The Allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic

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The Allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic

This paper discussed The Allegory of The Cave in Plato's Republic, and tries to unfold the messages Plato wishes to convey with regard to his conception of reality, knowledge and education.


Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" is a story that conveys his theory of how we come to know, or how we attain true knowledge. It is also an introduction into his metaphysical and ethical system. In short, it is a symbolic explanation of his "Theory of the Forms" (or eidos).

In a cavern some people experience a strange confinement, for they are chained so they can look forward only at the wall of the cave. At their backs, a fire burns which they never are able to see. Between their bodies and the fire runs a path with a low wall, along which people carry pictures, puppets, and statues. All the prisoners can see are the shadows on the wall, all they can hear is the echo of the people walking and talking behind them. (1) The prisoners cannot see the exit out of the cave, the fire burning behind them, or the people carrying objects in front of the fire. They do not know the real objects in the cave, they only see and hear the shadows that those objects cast as they pass before the fire, and the echoes of the workers voices as they carry the objects across the parapet in front of the fire. Plato is making an appearance/Reality distinction. The prisoners are only familiar with the appearances of shadows and thus they mistake appearance for Reality. They think the shadows are Reality. They do not know what causes the shadows. For instance, if an object (a pen, let us say) is carried past behind them, and it casts a shadow on the wall, and a prisoner says, "I see...

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...g of their true nature. It is the understanding of the cave man when, finally, he is able to look up at the Sun itself and see the light it shines. Once one is ready to look up at the Sun, and bask in the splendorous light of the Good, one understands the unity that brings the Forms of all things together.

In short, Plato's cave allegory unveils the heart of his philosophy. The Good--as symbolized by the sun--is not only the source of all other essence and existence, but is the foundation of all knowledge. Because it grounds my knowledge of the world it also, if truly grasped, is the necessary and sufficient cause of my becoming virtuous and happy. To leave the cave and come to know the Good is then the goal of the philosopher's life. If it is accomplished, the philosopher not only knows the Good, but he becomes Good. By becoming virtuous, he becomes happy.
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