Plato's myth of the cave appears in book VII of The Republic, in a dialogue beween Socrates and Glaucon.

In the chapter, Socrates talks about a cave where people are chained facing a wall opposite the entrance to the cave. People outside the cave carry objects around so that the inhabitants of the cave see the shadows of the objects. Now the people in the cave who only see the shadows think that the shadows are actually the objects themselves. The book goes on to where Socrates (Plato's alter-ego in the book) explains what he means by this story.

This story illustrates Platos idealism. Where the objects that we sense (see, hear, touch, etc.) are but shadows of the real things. For Plato, my old philosophy teacher used to say, the real things exist in a "world of ideas."

This story builds on the question that the pre-socratics posed: are what we see around us real or mere illusions? And this theme recurs many times througout the history of Philosophy. This led to Augustine and Descates to ask: if what we sense are illusions, what truths can we know for certain? (The answer, the existence of the self, the famous I think therefore I am.)

This theme also is familiar to those who know Kant's noumenon (the thing in itself) and phenomenon (the thing as we perceive it to be). Of course, in these modern times, with computers and virtual reality the myth of the cave does not seem far-fetched anymore.

The Matrix is the myth of the cave with special effects.

Plato wrote The Allegory of the Cave using the Socratic Method, a dialog between a teacher and student. It is taken from a larger work entitled the Republic. Here is a very, very brief summary:

Suppose that there is a group of people who have lived their entire lives trapped in a cave lit by a large fire behind them. Chained in place, these people can see nothing but shadows projected on a wall in front of them. They cannot truly comprehend what they see, since they are prevented from grasping its true source and nature.

Now suppose that one of these human beings manages to break the chains, climb through the passage, and escape the cave. With eyes accustomed only to the dim light of the cave, this individual will at first be blinded by the brightness of the world. But after some time and effort, he will become able to appreciate the beauty of the world.

Finally, suppose that this escapee returns to the cave, trying to persuade the others that there is another, better, real world than the one in the cave. They are unlikely to be impressed by his pleas, especially since, having travelled to the bright surface world, he is now clumsy in the dim cave.

The allegory of Plato's cave found in The Republic is about our own knowledge of the world and how we perceive it.

In this cave there are prisoners chained so that they are facing a wall. Behind them, a great fire (the philosopher Heraclitus beloved that fire was the primary form of reality - see Stasis, Change and Atoms in Ancient Greek Philosophy for more on this subject). Between the prisoners and the fire a puppet show is happening. The prisoners see the shadows on the walls and this is their reality.

A person freed from his chains and looking towards the light will be blinded and not even able to see what realities he did know before. Being told that what he just saw will confuse him, after all he has spent a lifetime watching shadows. Many of those people will choose instead to go back to the painless knowledge of the shadows rather than the light.

Suppose that one of these prisoners is dragged up and held fast before the sun itself. He will be near blind until his eyes adjust, but when they do he will be dazzled and not able to see anything that resembled what he knew as reality before. In time, the prisoner will be able to see all the world around him. Through this knowledge he will become aware of his place in the world.

Meanwhile, back in the cave, prisoners give honor to those among themselves who noticed the passing shadows first and their happenings. This prisoner, who now sees the light and once respected those who remarked on shadows would have lost much of that respect. In trying to explain what he has seen to those back in the cave, after his eyes have adjusted to the sun, he would seem foolish to those in the cave. However, the prisoner would know what is right, even if all those around him disbelieve it.


Plato is not only talking of the realm of forms, but is critiquing his peers and those before him, claiming they only see shadows of reality and talk about them as if they were real.

The cave is what we see, and the fire is the sun. What we see is light of the sun reflecting off of things. To talk about these things as if they were real and make conjectures about them, while they may be accurate do not get at the heart of the matter - the Form

A person who is set free, and goes out to see the real world, and what lies behind the shadows of light that we see. Having been enlightened to the nature of reality, it is not easy to explain this to others.

The Allegory of the Cave, from Book VII of The Republic of Plato

Excerpted from the translation by Benjamin Jowett, source: Project Gutenberg


(Socrates)
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:, Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; 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, I said, 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, I replied; 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, he said; 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?

(Glaucon)
Yes, he said.

(Socrates)
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

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 shadow?

(Glaucon)
No question, he replied.

(Socrates)
To them, I said, 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 And when 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 which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

(Glaucon)
True, he said.

(Socrates)
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, 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, he said.

(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?

(Glaucon)
Certainly.

(Socrates)
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

(Glaucon)
Certainly.

(Socrates)
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who 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 said, he would first see the sun and then reason about it.

(Socrates)
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on 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, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

(Socrates)
Imagine once more, I said, such a 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, he said.

(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 den, 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, he said.

(Socrates)
This entire allegory, I said, 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 eye fixed.

(Glaucon)
I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.

(Socrates)
Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted.

(Glaucon)
Yes, very natural.

(Socrates)
And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, when they returned to the den they would see much worse than those who had never left it. himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?

(Glaucon)
Anything but surprising, he replied.

(Socrates)
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he has a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.

(Glaucon)
That, he said, is a very just distinction.

(Socrates)
But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes?

(Glaucon)
They undoubtedly say this, he replied.

(Socrates)
Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good.

(Glaucon)
Very true.

(Socrates)
And must there not be some art which will effect conversion in the easiest and quickest manner; not implanting the faculty of sight, for that exists already, but has been turned in the wrong direction, and is looking away from the truth?

(Glaucon)
Yes, he said, such an art may be presumed.

(Socrates)
And whereas the other so-called virtues of the soul seem to be akin to bodily qualities, for even when they are not originally innate they can be implanted later by habit and exercise, the virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other hand, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue, how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye-sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?

(Glaucon)
Very true, he said.

(Socrates)
But what if there had been a circumcision of such natures in the days of their youth; and they had been severed from those sensual pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below, if, I say, they had been released from these impediments and turned in the opposite direction, the very same faculty in them would have seen the truth as keenly as they see what their eyes are turned to now.

(Glaucon)
Very likely.

(Socrates)
Yes, I said; and there is another thing which is likely, or Neither rather a necessary inference from what has preceded, that neither the uneducated and uninformed of the truth, nor yet those who never make an end of their education, will be able educated ministers of State; not the former, because they have no single aim of duty which is the rule of all their actions, private as well as public; nor the latter, because they will not act at all except upon compulsion, fancying that they are already dwelling apart in the islands of the blest.

(Glaucon)
Very true, he replied.

(Socrates)
Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all, they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.

(Glaucon)
What do you mean?

(Socrates)
I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not.

(Glaucon)
But is not this unjust? he said; ought we to give them a worse life, when they might have a better?

(Socrates)
You have again forgotten, my friend, I said, the intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State.

(Glaucon)
True, he said, I had forgotten.

(Socrates)
Observe, Glaucon, that there will be no injustice in compelling our philosophers to have a care and providence of others; we shall explain to them that in other States, men of their class are not obliged to share in the toils of politics: and this is reasonable, for they grow up at their own sweet will, and the government would rather not have them. Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a culture which they have never received. But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. That is why each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State, which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.

(Glaucon)
Quite true, he replied.

(Socrates)
And will our pupils, when they hear this, refuse to take their turn at the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light?

(Glaucon)
Impossible, he answered; for they are just men, and the commands which we impose upon them are just; there can be no doubt that every one of them will take office as a stern necessity, and not after the fashion of our present rulers of State.

(Socrates)
Yes, my friend, I said; and there lies the point. You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State.

(Glaucon)
Most true, he replied.

(Socrates)
And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

(Glaucon)
Indeed, I do not, he said.

(Socrates)
And those who govern ought not to be lovers of the task? For, if they are, there will be rival lovers, and they will fight.

(Glaucon)
No question.

(Socrates)
Who then are those whom we shall compel to be guardians? Surely they will be the men who are wisest about affairs of the state.


Another node your homework attempt. I wrote this for a Freshman composition class. It won some prize and I got some money. This seems to be the way things work.




Somewhere in the chaotic evolution of human civilization the conceptualized path towards enlightenment became a marketing tool. It is used to sell us idealized images of ourselves, post-journey. One can hardly tune in to any flavor of mass media without being pitched some program of self-improvement. The bestseller lists are clogged with self-help titles in genres hardly imagined a decade ago. Existential crisis seems to be the malady that plagues every American. We can hardly bear the ennui of our post-modern world: formless, godless, and with little indication where one should begin or end outside of the mortal inevitabilities. The quest for certainty or at least guiding principles has become an obsessive one for many people. We chant mantras, recite affirmations to our reflections in the mirror, wear magnetized jewelry, and practice pagan rituals while awaiting the big bang of mental clarity that is surely lurking around the next corner. We sit and wait for revelations to come to us in dreams or visions.

This dilemma is not a new one. In Plato's Republic, Socrates discusses a paradigm for improvement over the life course commonly referred to as the Allegory of the Cave. The basic outline is very simple. Socrates envisions humans as endlessly trapped in a cycle of self-delusion. He uses a dark cave where unwitting humans are chained to the wall with no hope of escape or knowledge of their condition. Plato posits that the perceptive capabilities of humans are nearly absent naturally and can only be developed over time.

Humans in their unenlightened beginnings are symbolized as imprisoned at the back of a dark cave. The prisoners face the cave wall and their only impressions of reality are shadows cast by passersby carrying models of the real world objects. The passersby carry toy versions of common objects (which can symbolize concepts in life less literal than their representations) over their heads while traveling a footbridge in front of a roaring fire. The captives see only the shadows cast on the cave wall and take them to be reality. The path towards enlightenment starts with one of the prisoners breaking free and beginning the journey out of the cave. He makes his way to the outside world where a ship is waiting to take him out into the real world.

The trip out of the cave is painful for the escapee. After an entire life spent in darkness and being deceived how can someone not be crushed by the sense of time wasted? The prisoner is assaulted by sunlight, deafened by the sounds of the outside world, and pained by the fulfillment of his never developed senses. Socrates attaches significance to this uncomfortable process of becoming aware. He speaks of the process of leaving the cave as initially motivated by curiosity and continued out of need to leave the lie that he has been living. Socrates also believed that once the process began it was impossible to go back into the cave.

The distinguishing factor between Socrates' conception of becoming enlightened and other systems' is that, ideally, one who is liberated will want to go back into the cave to rescue others. This allegorical journey from the bowels of the cave to the outside (real) world is representative, to Socrates, of the ultimate goal of a person's lifetime. Much like the Buddhist bodhisattva, an awakened person should feel compassion towards his former neighbors in the cave and postpone his own trip to "the promised land" or "nirvana" in the Buddhist canon to bring some of them into the light. In Socrates' view, this desire to save others from a dreary life full of illusion and self-deception correlates naturally with gaining wisdom although it stems more from a sense of love for humanity than a need for self-abnegation (holiness.) In much of their philosophy, both Plato and Socrates stressed internalized need as proper motivation for genuinely good deeds rather than fear of damnation or expectation of divine reward. Socrates characterized the reformed cave dweller as filled with compassion for his fellow humans and disgusted with the life of illusion that he once led. This, of course, follows a period of recovery. Once the first person escapes the cave, he experiences the painful epiphany that his life was a lie and his reality was mostly illusion. Recognizing his former lot as an existence bereft of truth, he realizes that he is morally obligated to rescue his fellow man from an empty existence.

One of the most powerful truths alluded to in this allegory is the difficulty that the freed man will have convincing his fellows to leave the cave. Socrates talks of the former prisoner reentering the darkened cave to tell the people still chained up in the cave about the real world outside. Accustomed to the outside world full of natural light, the rescuer stumbles in the darkness of the cave and looks (actually sounds) foolish to those inside. The cave dwellers mock him for his crazy ideas (actually implying that by leaving the cave he has become insane) and insist that they are perfectly happy where they are. The would-be liberator is empathetic; his own trip into the light was unpleasant and disillusioning in the initial steps. He is convinced, however, that captivity in the cave is an evil he must reconcile. So, despite the mockery of those still chained to the wall, he begins the process anew.

The Matrix is a contemporary take on a similar scenario. The human characters in this film are held captive in an artificial world by a tyrannical race of intelligent machines. A renegade group of humans have freed themselves from the illusory world and return to rescue others in the same manner that former captives of Plato's cave are compelled to return to rescue current captives. Although the symbolic cave they emerge from leads to a bleaker existence than the illusion they have been trapped in, only one opts to go back. Plato held that there was no returning to the familiar deception once the spell of belief in a false reality had been broken. In The Matrix, however, there is no nirvana, no promised land to be journeyed to. The reality that the cave dwellers (literally in this sense - captives held in dormitory cocoons) enter is less pleasing to the senses but is real. The awakened sleepers find the concrete world a harsher one but preferable to the artificial one that they inhabited. This preference concurs with Plato's assertion that once something has been proved false to both the sensorimotor and cognitive mind it is impossible for thinking people to revert to falsity. So, after the initial culture shock of being reborn into reality and taking the first bracing breath of cold air outside of the cave (or in this case, cocoon) the journey out of the cave is irreversible. Plato asserts that the human mind cannot not truly deceive itself despite the relative comfort the lie may have provided. Even children take this conceptual leap when the truth about Santa Claus is revealed to them. Plato finds this hunger for truth innate in human nature.

Despite the fact that the Allegory of the Cave predates the birth of Christ, (or the beginning of the Common Era depending on your perspective) it is still a valid model for the sharpening of the mind. While the Buddhist methods of attaining an enlightened state of consciousness were popularized hundreds of years before the birth of Socrates his methodology differs radically in its proactive approach. Buddhists are supposed to wait with minds emptied until enlightenment reaches them. Socrates spoke of the quest for real knowledge of the world as a bitter battle with the inherent deceptions of human civilization. The Allegory of the Cave admits (and insists) that the process of awakening the mind is a life long process that requires one to sink his teeth into the jugular of reality and that this process is not necessarily a pleasant one.

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