Plato (428/427-248/347 BC), the pupil of Socrates and the founder of the first University, used the “Socratic
method” in this text, i.e. posing a series of questions to his students, in order to teach them not only what he
had in mind, but also show them that they didn’t know as much as they thought they did. The Republic’s
dialogues are about the ideal state, which Plato wanted to see governed by a wise “philosopher king.” An
allegory puts abstract ideas into a concrete setting, in order to make a point by comparison. It requires us to
think about what each component in the allegory could represent and how its message applies to a specific
1. Read the following text and mark it up with your questions and notes (this also works in PDFs).
Think about what this allegory might mean and how it could relate to the concepts of “life,” “art,”
Plato, The Republic, excerpt from book VII, usually referred to as “The Allegory of the Cave”
Socrates: And now, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold
human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along
the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot
move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above
and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way;
and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in
front of them, over which they show the puppets.
Glaucon: I see.
Socrates: And do you see, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of
animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are
talking, others silent.
Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Socrates: Like ourselves; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire
throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
Glaucon: True; how could they see
anything but the shadows if they were
never allowed to move their heads?
Socrates: And of the objects which are
being carried in like manner they would
only see the shadows?
Socrates: And if they were able to
converse with one another, would they
not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
Glaucon: Very true.
Socrates: And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not
be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing
Glaucon: No question.
Socrates: To them the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Glaucon: That is certain.
Socrates: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused
of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck
round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains. The glare will distress him, and he will
be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows. And then conceive some
one saying to him that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to
being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision. What will be his reply? And
you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name
them. Will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the
objects which are now shown to him?
Glaucon: Far truer.
Socrates: And if he is compelled to
look straight at the light, will he not
have a pain in his eyes that will make
him turn away to take in the objects of
vision that he can see, and which he
will conceive to be in reality clearer
than the things which are now being
shown to him?
Socrates: And suppose once more that
he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and
rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s
forced into the presence of the sun
itself. Is he not likely to be pained and
irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all
of what are now called realities.
Glaucon: Not all in a moment.
Socrates: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the
shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves.
Then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven. And he will see the sky
and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Socrates: Last of all, he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of it in the water. But he will see
it in its own proper place, and not in another, and will contemplate it as it is.
Socrates: He will then proceed to argue that this is that which gives the season and the years, and is the
guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way, the cause of all things which he and his fellows
have been accustomed to behold?
Glaucon: Clearly he would first see the sun and then reason about it.
Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow-prisoners,
do you not suppose that he would be pleased with the change, and pity them?
Glaucon: Certainly, he would.
Socrates: And if they were in the habit
of conferring honors among themselves
on those who were quickest to observe
the passing shadows and to remark
which of them went before, and which
followed after, and which were together;
and who were therefore best able to
draw conclusions as to the future, do
you think that he would care for such
honors and glories, or envy the
possessors of them? Would he not say
with Homer, “Better to be the poor
servant of a poor master, and to endure
anything, rather than think as they do
and live after their manner?”
Glaucon: Yes, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this
Socrates: Imagine once more, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation;
would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
Glaucon: To be sure.
Socrates: And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners
who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady
(and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he
not be ridiculous? 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.
Glaucon: No question.
Socrates: This entire allegory, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-
house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret
the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief,
which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my
opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort;
and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and
of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and
that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his
Images and Plato’s text: https://criticalthinking-mc205.wikispaces.com/Plato+%26+Socrates
2. Finish your notes and watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RWOpQXTltA
Take notes about anything this video changes about your understanding of the text.
Plato’s allegory does not just point at the philosopher king (someone who has left the cave to find true
knowledge), but it also exemplifies his “Theory of Forms” or “Theory of Ideas.” Just like shadows are
imperfect representations of actual objects, every object imperfectly represents its Form or Idea. To give an
example: there is a form or idea of THE CAT, and because of it, we can recognize every cat as A CAT. But
no two cats are the same, and so it is only the Form or Idea of THE CAT that ties them together.
An Idea or Form is not a material object (unlike the cat purring on your lap), so Plato uses this theory to
show us the difference between the material and the metaphysical world (the world of Ideas).
3. Try to think of an example where the difference between an object and its idea becomes apparent.
Many centuries later, the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) complicated Plato’s ideas. Like
Plato, he realized that he could never be sure of the material world. Sure, he could touch the cat on his lap
and hear it, but what if his senses betrayed him? Did he not have a life-like dream of a purring cat on his lap
just last night? And if he is truly awake and sane, perhaps he is being deceived or manipulated by someone or
something? In the end, he concluded that he could only be sure of his own existence – not because he could
pinch himself and feel it, but because the smallest common denominator, the thing that never went away in
his existential doubt, was his thinking. He famously concluded, Cogito, ergo sum = I think, therefore I am. With
this, he founded modern philosophy and extended Plato’s idea by showing the separation of our bodies
(senses, material objects) from our minds (thought, reason, and ideas), called Cartesian Dualism
(Cartesian=belonging to Descartes; yes, the guy is famous enough for his own adjective!).
4. Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0A6UKoMcE10 for a little recap of Cartesian theory.
Try to replicate his experiment of doubting the reality of everything for a couple of minutes. Take
notes about your experience.