The allegory of the cave or the cave analogy is an allegory used by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic in order to illustrate “our nature in its education and want of education”. It is written as a fictional dialogue between Plato’s teacher Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon at the beginning of Book VII.
In the analogy, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. However, one day, one of these men, who has courage goes out of the cave and sees for the first time the sunlight. At first, he has great difficult in reconciling his eyes to the powerful sunlight and his eyes get sun burnt. However, after a while his eyes get used to the sunlight and he now has chance to see that the world is not about darkness and his cave. So, he begins to discover new things and feels himself responsible of telling the truth to his friends still living in the darkness in their cave. But when he returns to the cave he has difficulty to this time to get used to the darkness. “Then what do you think would happen, I asked, If he went back to sit in his old seat in the cave? Would not his eyes be blinded by the darkness, because he had come suddenly out of the sunlight” (Plato, p. 259).
Plato uses this simile of the cave for showing the logic of his idea about forms. Plato believes that like the man going out of the cave and discovering new things about the world, philosophers who should rule the country, reach to the stage of forms and begin to act according to pure knowledge that is superior to illusion, belief and mathematical reasoning (Plato, p. 250). This cave example and his idea of forms clearly show Plato’s trust in the supremacy of knowledge and the singleness of the ultimate knowledge. On the basis of this simile of the cave, Plato can boldly claim that philosophers, who devote their lives to produce highest knowledge, should rule the country as an elite class. Philosopher rulers have the role of enlightening people with their great knowledge and to administrate the society in the best way. “Then our job as lawgivers is to compel the best minds to attain what we have called the highest form of knowledge and to ascent to the vision of the good as we have described, and when they achieved this and see well enough, prevent them behaving as they are now allowed to.”(Plato, 262) This important role of the philosopher rulers forces them to create an oligarchic regime in which the whole executive power will be their hands and thus, there will be no egalitarianism.
For some, Plato’s famous cave analogy serves as a valid, illuminating, and universally applicable model for human enlightenment, transcendence, and emancipation. However, for some it may also symbolize elitism and spreads enmity towards democracy.
1-) Cave allegory is a model that shows that societies need expert, genius people who are specially trained and who can see what others cannot see. States need vanguard people who would have courage to question things that are considered as sacred and maybe dangerous, and enlighten all other people after discovering things. That is why in Plato’s ideal state, Guardians class, who consist of genius people who have been specially trained and who know more than other people, should make the decisions and should rule the country.
2-) Democracies do not necessarily produce healthy, good decisions. Plato complains about democracy in the Crito dialogues by making Socrates talk about the wrongness of the majority and the characteristics of Athenian democracy. Socrates says “My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think? The most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done” (Plato, p. 47) in Crito dialogues. We should not forget than democracies led to the execution of Socrates and the emergence of a dictator like Adolph Hitler via elections. In democracies all people have right to give votes. However, people know few things about politics so they may certainly make wrong decisions and elect wrong people to rule them.
3-) There is a type of knowledge according to Plato which cannot be seen and which is superior to other types of knowledge like illusion, belief, mathematical equation. Illusion refers to shadows and images in the cave. Beliefs consist of visible physical concrete knowledge about simple things. Mathematical reasoning is positive science which is again related to things that are countable. However, the real knowledge (episteme) can only be reached by philosophers. Since Philosophers rulers can possess higher knowledge which cannot be understood by others, they should have the right to decide and they would lead to emancipation of humans.
4-) Humanity has always been advancing… Starting from the early ages, people discover things and make progress. People never stay similar to their previous generations. We have built states, empires, cars, skyscrapers and our progress always continues. There is always a cave to be illuminated which is of course different from the previous cave. So, we always need vanguard genius people who will help us to make progress easily.
5-) History tells us that what thought be wrong before can be in fact what is just. However, because of people’s fears and prejudices the reality may not always easy to be discovered. We need people who would risk their lives and look at the sunlight directly by going out of the cave.
- Plato, 1987, “The Republic”, London: Penguin Books
- Plato, 2002, “Five Dialogues”, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company