegory of the Cave can be divided into three parts, based upon the stages of the common man's attempts at facing and dealing with ideas and opinions that are different from intellectual, cultural and societal norms. Let's look at these three different stages that sum up the complete Allegory of the Cave meaning.
Within The Cave's Confines
The allegory begins with an imaginary description of a cave and some prisoners who are chained to its walls, facing the wall. A fire is burning behind them and the only things they can see of the outside world are the shadows of whoever or whatever pass in front of the cave, reflected on the wall (in the light of the fire) which the prisoners face.
This is the closest they can get to outside reality and, hence, their concept of the world beyond the cave is that of moving shadows of different shapes and dimensions. The prisoners are assumed to be kept in the cave and bound to its walls since childhood so that they have no memory of ever witnessing anything outside the cave.
The shadows cast on the walls and echoes that resonate the cave are the only things these prisoners know and, hence, they assume that this is what the entire world is about.
The prisoner who is best at guessing what shadow or echo would be experienced next, based upon the experience he has owing to the time he has spent being in such a state, is considered the wisest among all prisoners and is held in high regard.
Exit From The Cave
Plato asks the readers to assume that one of the prisoners has been released and is asked to step out of the cave. He would never be able to identify those real things whose shadows he has been so familiar with all these years.
When he steps out of the cave and looks around him, he would be unnerved by the strangeness of his surroundings and would be blinded by the sunlight! Leave alone the sunlight, he would be greatly distressed by the light of the fire burning inside the cave as he had always had his back towards it and never seen it flaming as he does now!
He would feel unfamiliar and insecure due to the shift in the scenario once he is freed as he had got comfortably used to the mundane sights and sounds that he was exposed to before his release.
On the event that another person comes from the outside world and releases the prisoner, dragging him outside with him, the prisoner would even get angry with the stranger for disturbing his peace and would lose his composure! Isn't that what happens in all societies when revolutionary ideas and unconventional ways of thinking and acting are introduced?
Retracing One's Steps to the Cave
Once the freed prisoner has spent some time in the outside world and has become somewhat accustomed to its strangeness, he starts learning and appreciating the nuances of the real world, the way it is and the way things are in physical reality as opposed to the perceived reality of the cave environment.
On getting enlightened thus, the former prisoner would think about his life in the cave and would come to belittle the darkness and ignorance that existed there! On the event that he returns to the cave, he would find it difficult to lead his former life and would find the darkness, immobility and ignorance unsavory.
Indeed, he would even come to disdain the honors bestowed upon the so-called elders whom he had once held in high esteem due to their acumen at guessing the shadows and echoes!
Summary
The allegory may be presented in a nutshell as follows:-

All humans are prisoners of conventions, intellectual and societal norms. Those who feel there is, or can be, more to this life than just shadows and echoes are the ones who ask questions about the validity of their cave bound life.
Among the answer seekers, those who are bold enough to escape into the outside world despite being dazzled by the sights and the sounds are the free thinkers and intellectually liberated individuals.
Among these free thinkers, those who return to the cave to enlighten and guide the cave residents (symbolic of the conventional society) away from their perceived, illusory reality towards cosmic, physical reality are the philosophers.
To conclude, Plato's Allegory of the Cave is an excellent analysis of why the mundane majority in a society stay bound to their roots despite its many lacunae and what happens when a precious few feel dissatisfied by heir, conventional social lives and venture out of the familiar environment into the unknown to seek answers!
The allegory also shows the place of a philosopher in a conventional society - the philosopher is the one who attempts to drag the prisoners out of the cave and as a result faces their wrath.
Only the free thinking few manage to get outside to accumulate new experiences and knowledge; the rest condemn and prosecute the philosopher for his supposedly wayward ideas and unconventional, hence alarming, opinions!
That is exactly what happened to Socrates for voicing his opinions that went against the political and social norms of Athens in his time - he was tried and sentenced to death by drinking poison!