Plato’s allegory of the cave, or Plato’s Cave is part of his most complex work, the Republic (514a–520a). It is a dialogue between Socrates, the main character, and Glaucon, his interlocutor. The dialogue aims to present the reader with the Platonic theory about the knowledge of the truth.
Allegory of the Cave
In the text, Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine the existence of a cave where prisoners have lived since childhood. With their hands tied to a wall, they can see only the shadows that are projected on the wall.
Behind the prisoners a fire burns, and there is a rampart, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the front wall. The prisoners are unable to see the real objects behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes projected by these objects. These shadows are the only knowledge that the prisoners have about the world.
Then, one of the prisoners is freed. Walking through the cave, he realizes that there were people and a fire casting the shadows that he believed to be reality. When he finds his way out of the cave, he is startled when faced with the outside world. Sunlight obscures his vision, and he feels helpless, uncomfortable, out of place.
Gradually, his vision gets used to the light. Then he begins to realize the infinity of the world and nature that exists outside the cave. He realizes that those shadows, which he believed to be reality, are actually imperfect copies of a small portion of reality.
The freed prisoner could do two things: return to the cave and free his companions or depart from the cave to live freely. A possible consequence of the first possibility would be the attacks he would suffer from his companions. If he returns after exposure to sunlight, the dark will obscure his vision. Plato infers that the other prisoners would think that leaving the cave caused blindness and would aggressively oppose any attempts to set them free.
The ideas behind the allegory of the cave can be interpreted as follows:
Cave and Darkness
The cave and darkness in Plato’s allegory represent ignorance. Since the prisoners spent their entire lives in the dark cave, they never saw the actual objects that form the shadows. This is the reason they believe that the shadows are true forms of the objects.
The prisoners of the cave are ordinary men. Practically, all of us who live in our limited perception of the world, are trapped in customary beliefs. Such perception of reality does not necessarily hold the truth of a fact and is not necessarily grounded in science.
The chains represent the human body and senses. A source of knowledge that, according to Plato, is erroneous and misleading. It is an allegory of the existential condition of the prisoners. They are trapped in ignorance and the chains are preventing them from learning the truth about the world around them.
The shadows and echoes are never an accurate depiction of the objects that cast them. Shadows are distortions of images and echoes are sound distortions. Therefore, these elements symbolize the false perceptions and the stereotype knowledge that we hold to be true. Thus, the shadows in the cave represent superficial truth. An illusion, a partial depiction of reality that the prisoners perceive in the cave.
Freed Prisoner and Sunlight
To leave the cave means to seek true knowledge in Plato’s allegory. The freed prisoner represents those who understand that the physical world that we perceive around us is only a distorted projection of the truth.
Sunlight in Plato’s allegory represents wisdom, the higher truth of ideas. At first, the light, obscuring the freed prisoner vision, puts him in an uncomfortable situation. However, this is a necessary step towards obtaining true knowledge. Only after the prisoner could look straight at the sun, he started to reason about the world surrounding him.
Plato is hierarchically disposing the degrees of knowledge with this allegory. Real knowledge is the knowledge of the true forms of the surrounding phenomena. This is what Socrates considers to be “the good”. Plato maintains that there is a way of really knowing. According to Plato, reason is the natural ruler which should rule over the other parts, such as the desires of a human being.
The Republic is perhaps Plato’s most complex and comprehensive work. Composed of ten books, it discusses various forms of government and politics. Its main objective is to arrive at the ideal political model. To formulate his theory, Plato went through characteristic elements of human life, such as aesthetics, art and human knowledge. The 7th book of Republic discusses the topic of human knowledge, the same book that contains the Allegory of the Cave.
This Socratic dialogue seeks to theoretically establish what the perfect form of government would be like. For Plato, knowledge is the primary characteristic of a good ruler. For this reason, in book 7, Plato states that the philosopher king must be like the prisoner freed from the cave. The search for the truth should be the ruler’s fundamental characteristic.
Plato’s Cave Relevance Today
Plato argues that true knowledge is above common sense and what we learn from the senses. The truth resides in the world of ideas. However, nowadays, the Plato’s cave has served as a metaphor mainly for what is called “voluntary imprisonment”. One of the most common examples is society’s current relationship with technology.
Some observers note that human beings have regressed to the point of existing as prisoners in the cave. Despite the knowledge we have at our disposal in the information age. Thus, Plato’s allegory can serve as a critique of the social media revolution that unfolds in the last 40 years.
Intellectual laziness has become a common element in our society, stimulated by the comforts new technologies provide us. In the era of social networks, Socratic doubt, questioning, non-acceptance of statements without first analyzing them are largely ignored.
Social networks have become a significant source of distorted knowledge. It discloses false projections about people’s life, while providing them with framed perception of reality in the form of personalized news and ideas. In short, ignorance is cultivated and celebrated in the 21st century.
From a Platonic perspective, we live an age of shallow opinion, superficial knowledge and misinformation. Anyone who dares to oppose this kind of existence, is considered odd in today’s society.
Prisoners trapped inside a cave do not realize that they are prisoners, just as people who are trapped in social media networks. Their perception is distorted by the sea of information the internet provides, and they do not realize they are being deceived.