Allegory of the Cave

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Plato writes this story approximately 20 years after Socrates was put to death  by the state for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and “corrupting the youth” through his powerful, transformative teaching methods (approx. 379 BCE, or roughly 2400 years ago).  It is not known whether Plato is retelling an actual dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon (the other speaker), or if Plato used Socrates more like a character through which he could express his own views on this subject.  The latter is more probable.  This allegory illustrates Plato’s view of the purpose of education.

Excerpt from Book VII, 514-520a. Plato: Republic, by Plato et al., Hackett Publishing Company, 1992, pp. 186–192.

Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this:  Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself.  They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around.  Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them.  Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire.  Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.

I’m imagining it.

Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it– statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material.  And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.

It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.

They’re like us.  Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?

How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?

What about the things being carried along the wall?  Isn’t the same true of them?

Of course.

And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?

They’d have to.

And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them?  Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?

I certainly do.

Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.

They must surely believe that.

Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like.  When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before.  What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now– because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more– he sees more correctly?  Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?

Much truer.

And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown?

He would.

And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way?  And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?

He would be unable to see them, at least at first.

I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above.  At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves.  Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.

Of course.

Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in the water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.

Necessarily so.

And at this point, he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.

It’s clear that would be his next step.

What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there?  Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?


And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power?  Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to “worth the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,” and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?

I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.

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Consider this too.  If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes– coming suddenly out of the sun like that– be filled with darkness?

They certainly would.

And before his eyes had recovered– and the adjustment would not be quick– while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule?  Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to journey upward?  And, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?

They certainly would.

This whole image, Glaucon, must be fitted together with what we said before.  The visible realm should be likened to the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the power of the sun.  And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm, you’ll grasp what I hope to convey, since that is what you wanted to hear about.  Whether it’s true or not, only the god knows.  But this is how I see it:  In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty.  Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.

I have the same thought, at least as far as I’m able.

Come, then, share with me this thought also:  It isn’t surprising that the ones who get to this point are unwilling to occupy themselves with human affairs and that their souls are always pressing upwards, eager to spend their time above, for after all, this is surely what we’d expect, if indeed things fit the image I described before.

It is.

What about what happens when someone turns from divine study to the evils of human life?  Do you think it’s surprising, since his sight is still dim, and he hasn’t yet become accustomed to the darkness around him, that he behaves awkwardly and appears completely ridiculous if he’s compelled, either in the courts or elsewhere, to contend about the shadows of justice or the statues of which they are the shadows and to dispute about the way these things are understood by people who have never seen justice itself?

That’s not surprising at all.

No, it isn’t.  But anyone with any understanding would remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from darkness into the light.  Realizing that the same applies to the soul, when someone sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something, he won’t laugh mindlessly, but he’ll take into consideration whether it has come from a brighter life and is dimmed through not having yet become accustomed to the dark or whether it has come from greater ignorance into greater light and is dazzled by the increased brilliance.  Then he’ll declare the first soul happy in its experience and life, and he’ll pity the latter– but even if he chose to make fun of it, at least he’d be less ridiculous than if he laughed at a soul that has come from the light above.

What you say is very reasonable.

If that’s true, then here’s what we must think about these matters.  Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes.

They do say that.

But our present discussion, on the other hand, shows that the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and that the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body.  This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good.  Isn’t that right?


Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it.  It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul.  Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately.

So it seems.

Now, it looks as though the other so-called virtues of the soul are akin to those of the body, for they really aren’t there beforehand but are added later by habit and practice.  However, the virtue of reason seems to belong above all to something more divine, which never loses its power but is either useful and beneficial or useless and harmful, depending on the way it is turned.  Or have you never noticed this about people who are said to be vicious but clever, how keen the vision of their little souls is and how sharply it distinguishes the things it is turned towards?  This shows that its sight isn’t inferior but rather is forced to serve evil ends, so that the sharper it sees, the more evil it accomplishes.


However, if a nature of this sort has been hammered at from childhood and freed from the bonds of kinship with becoming, which have been fastened to it by feasting, greed, and other such pleasures, and which, like leaden weights, pull its vision downwards– if, being rid of these, it turned to look at true things, then I say that the same soul of the same person would see these most sharply, just as it now does the things it is presently turned towards.

Probably so.

And what about the uneducated who have no experience of truth?  Isn’t it likely– indeed, doesn’t it follow necessarily from what was said before– that they will never adequately govern a city?  But neither would those who’ve been allowed to spend their whole lives being educated.  The former would fail because they don’t have a single goal at which all their actions, public and private, inevitably aim; the latter would fail because they’d refuse to act, thinking that they had settled while still alive in the faraway Isles of the Blessed.

That’s true.

It is our task as founders, then, to compel the best natures to reach the study we said before is the most important, namely, to make the ascent and see the good.  But when they’ve made it and looked sufficiently, we mustn’t allow them to do what they’re allowed to do today.

What’s that?

To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less worth or greater.

Then are we to do them an injustice by making them live a worse life when they could live a better one?

You are forgetting again that it isn’t the law’s concern to make any one class in the city outstandingly happy but to contrive to spread happiness throughout the city by bringing the citizen into harmony with each other through persuasion or compulsion and by making them share with each other the benefits that each class can confer on the community.  The law produces such people in the city, not in order to allow them to turn in whatever direction they want, but to make use of them to bind the city together.

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