To make the intellectual world of thought-objects and of the forms easier to grasp, Plato took the
normal world of our experience underground in his Allegory of the Cave. Could you explain what this
accomplished and what the Allegory was intended to teach us?
In Plato's underground cave there are people chained and shackled so that they can only see one
wall. Behind. them is a fire casting it's light upon the wall. Between the fire and the people is a
roadway through which other people travel carrying all kinds of objects which cast shadows on the
The chained people take these shadows to be realities. However if one of them were to be released
and allowed to look around or even to leave the cave (via a rough assent) into the clear light of day lie
would realise that in fact the shadows were not reality.
I think the allegory of the cave is meant to be more than just a way of saying that if we rely on our
sense perception we will never attain knowledge, but always be subject to the world of appearance.
Rather there is a stronger message that through our intellectual capacities and philosophy in
particular we can break the chains that "fetter us" we can aim for the light we can be enlightened. In
other words by becoming philosophers we can be free!
There is as well a second part to the allegory. The freed person returns to the cave and is subject to
ridicule and danger. Clearly he would not be happy with this situation. But one of the things we learn
to see outside the cave, in fact the highest source of knowledge is that of Goodness. In. the larger
context of The Republic (from which the allegory is taken) Plato wishes to describe the ideal state for
mankind, Plato thinks that knowledge of Goodness is required in order to run such an ideal
community, However those with such knowledge, like the man sent back to the cave are reluctant to
go. Bizarre or brilliantly depending on how one views Plato it is those who least want power and
responsibility that should have it.
The allegory of the cave is not meant so much to explain our understanding of the Forms, Plato
needs to say much more about how we have the beginnings of such concepts than simply that we
cannot trust our senses to show us reality. But rather the message of the story is that in our
intellectual capacities lies the ways in which we can free ourselves from this world.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield