by Ed Whelan
The influence of Plato on western philosophy has been
some of his key
thoughts are encapsulated in the
Allegory of the Cave.
This presents some of his
key philosophical ideas on the nature of truth, reality and even
It is essential for
understanding the Athenian thinker's concepts which are still as
relevant today as they were over two thousand years ago.
To understand Plato's Allegory, it is first necessary to grasp some
of his major ideas.
In his masterpiece,
The Republic, he outlines his
theory of reality.
He proposed that
there are two worlds.
There is the world of
the senses that we know, which is always in flux, and
Then there was a
second world; a timeless and unchanging world of eternal ideas
What we call 'truth' is
knowledge of these forms or ideas, which are the models for all that
we perceive in the physical realm.
This world of Ideas
is the 'real' world...
According to Plato we can
know the Forms by the practice of reasoning and philosophy.
4th century BC sculpture
Allegory of the Cave
Plato frequently used parables and allegories to communicate his
arguments and to make points.
The Allegory of the
Cave, which appears in The Republic, was written by Plato
to develop his ideas on reality and knowledge. It was designed to
show the dichotomy between opinion and belief, and the real and the
The story is told in the
form of a dialogue between Socrates and Plato's
In the allegory, Plato has Socrates narrate,
there were a
number of prisoners chained together in a cave for a great
period of time.
There is a fire
behind them, and between the fire and the captives are people
The flames cast
shadows on the walls before the prisoners who think that they
So, the prisoners
mistakes shadow-play for reality.
One day one of the
prisoners' escapes, and see the fire and realizes that what he
understood to be real was only shadows.
He then explores the world outside the cave, and understands the
nature of reality for the first time.
The prisoner realizes
that the other chained prisoners need to know this, and that
this would encourage them to escape the cave.
On his return to the
cave, the prisoner was half-blind because his eyes were not used
to the sunlight.
None of the prisoners
would believe him and now think that he is blind.
They refuse to try
and leave the cave, and continue to believe that the shadows
that they see is reality.
In the dialogue, Plato
has Socrates state that if the chained prisoners were freed, they
would kill their liberators.
Bust of Socrates
of the Cave and Reality
Socrates, who is really only speaking the ideas of Plato, explains
the allegory to Glaucon.
The cave and its
shadows are the world of the sense, the fire is the sun, and the
external world is the realm of Ideas.
Most people are only
aware of the shadows and not the real world.
This is because they
assume knowledge of the senses, and not the forms.
Most people live in
ignorance as a result.
The escape of the
prisoner from the darkness to the outside world reflects the
rise of the soul from the sensible realm to the that of the
Ideas, which is where truth resides.
Like the prisoner, those
who see the Forms will reject the old view of reality and want to
know more about the truth, which can only be known intellectually.
The allegory shows the
two-fold nature of Plato's view of reality.
It also argues that
everyone can know the truth, like the escaped prisoner, and
become wise, if they only turn their mind to the Forms.
It also shows,
however, that enlightenment is challenging, as seen in the
escaped prisoner's problems with the chained men in the cave.
This is because the
majority are in error, like the chained prisoners, and are hostile
to the wise who have seen the real world because they contradict
For Plato, only those who know the Forms know the truth and should
be leaders. Because of their knowledge, they understand goodness and
abhor the immoral.
As a result, they have a
duty to help their fellows who are still in ignorance.
Those who only know
the shadows (sensible world) are the majority of people and are
ignorant and irrational.
Those who have seen
the Forms are wise and have knowledge of the goods.
Plato believes that the
rule of Philosophers is the best form of government.
Because most people
are ignorant, they are not fit to be involved in politics...
This idea has been
criticized as undemocratic as it argues that only the few
Many commentators see in
the allegory allusions to Socrates and how he was
driven to his death by the
Athenians. Socrates, like the prisoner who tried to tell the truth
and urged people to change but was not believed and attacked
Several scholars have
interpreted the Allegory as saying that those who know the truth
will suffer for it like Socrates, because the minds of the majority
are only directed at the unreal.
In the School of Athens painting by Raphael,
is shown pointing towards the sky,
illustrating his belief in the Forms
In the allegory, Plato presents many of his most profound and
He used the story to
illustrate the two-fold nature of reality:
the nature of truth,
belief, and opinion.
The Athenian philosopher
shows that people do not want to know the real and be free.
Plato uses his arguments
to justify rule by the wise or philosophers. He also demonstrates
enlightenment was hard and that the
wise often suffer if they try and help others.