Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher. In his book ‘the republic’ he uses the analogy of the cave to highlight the importance of reasoning and questioning in order to understand, as opposed to just accepting things at face value.
In the Analogy there are a group of prisoners, who have been chained in a cave their whole life. They are chained to prevent them ever looking round to see anything. Behind them is a fire and in front of this is a raised way. Behind the raised way people carry puppets ‘made of wood, stone and other various materials’ and these puppets cast shadows which appear on a wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners have spent their whole life watching this shadow play, so for them the appearances seem real because they have never seen anything else.
Plato was a dualist, which meant he believed in two realms- the cave represents the physical realm. In the story, the prisoners’ knowledge is based exclusively on sight and sound, they represent people who just accept everything at face value and never ask questions to understand. Plato implies that their lives are empty and meaningless. The shadows are not real; they represent the perceptions of those who believe empirical evidence ensures knowledge.
Plato continues his story with the escape of one of the prisoners. This prisoner has spent a lifetime in the cave. He first sees the shadows and reflections. The prisoner is then dragged ‘reluctantly’ out of the cave, beginning the painful uphill journey to the outside world. When he reaches the outside world, he is a first blinded by the sun. When his eyes start to adjust he begins to appreciate the full variety of the world. He can then look directly at the sun, realising that in some way, it is the cause of all things he has seen.
The person who journeys out of the cave represents the role of the philosopher in society and the journey represents a philosopher’s journey to finding truth and wisdom. The difficulty of this uphill journey, and the prisoner’s reluctance to make it, indicates the difficulty in going against our accepted views to find truth. It links into Plato’s divided line theory. The line begins with perception (the shadows), then material knowledge (puppets), then after the line reasoning (seeing shadows/reflections) and finally, understanding (the sun). The blinding, again, highlights the initial difficulties when grappling philosophy. The objects in the outside world represent the forms. The sun: represents the form of good, the highest of all forms. Plato is showing us that the material world of appearances, represented by the cave, is a poor copy of the perfect realm of the forms.
The prisoner returns to the other prisoners to tell them the truth about life. They think he is stupid, and carry on watching the shadows. Plato even goes so far as to say they may threaten to kill him.
The reaction to the return of the escaped prisoner represents the ignorance of humanity and people who do not