‘The Allegory of The Cave’ by Plato: Summary and Meaning

The ‘Allegory Of The Cave’ is a theory put forward by Plato, concerning human perception. Plato claimed that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion and that, in order to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical reasoning.

‘The Allegory of the Cave’ by Plato

 In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato distinguishes between people who mistake sensory knowledge for the truth and people who really do see the truth. It goes like this:

 The Cave

  • Imagine a cave, in which there are three prisoners. The prisoners are tied to some rocks, their arms and legs are bound and their head is tied so that they cannot look at anything but the stonewall in front of them.
  • These prisoners have been here since birth and have never seen outside of the cave.
  • Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between them is a raised walkway.
  • People outside the cave walk along this walkway carrying things on their head including; animals, plants, wood and stone.

 The Shadows

  • So, imagine that you are one of the prisoners. You cannot look at anything behind or to the side of you – you must look at the wall in front of you.
  • When people walk along the walkway, you can see shadows of the objects they are carrying cast on to the wall.
  •  If you had never seen the real objects ever before, you would believe that the shadows of objects were ‘real.’

 The Game

  • Plato suggests that the prisoners would begin a ‘game’ of guessing which shadow would appear next.
  • If one of the prisoners were to correctly guess, the others would praise him as clever and say that he were a master of nature.

 The Escape

  • One of the prisoners then escapes from their bindings and leaves the cave.
  • He is shocked at the world he discovers outside the cave and does not believe it can be real.
  • As he becomes used to his new surroundings, he realizes that his former view of reality was wrong.
  • He begins to understand his new world, and sees that the Sun is the source of life and goes on an intellectual journey where he discovers beauty and meaning
  • He see’s that his former life, and the guessing game they played is useless.

 The Return

  • The prisoner returns to the cave, to inform the other prisoners of his findings.
  • They do not believe him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free.

‘ The Allegory of The Cave’ by Plato – The Meaning

 The Allegory of the cave by Plato should not be taken at face value. In essays and exams, whoever is marking it expects you to have a deeper understanding of the meaning of the theory. You can then use these to think about criticisms and then to form your own opinion.

The Cave

  • In Plato’s theory, the cave represents people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world – empirical evidence. The cave shows that believers of empirical knowledge are trapped in a ‘cave’ of misunderstanding.

The Shadows

  • The Shadows represent the perceptions of those who believe empirical evidence ensures knowledge. If you believe that what you see should be taken as truth, then you are merely seeing a shadow of the truth. In Plato’s opinion you are a ‘pleb’ if you believe this (their insult for those who are not Philosophers)!

The Game

  • The Game represents how people believe that one person can be a ‘master’ when they have knowledge of the empirical world. Plato is demonstrating that this master does not actually know any truth, and suggesting that it is ridiculous to admire someone like this.

The Escape

  • The escaped prisoner represents the Philosopher, who seeks knowledge outside of the cave and outside of the senses.
  • The Sun represents philosophical truth and knowledge
  • His intellectual journey represents a philosophers journey when finding truth and wisdom

 The Return

  • The other prisoners reaction to the escapee returning represents that people are scared of knowing philosophical truths and do not trust philosophers.

It is always recommended that you read the original text by Plato to reach the top grades. If you would like to purchase ‘The Republic’ by Plato, click here! We also found a FREE kindle version.

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The Study of Philosophy

Beginning your study of Philosophy is tough. Chances are, you’ve never studied anything like this before. So, where do you begin? How do you understand the principles of Philosophy and how to study it?

The study of Philosophy is very different from other subjects such as Math’s and History where you need to learn the principles and then apply them. With Philosophy, you have to engage with what you read, and compose arguments. It takes a lot of time and careful thought to study Philosophy. Reading tons of books isn’t the best approach to study. What is important is that you understand the arguments, which have been put forward by other scholars and begin to form an opinion and an argument for yourself. There isn’t a right or wrong answer, and therefore exams are not marked like a Math’s exam is. The examiner wants to see that you have thought about what you are studying and that you can put forward an argument.

The word ‘Philosophy’ means love of wisdom, and during your studies you will explore what it is to have wisdom. The study of Philosophy involves questioning your existence and your every day experiences. ‘Does God exist,’ ‘Do we have freedom,’ ‘Is the world really as we see it?’ These are the kinds of questions you will ask yourself, you will begin to learn about different theories and different Philosophers. The great thing about studying Philosophy is that you can disagree with the textbooks and argue with your teachers and still get a good grade!

So, when you begin your studies, the first thing to do is have a look at what types of thing you will be studying. Philosophy is not limited to a set number of textbooks and exams, and you need to know where to begin.

The most basic division of the study of Philosophy is ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Ethics.’ Philosophy includes theories of Philosophers on how the world works, where everything began, the existence of God… the list goes on. Ethics, on the other hand, is the study of moral principles. How do we know how we should behave? What’s right and what’s wrong? A level and first year undergraduate Philosophy courses often separate the study of Philosophy and Ethics, which makes study more manageable.

If you type the word ‘Philosophy’ in to Amazon, millions of books appear. But, as a starting point and to get you through your exams, you need the basics. Reading Philosophical works is tough, even for someone who has a degree in Philosophy. As a starting point, you don’t want to read anything too lengthy or word-y, you just need an overview.

For A-Level Philosophy, these books have an over-view and some more in depth writing on Philosophy and on Ethics. These books have all of the basic knowledge you need to succeed in your exam.

OCR: Philosophy of Religion for AS and A2. OCR: Religious Ethics for AS and A2. These are fantastic books, they are an excellent beginning to studying Philosophy and give you all you need to know to pass your exams. The writing is clear and concise and everything is explained in an easy-to-handle way.

AQA: Philosophy for AS and Philosophy for A2

If you are beginning an Undergraduate degree, you need an over-view. When you get to uni, many people may have studied A-level Philosophy, however your course will begin on the basis that no one has studied it before.

If you want a summary of the basics before you start, these are the best ones out there:

Philosophy Basics: A Jargon-Free Guide for Beginners

Philosophy: The Basics

Even ‘Philosophy for Dummies’ is a good book to start off with!

We hope that you will find your study of philosophy as exciting and enjoyable as we do. The great thing about Philosophy is that you never feel like you need to ‘study.’ Philosophy is at its best when theories and arguments can be discussed and thought about in a group, and this is the best way of approaching a course. Try and get a group together out of lessons or lectures to bounce ideas of one another. This way, your argument progresses and you get to hear different points of view and look at things from different perspectives.