Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Plato Cave
Commentary: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

A translation of Plato’s allegory of the cave

Context of the Allegory:

The allegory of the Cave occurs at the beginning of Bk. VII of Plato’s Republic. Both Adiemantus and Glaucon are Plato’s brothers, so it would appear that Plato is concerned about looking after his “kin” or his “own” in this dialogue. The dialogue occurs in the home of Cephalus, an old man, whose son Polemarchus is also present, but does not take part in the conversation after BK. I. The speakers, who are talking about the best regime in speech, are about to endure the worst regime in deed as the rule of the Thirty Tyrants is about to take place in Athens. Polemarchus will be killed during that rule. In Bk VI, Socrates has spoken about societies (cities, organizations) as being “a Great Beast”, and his task is to show how someone can gain freedom from this Beast.

The Platonic image of the cave describes our essential human condition or situation. All human beings begin, and most human beings end, as prisoners of the authoritative opinions of their time and place. We are the products of our “shared knowledge”. How we have come to understand our “personal knowledge” is also a product or outcome of this shared knowledge that we have inherited. Education is a liberation from these bonds, the ascent to a standpoint from which the cave and its interpretation of what knowledge is can be seen for what it is. Socrates’ assertion that he only knows that he is ignorant reveals that he has attained such a standpoint, one from which he can see that what others take to be knowledge is only opinion, opinion determined by the necessities of life in the cave.

Philosophy or thinking, in all its various forms in the past, always supposed that by unaided reason human beings are somehow capable of getting beyond the given and finding a non-arbitrary standard against which to measure that given; and that this possibility constitutes the essence of human freedom and the essence of what human beings are. The modern technological world-view is the most radical denial of this possibility and of the essence of human freedom. The objection that is made against reason is not that of skepticism, a view that has always been present from thinking’s beginnings, but the positive or dogmatic assertion that reason is incapable of finding permanent, non-arbitrary principles. All claims and counterclaims in Theory of Knowledge rest on these two most powerful assertions and one must explore the nature of reason as a way of knowing in order to see and to understand how the outcomes of reason have manifested themselves in the technological world-view. Perhaps our understanding of reason or our interpretation of what reason is is flawed in some way. As the philosopher Leo Strauss once said, “Because one cannot see the mountaintop because it is covered by clouds does not mean that one is not able to make judgements between a mountain and a molehill”.

What has remained as the most dominant understandings of what reason and knowledge are is logical positivism, which understands its principles to be unprovable and dependent on their “usefulness” or “pragmatic” applications, and radical historicism which goes further by asserting that reason has its roots in unreason and is, hence, only a superficial phenomenon. Radical historicism (existentialism) concludes that the logical positivists’ principles, admittedly arbitrary, are the product of only one of an infinite number of possible perspectives, horizons, or folk minds (cultures) which are dependent on their historical and social contexts. There are infinite variety of other approaches to human being that are possible.

It is fitting that any Theory of Knowledge course should begin with Plato’s allegory of the Cave for its discussions of education, truth and who and what human beings are remains as relevant today as when it was first written some 2400 years ago.


The cave is the place where we live everyday: it is our society, or all societies. The fire in the cave, which is burning above the prisoners, is an “image” of the Sun inside of the cave; the fire is (or can be) both a natural and human-made creation and like the Sun itself is related to “light”. We are unsure as to the origin of the fire within the cave, but we will make the assumption that it is physis or Nature or the natural. It is what is called “shared knowledge” in the TOK course design, those things which we have knowledge about. It is “behind us” or something which is “past”. The fire gives ‘light’ to the cave and all that is inside of the cave. This light is necessary for the prisoners to see the ‘shadows’. The Sun’s light is present inside of the cave, but it is diffuse. You will notice in the beginning of the allegory that the emphasis is on “seeing” and this word is repeated often by both Socrates and Glaucon.

What surrounds and concerns the prisoners is, for them, “the real” i.e. that which is. In the cave (any society and its social constructs) the prisoners feel “at home” and it is here that the prisoners find what they can rely on in the everydayness of their dealings i.e. what is of ‘use’ to them and for them. These are the “shadows”. This is what is called “personal knowledge” in the TOK course design and this personal knowledge is reliant on the fire or “shared knowledge” which illuminates and creates the shadows that the prisoners have come to call “knowledge”. The Greeks had a wonderful expression: “The future comes to meet us from behind”; and we can interpret this as meaning that what we are as human beings will come to pass and is coming to pass due to this “fire” that is behind us and which has determined and determines our “seeing” in the present for it is the fire that allows the shadows to be. For the Greeks, this knowing one’s way about in the everydayness of our dealings with the world was called “techne” and it was for them one form of knowledge.

In contrast to the inside of the Cave are the things that are visible outside of the cave: these, according to the allegory, are the ‘proper being of the beings’ or what things really are or what their essence consists in. This is where beings show up in their “visible form”. For Plato, this ‘visible form’ is not the ‘mere appearance’ of the thing/being, but is something of a ‘stepping forth’ whereby the thing presents itself to us so that it can be seen. In Greek, the visible form of something is eidos or idea. In the allegory, the thing/being, standing in its visible form, “shows itself”. In the allegory, the things that are visible outside of the cave, where one’s sight is free to look at everything, are the “ideas”. For Plato, if people do not have these “ideas” in their ‘seeing’, living beings, humans, numbers, and gods would not be able to be seen. We would not be able to see a tree as a tree, a house as a house, a god as a god.

Usually we think we see this house or this tree directly. Generally, we never understand that we only ‘see’ these things in the ‘light’ of the ‘ideas’ and the ideas get their being and their light from the Sun or “The Idea of The Good”.  According to Plato, what the prisoners presume to be the ‘real’—what they can immediately see, hear, grasp and compute—always remains a mere faint representation or sketch of the idea, and consequently, a shadow. The things which are nearest to us in our concerns, even though they have only the consistency of shadows, hold us ‘enchained’ day after day.  This is what we have come to call our “personal knowledge”. Since we are unable to recognize the prison for what it is, we consider this everydayness the ground of our experience and judgement and that this everyday ground provides the sole standard for all things and relations including our dispositions in the arrangement of the things of experience. This is sometimes referred to as cognition in our readings in TOK.

Now if the human beings who are prisoners were to be ‘compelled’ to glance back at the fire whose light produces the shadows of the things being carried back and forth, this ‘turning’ would cause their habitual ‘seeing’ to be disrupted, and this disruption would change their behaviour and their current opinion of things. This change is rejected by the prisoners for they feel that they are in a clear and complete possession of the real.  The people in the cave are so passionately attached to their “view” or “way of seeing” that they are incapable of thinking or suspecting the possibility that what they are taking for the real is really mere shadows. But how could they know about the shadows when they do not want to even be aware of the fire in the cave and its light that “allows” their seeing and when this light is made by human beings (possibly) and is familiar to human beings? The fire is a metaphor for what we call “education” and it is the artisans (in Greek, the technes) who are the ‘keepers of the fire’. Techne in Greek is “know how” or to “know one’s way about or in something”. It is one possible definition or description of knowledge.

In contrast, the light of the Sun which is outside of the cave is not a product of human making. In the light of the Sun, things grow ‘out of themselves’ and are present and show themselves immediately without the need of the shadows to represent them. The things that show themselves are the ‘images’ of the ideas. But it is the Sun that makes all ideas visible and is the source of all ideas. The Sun is the image of The Idea of the Good which is beyond all beings and Being (i.e. it is not the Good itself). This light of the Sun is “Love”, which in its self-giving allows the things/beings, through the ideas, to “step forth” and appear as what they really are. (“Faith is experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Love”—Simone Weil.) We are able to see the things/beings because our eye is “sun-like” and shares something in common with the sun and with the fire that is inside the cave. It is the sun as light that establishes the ratio or relationship between the thing itself in its “stepping forth” and our eye in its seeing so that the thing can be seen. It is the idea that provides the limits to things so that everything is not just a blur. We have come to call this “process” the “ways of knowing” or “cognition”.

The allegory contains a number of movements: the enchainment to the shadows, the releasement from the chains, the passage out of the cave and into the light of the sun, and the return back from the light of the sun into the cave. For each of these movements the eyes must accustom themselves to the changes from darkness to light and from light to the darkness again. In each case, the eyes experience confusion and for opposite reasons: on the one hand, people can be shown the fire and recognize that the things they are concerned with are shadows of the fire and they can choose either to become the tenders and makers of the fire themselves or return to their comfortable ignorance in the shadows (this is the first stage of what we know traditionally as “education”. This is the world of those who prefer to live in “intentional ignorance”).

This returning to the world of the shadows is a ‘free choice’ that people make. It is, if you like, Macbeth’s choice where he is fully aware of the evil of his desires, but chooses to be intentionally ignorant of these and attempts to suppress this evil. (“Plato’s morality is: Do not make the worst possible mistake of deceiving yourself. We know that we are acting correctly when the power of thinking is not hindered by what we are doing. To do only those things which one can think clearly and not to do those things which force the mind to have unclear thoughts about what one is doing. That is the whole of Plato’s morality. True morality is purely internal”. S. Weil)

Just as the physical eye must accustom itself slowly and steadily both to the light and to the dark, the soul, too, must accustom itself to the realm of the beings/things to which it is exposed. But the process of getting accustomed requires that the whole being of the human being must be turned in the direction of what it is striving towards,  just as the eye can only look comfortably at something only when the whole body is turned in that direction. This change must be slow and steady because it changes the ground of what we are as human beings. This change is what Plato calls padaiea or what we call “education”. It is “habit”. Education is the guiding of the whole human being in turning around his or her essence. Education is a ‘movement’ from ‘non-education’ to ‘padaiea’.

“Education” means ‘formation’ for the Greeks. As we become ‘educated’ we have a ‘character’ that is impressed upon us and that unfolds as we live: we wish to become ‘life-long learners’. At the same time, this ‘forming’ of people “forms” or impresses a character on people by creating a standard in terms of a “paradigm” (or stamp). We call this our IB Learner Profile. Thus “education” or “formation” means impressing a character on people and guiding them by a paradigm. The contrary of “education” is lack of “formation” where no measurable standard is put forth. Genuine education takes hold of our very soul and transforms it entirely by leading us to the stand or ground of what it means to be human and makes us accustomed to it.

In the allegory, there is a relation between “education” and “truth” because it is the essence of truth that forms the paradigm that guides people. But what links education and truth? What is the relationship between the IB Learner Profile and the understanding of truth implicit in it?

Education means turning around the whole human being. It means moving human beings from the way where they first encounter things and transferring them and accustoming them to another way in which the things appear. This movement can only occur when the way things have been shown to human beings, and the way in which things have appeared to human beings prior, gets transformed. Whatever we “see” at any given time and the manner of our “seeing” has to be transformed. In Greek, this “seeing” is called aletheia or “unhiddenness”. We have traditionally translated aletheia as “truth”. We will see later that “truth” has come to mean the agreement of the representation in thought with the thing itself: what has been called the “correspondence theory of truth” and that this correspondence somehow “reveals” the things that we see. The essence of truth, which is not of human making, makes possible “education”.

The allegory of the Cave illustrates four different “grounds” or ways of being for human beings. Each stage is characterized by a different kind of aletheia or “unhiddenness” and we need to see what kind of “truth” is prevalent at each level.

The Four Stages:

In Stage one, people live enchained inside the cave and are engrossed by what they immediately encounter. At this stage, human beings consider only the shadows cast by the artifacts as being the “unhidden” or the truth of things. This could be understood as our ‘enchainment’ to the material nature of things or to our technological devices in our modern day world. It is the stage where most human beings dwell.

At Stage Two, the chains are removed and the prisoner is “compelled” to “turn” and to look at the things that, before, were merely shadows to him or her. Although still within the cave, the person is “free” in a certain respect: they can move their heads in every direction and it is possible to see the very things that were carried along the roadway behind them. Before they looked only at shadows; now they are “a little nearer to what is”. The things offer themselves in a visible form in a certain way, namely, through the light of the man-made fire and they are no longer “hidden” by the shadows they project. When one’s gaze is freed from the captivity of the shadows, it becomes possible for the person who has been freed to enter into the area that is more “unhidden”. But the person will consider the shadows that they saw before as being more “unhidden” than what is being shown to them in the first “turning”. Why is this so?

The eyes are not accustomed to the light and the prisoner is initially blinded and confused. The first liberation is painful. The blinding does not allow the prisoner to see the fire itself and from understanding how its light illuminates the things and lets these things appear for the first time. That is why those who have been liberated cannot comprehend that what they previously saw were merely shadows. They “see” other things besides the shadows; but these things only appear in confusion to them. In contrast, the shadows appear much more sharply and because of this, the prisoner who has been freed thinks these shadows are more “unhidden”. The word aletheia or “truth” occurs again at this point in a comparative degree: the shadows are “more unhidden” than they were before. The prisoner feels that the more proper “truth” is to be found in the shadows because they are unable to recognize or “see” the shadows as shadows. The condition necessary for assessing the shadows as shadows is “freedom”. Removing the chains brings a sort of freedom, but it is not yet real freedom.

Stage Three: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and the Realm of True Freedom:

Real freedom is only attained at Stage Three. The prisoner is led out of the Cave and “into the open” where, as from a height, all things are “shown”. The “looks” that show what things are no longer appear as merely in the man-made and confusing glow of the fire. The things themselves appear in the “truth” and bindingness of their own appearance (both in themselves and to us). The “openness” outside of the Cave does not mean Sun’s light (Beauty, Truth, and Goodness). The light of the Sun is a metaphor for Love in the Cave and outside of the Cave. The “looks” that show what things are, the Ideas or the Forms, are the essence (the “whatness”) of what each individual thing/being shows itself as this or that. It is only through this “self-showing” that the appearing thing becomes visible and accessible to us as human beings.

The stance of “being in the world” at Stage Three is defined in terms of what is “unhidden” at this level. This “unhidden” is even more “unhidden” than the things illuminated by the man-made fire in distinction to the shadows. The “unhidden” that has been reached is the most “unhidden” of all. The light of the Sun grants to the things that are the ability of “self-showing”. Without such a “self-showing” of what they are through the Ideas and the Forms, any and all specific things—in fact, absolutely everything—would remain hidden. “The most unhidden” is called this because it is what appears in everything that appears, and it makes whatever appears be accessible in its appearance. But that which allows things to appear as what they really are is “the Good”, and it allows things to appear in their “Truth” (“unhiddenness”) and their “Beauty”. Beauty, Truth and Goodness are not man-made constructs or concepts, but are in fact “the standards” that allow all things to be seen for what they truly are and “bind” human beings to them in the Beauty of their “unhiddenness”. Understanding this ‘bindingness’ is necessary if one wishes to understand ‘fate’ as it is used in other sections of this blog. As human beings, we are bound to how the things “show” themselves in their “truth”.

For the prisoners inside of the Cave, to have been freed from the shadows to see the light of the fire and to see how things are shown in the firelight was a difficult task that proved too difficult for many prisoners. In their pain and confusion they returned to the shadows. Being freed into the openness outside of the Cave also requires endurance and effort. Being freed from the chains does not come about by the simple removal of the chains; and certainly freedom is not uncontrolled license to do what one wishes. Freedom consists in the continuous effort to accustom oneself to look upon the firm limits of the things that stand in their visible form. It is an understanding of the Necessity of things. For Plato, this freedom is not an “active doing” but is more in the nature of “contemplation”, a “beholding” of what beauty, truth and goodness are.  Authentic freedom is the steadiness of being oriented toward what appears in its visible form and which is most “unhidden” in this appearing. “Education” is a “turning toward” and a “turning around”. The fulfillment of the essence of “education” can only be achieved in the region of the most “unhidden” i.e. the truest, the most beautiful, and the goodness of what is.

Because the essence of “education” is this “turning around” and a “turning towards” and a “beholding” of what truth, beauty and goodness are, education remains a constant overcoming of “hiddenness” or untruth. Plato views education as the constant overcoming of the lack of education. The allegory continues, therefore, with the Fourth Stage.

Stage Four: The Cave, The Liberator and the Political:

The Fourth Stage involves the descent of the freed person back into the Cave, back to those who are still in the chains. The one who has been freed is required to lead those who are still in chains away from what is “unhidden” for them and to bring them face to face with the most unhidden. But because the liberator has been outside of the Cave, he no longer knows his way around inside of the Cave and he risks the dangers of succumbing to the overwhelming power of the kind of “truth” or “unhiddenness” that operates in the Cave by those who tend the Fire and those who are satisfied living with the shadows: that what is called reality in the Cave is the only reality. The liberator risks being put to death: the fate that befell Plato’s teacher, Socrates.

The return to the Cave and the battle waged within the Cave between the liberator and the prisoners who resist all liberation makes up Stage Four of the “allegory” and brings the story to an end. The word aletheia or “unhiddenness”, “truth” is no longer used at this stage. Nevertheless, the notion of what truth is creates the conditions of that area in the Cave that the freed person now visits. Now, in stages one and two there were two forms of “unhiddenness” that were operating: the unhiddenness of the shadows and the unhiddenness of the man-made fire. These two views of unhiddenness represent two factors essential to the unhidden or “truth”: not only does the “unhidden” render accessible whatever appears and keeps it revealed in its appearing, but it constantly overcomes a hiddenness of the hidden. The “unhidden” must be constantly “grasped” and “torn away from” hiddenness; it must be “stolen” from hiddenness. Originally for the Greeks, hiddenness was conceived as an act of “self-hiding”, and this “self-hiding” permeated the essence of what we call “reality” and being and it determined how beings were accessible and how beings “presented” themselves. (For example, as students you are constantly “annoyed” by having to look for what you have come to call the “hidden meaning” in your literature texts; and in a Greek way, this “stealing” or “grasping” the meaning of a text is a “wresting away” from the text the “truth” of the text so that the text will be “present” in its “reality”, in its “truth” i.e. not as some kind of “subjective” response to the text as an object. But this ‘wresting away’ requires that the text ‘give’ accessibility to you in its “presence” and that you are able to “see” that which the text “offers” to you, and “grasp” it, and take it away with you.)

Truth originally means that which has been wrested from hiddenness. Truth is a ‘wresting away’ in the form of ‘revealing’. The hiddenness is of various kinds: closing off, hiding away, disguising, covering over, masking, dissembling. Examples of these various kinds of hiddenness are motifs running throughout Shakespeare’s work, particularly Macbeth. According to the allegory, the “most unhidden” must be ‘wrested away’ from a base and stubborn hiding, and it is for this reason that the journey out of the Cave and into the open, into the light of the Sun is a life and death struggle. Stage Four gives us a glimpse into how “privation” (eros), or “need”—attaining the unhidden by wresting it away—belongs to the essence of truth. It is this “privation” or lack of and need of truth that gives concrete substance to what is most natural for human beings. For Socrates, when he speaks of justice and says that “It is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it” (Gorgias), the truth of this is given to him in the light (Love) that comes from the Sun (the Good) and it is the lack of and the need for this light which human beings desire (need) the most and that leads them to seek truth in its most unhidden. And this is why for Plato, truth and beauty and goodness are One, but all three are a One and proceed from Goodness (and, as is mentioned in Stage Three, everything proceeds from Goodness). But how is this so?

Truth, Beauty and Goodness:

The presentation of the allegory understands the underground Cave and the area outside of the Cave (the Open) as the region where the events of the story take place. (Let us, for our purposes, also view a third Cave, a cave within the Cave, our virtual world of technology and see how this plays out.) What is essential in the story are the movements of the passage: the ascent from the realm of the light of the man-made fire into the brightness of the sunlight as well as the descent from the source of all light back into the darkness of the Cave. If we add our virtual world, this ascent is made even harder, longer and more confusing. The emphasis in the allegory of the Cave is on “seeing” and its dependence on the light, and we must try to understand what this “light” might be a metaphor of. For this, we must look at the role played by the Fire, the fire’s light and the shadows it casts, the brightness of the Open outside of the Cave, the light of the Sun, and the Sun itself. Everything in the allegory depends on the “shining forth” of whatever appears and on what makes this visibility possible. Love, as Plato says elsewhere, is fire catching fire.

We notice that “unhiddenness” or “truth” is present at all the various stages in the allegory. Now this “unhiddenness” is not some “relative truth” which we ourselves create: the light of the man-made fire is still a derivative of the “truth” of the Sun. All truth is One. The light is that which allows us to see things in their “self-showing”; that is, it is the things themselves which “shine” and their shining and our viewing are held together in the same “light”. What is accessible to us in its visible form (eidos) and that which shows itself (idea) are held together. But how? How are the visible form (eidos) and that which shows itself to us as something (idea) to be held together?

The visible form of the thing (eidos) appears to us in the very brightness of its shining; this we understand as beauty. The visible “form” (eidos) provides the “shining” of that which is present and allows us to know it as what it is. The “idea” is the visible form that offers itself to us. The “idea” is the pure light or shining in the sense “the sun shines”. The “idea” does not (and is not) a something else that is beneath or behind that allows it to appear; it itself is what shines; it is only concerned with the shining of itself. The idea is that which can shine. The essence of the idea consists in its ability to shine and be seen. This is what brings about “presencing” or the coming to “presence” of what a being or something is in any given instance. A being becomes present in its “whatness”. What the idea, in its shining forth, brings into view and thereby lets us see—for the beholding which is fixed on the idea—is the unhidden of that in which the idea is present. The forms and ideas proceed from the Good.

If we grasp the idea as a self-showing and a self-giving that allows us to “know” what a being or thing is in its “unhiddenness”, then we can see how this shining and showing is Love. This is why the liberated prisoner who has ascended to the Open into the light of the Sun is “compelled” to return to the Cave and to live among those who have, as yet, need of liberation. He or she, too, must be a “self-showing” and a “self-giving” and must reveal the Good, not as a concept, but as being itself.

This understanding is crucial for the understanding (or misunderstanding) of what occurs in Western philosophy. The “truth” or the “unhiddenness” of something has come to be understood as that which is apprehended or “grasped” in the apprehending of the idea as that which is “known”. This apprehending is the act of knowing of the ideas. This understanding of the “ideas” comes to determine the essence of “apprehension” and subsequently the essence of “reason”, and this is essential for what we think ourselves to be today (and why, as we shall see, technology is a way of knowing). How the “shining” is looked upon, either as a “grasping”, “apprehending” by human beings or as a “contemplation” of the “shining” in its own beauty which grasps us will be the essence of many of the knowledge issues and questions which we shall discuss in this journey through TOK. How that light which we have tried to show here is Love becomes translated as ratio, reason is a long and difficult question.

Because the idea is able to shine, “truth” or “unhiddenness” is that which is accessible. This access is carried out through “seeing”; truth and seeing are bound together in a relationship to each other; and this relationship of truth and “seeing” are a “beholding”. But what is beholding? What binds truth and seeing together? The Sun (the Good) as the source of light lends (grants, gives) visibility (idea) to whatever is seen. But seeing sees what is visible only insofar as the eye that sees is what is Sun-like by having the disposition to participate in the Sun’s kind of essence, that is, its shining. The eye in its seeing is “sun-like” by its participation and devotion to the shining and in this way is able to receive and apprehend whatever appears. (This is how Aristotle’s famous opening to his Metaphysics should be understood: it is usually translated as “All men by nature desire to know”. A better translation would be: “All men by nature desire to see.”) The Sun grants, gives to the eye its participation in whatever appears. As Plato says, “What provides unhiddenness to the things known and also grants (gives) the capability (of knowing) to the knower, this, I say, is the idea of the Good.” Because the eye is sun-like, it is able to be held in a relation with the Sun. This relation is one of language or logos. It is the logos which binds human beings to the things that are and human beings have come to be defined as the zoon logon echon or the animal who possesses language (genitive case) or the animal possessed by language (accusative case).

As idea the Good is something that shines, and in its shining allows sight and is something that is visible and knowable: “In the realm of what can be known the idea of the Good is the power of visibility that accomplishes all shining forth and that therefore is properly seen only last, in fact it is hardly (only with great pains) really seen at all.”