- As a metaphor for understanding the power of beliefs, describe the allegory of the cave.
- Describe the historical context of the allegory of the cave.
- Who is the author and from what source is the allegory of the cave drawn?
- What is Socratic dialogue?
Please Note: This is part of a series of related topics. Use the quick menu above to navigate within this section.
An allegory is a fictional, symbolic representation of truths or generalizations about human existence.
The allegory of the cave is one of the most famous passages in the history of Western philosophy… Plato tells the allegory in the context of education; it is ultimately about the nature of philosophical education, and it offers an insight into Plato’s view of education.– Anam Lodhi
Allegory of the Cave
An ode to limiting beliefs, the allegory of the cave offers a powerful model of a restricted world perspective. Plato’s teacher, Socrates tells his student the following story.
- You can read the actual story in many sources. One translation of the text is here.
- For an audio reading of the original text, go here.
- For a video and telling using modern language, go here.
- Following are the main points organized in a way to help you easily retain them for re-telling the story.
Here are the key elements:
- Prisoners know nothing else
- A limited view
- Limited perception is believed to be reality
- Liberation brings a terrifying new reality
- The liberated person wishes to share the truth
- Prisoners reject the messenger and the truth
Highlights for Re-Telling
Prisoners Know Nothing Else
- Imagine a group of prisoners in a cave. The prisoners have been here since childhood and have known nothing else.
- Their legs and neck are chained so that they are unable to move or turn their head to see behind them. Imagine a group of prisoners in a cave. The prisoners have been here since childhood and have known nothing else.
- Their legs and neck are chained so that they are unable to move or turn their head to see behind them.
- They can see only that which is front of them.
A Limited View
- Their entire lives they can see only the back wall of the cave.
- The cave wall is illuminated by a fire that they cannot see, located far behind them.
- Between the fire and the prisoners there is a bridge. People cross the bridge, carrying objects.
- Like a puppet show, the shadows of the people and their objects are displayed on the wall in front of the prisoners.
- The prisoners can see only the shadow projections of themselves and the people behind them. Their entire lives they can see only the back wall of the cave.
Limited Perception is Believed to be Reality
- This is the only vision they know, and is their truth.
- They don’t know those are shadows caused by the firelight. They believe the shadow projections are real.
- The prisoners pass the time by identifying the shadows on the wall in front of them and making predictions based on what they’ve seen.
Liberation Brings a Terrifying New Reality
- A prisoner is liberated. He is able to stand up and turn to see the fire.
- It is so bright. In fact, the glare is too painful and at first, he must look away, unable to see the realities around him.
- As the freed prisoner’s eyes adjust to the light, he looks around him.
- He is told by a guide that what he saw before was an illusion and that now, turned toward real existence, he has clearer vision. But he is perplexed and thinks that what he saw before must be truer than what he is looking at now.
- He is reluctantly dragged out of the cave and steps forward into the sun.
- The light is dazzling and painful. Adjusting is an agonizing process. He looks first at shadows and then reflections in the water and then the objects themselves. Then he is able to gaze at the light of the moon and stars at night.
- Last of all, after his eyes have fully adjusted, he is able to see the sun.
- He realizes the truth of what he is seeing
The Liberated Person Wishes to Share the Truth
- He remembers the prisoners still in the cave and feels sorrow over their plight and ignorance.
- He goes back to the cave to tell his fellow prisoners the truth.
Prisoners Reject the Messenger & The Truth
- As he returns back to the cave, his eyes are no longer adjusted to the darkness and so he is less capable (and is not interested) in measuring and discussing the shadows and predicting the future based on them.
- The other prisoners think that the messenger has become less capable as a result of his journey and ascent out of the cave.
- They find his message unconvincing and cling to their ignorance, rejecting freedom.
- And, in fact, the prisoners violently protect their slavery against anyone who would free them.
Men would say of him that up he went
and down he came without his eyes;
and that it was better not even to think of ascending;
and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.– Plato, Allegory of the Cave, The Republic
The Allegory as a Teaching Tool
You may wish to use the allegory of the cave to explore:
- Perceptions and how beliefs are formed
- The journey of consciousness
- Light as a metaphor for different levels of understanding
- The power of beliefs and the extent to which people will cling to them (and be hostile to those who would attempt to lift them from their ignorance)
- A premise such as, The journey of consciousness, and changing limited beliefs, begins in the cave of our perceptions and beliefs.
Context & Source of the Allegory
- In the history of Greece, there was a particular period of cultural and military achievements that came to be called “Classical Greece.”
- It lasted about 200 years in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., ending at the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.
- The classical period is considered to have been a time of “unprecedented political and cultural achievement.”
- For example, in 445 B.C., construction began on the Parthenon, the famous temple dedicated to Athena. From Classical Greece came the Greek tragedy, the historian Herodotus, the physician Hippocrates and the philosopher Socrates. It also brought political reforms that are ancient Greece’s most enduring contribution to the modern world: the system known as demokratia, or “rule by the people.”
- Plato was a philosopher in Classical Greece and the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.
- Born around 428 B.C., Plato was a philosopher, a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle.
- His writings explored justice, beauty and equality. He also discussed aesthetics, political philosophy, theology, cosmology, epistemology and the philosophy of language.
The Socratic Method
- The Socratic method or Socratic debate is named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates.
- The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held beliefs and scrutinizes them.
- It is a form of cooperative, argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions.
- It steadily identifies and eliminates hypotheses that lead to contradictions, causing better hypotheses to be found.
- The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about a topic.
- The discussion of moral and philosophical problems between two or more characters in a dialogue is one version of the Socratic method.
- Socratic dialogue is the name given to this genre of literary prose developed in Classical Greece and demonstrated through the works of Plato and Xenophon.
- The dialogues are either dramatic or narrative and Socrates is often the main participant.
- The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, written by Plato around 380 BC.
- It is Plato’s best-known work, and is considered one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically.
- It concerns justice, the order and character of the just city-state, and the just human.
- In the dialogue, Socrates discusses with various Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. They consider the natures of existing regimes and then propose a series of different, hypothetical cities in comparison.
- They also discuss the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the role of the philosopher and of poetry in society.
- In Book VII of The Republic is the allegory of the cave.
Sources & Resources
See here for a list of sources and resources for the entire Beliefs section.
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