Category: Philosophical theories

The Myth of the Cave

An allegory that Socrates narrates at the beginning of the seventh book of The Republic (514a-517a) in his effort to elucidate the Platonic theory of Forms, the absolute ontological priority of the idea of the Good and what he deemed as the necessary confluence of political power and philosophical learning in the interest of a just and fully functioning state.

The myth’s indirect and direct context

In the Republic, Plato’s supreme dialogue, Socrates lays out a psychological and political theory. At the level of the individual, justice (the work’s central topic) is seen to be the outcome of the right interrelationship between the three constituent parts of the soul (the rational, the spirited and the appetitive). At the collective level, justice is regarded as the outcome of the right appointment of roles to the three social classes that make up the ideal state (philosopher-kings, guardians, producers).

Plato deals with the determination of the innate and the socially acquired characteristics of the true philosopher in the sixth book. He holds that a genuine philosopher should be unwaveringly focused on intelligible entities and wish to know them in a scientific way. The Form of the Good is granted the highest status among the intelligible entities and is described as the greatest study (to megiston mathêma): it constitutes the greatest, and hardest to attain, object of knowledge.

Socrates likens the Good to the sun: as the sun is the cause of the birth and multiplication of living beings along with the visibility of sensible objects, so the Good serves as the cause of both the existence and the intelligible character of the Forms (506d-509c). Socrates then comes up with the image of a vertical line divided into four parts (509d-511e) whereupon he places (bottom-up) the inferior and superior sensible objects (semblances or shadows, and bodies) and the inferior and superior intelligible entities (objects of mathematical intellect, and Forms). Socrates clarifies, at the same time, the corresponding cognitive powers of those who come into contact with the above entities. The myth of the cave is the third consecutive image that Socrates uses to shed light on the Platonic theory of Forms and point up the absolute superiority of the Form of the Good. The said image is, also, the most extensive and acclaimed of the three.

The avowed content of the myth (Republic 514a-517a)

Socrates calls upon his interlocutor, Glaucon, to bring to mind a cave wherein live humans forced to keep their faces turned to its obscure depths. An elevated wall of the kind used by conjurers in their performances lies right behind them, and further up a fire burning behind it. Some people carry wooden or stone semblances of humans and animals on this wall, along with all sorts of other objects, while emanating sounds suitable to each case. The light from the distant fire projects the shadows of these objects onto the depths of the cave. The captives see these shadows whereas the reflected sounds seem to emanate from the shadows themselves. Accustomed from early childhood to such spectacles and auditory impressions, the captives think that what they see and hear is real.

What would happen, though, if one of them were released and forced to look towards the wall and the light? At first –says Socrates- they would have a hard time making out the objects being carried away because their eyes would hurt from the sudden exposure to the sunlight. The same would happen more or less if the released one were forced to exit the cave and expose oneself to the daylight. In order to be able to see what lies in broad daylight the released one would have to gradually take in the visual stimuli and face first (i) shadows, then (ii) the barely perceptible semblances reflected on water surface, (iii) the actual objects that cause the shadows and semblances, then (iv) the heavenly bodies shining in the night firmament, and finally (v) the sun in itself and proper place (516b). The former captive will now be in a position to understand that what people hold important and worthwhile within the cave is but unimportant and void of value.

Socrates, however, does not stop here. He moves on to imagine what the reactions of the rest of the captives would be should it happen that the released one decided to return to the cave in order to convince them of the reality he encountered outside it in the broad daylight. His expected difficulty in getting accommodated to the darkness therein and his initially limited capacity to discern the shadows would cause mirth to the captives inside and lead them to conclude that exiting the cave is harmful to one’s eyesight. Moreover, as Plato’s Socrates will come to stress hinting at the fate of his historical prototype, if the released one attempted to set them free and bring them to the light of day, they would be willing to even kill their “liberato

Myth or allegory?

Given that Socrates (i) declares explicitly that the cave captives are common people like us, the readers (515a), (ii) calls his narrative image (517a) but not myth, (iii) asks his interlocutor to ponder the relation of this image to what has been said before (517a-b), and, most of all, (iv) proceeds to a thorough analysis of its content (517b-521c), it would be more appropriate to consider the said cave image as an allegory of, rather than a myth on, the right philosophical education, the relation of truth and falsity, and what Plato regarded as the metaphysical structure of the world at large.

The four stages of the allegory

The cave allegory presents four distinct stages: (i) the condition of the chained captives, which offers a broader depiction of the human condition as we know it from experience, (ii) the liberation and unhindered movement within the cave, which triggers the philosopher’s distancing from the delusion of sensory experience, (iii) the exit from the cave, which completely shatters the delusion and provides a genuine cognitive grasp of the causes of reality, and (iv) the obligatory return to the cave, which signals the necessity of connecting directly political action to philosophical learning.

These four stages do not correspond to the four parts of the divided line, nor is it easy to relate the cave shadows to the shadows and reflections of the line, or the stone and wooden semblances of the cave to the visible bodies of the line. These apparently intentional disparities, and others of the same kind, indicate that the two images must be regarded as partially overlapping signifiers. They are meant to help us approach the cognitive course whereby the aspiring philosophers distance themselves from the concrete objects of sensory experience and manage to attain universal truths. This cognitive course reaches its climax in the comprehension of the ultimate causes of reality and their indivisible and self-subsisting principle.

Socrates’ interpretation of the allegory (Rep. 517b-521c)

After the completion of the narrative, Socrates interprets the cave allegory integrating it into the broader context of the discussion on the just state. The sun outside the cave is explicitly correlated to the conceptually impenetrable Form of the Good (517c). The initial malaise of the liberated captive and his difficulty in getting used to the darkness upon his return to the cave are generalized in terms of two completely antithetical hardships: on the one hand, there is the difficulty that the common man encounters in the face of the important questions of life; on the other hand, lies the difficulty in solving practical matters (attributed to insufficient interest) which can afflict the man of science and learning (518a-b).

At the beginning of the narrative, Socrates states that the image to be presented concerns the contrast between education and the lack thereof (514a). From the interpretation that follows (518b-c) we learn that education is not the acquisition of a new faculty but, on the contrary, the development of an already extant human capacity, and the turn of our souls to higher, rather than ordinary and mundane, matters. In fact, the contrast between education and its lack is overly significant for the appropriate selection of the rulers. Socrates repeatedly declares (517b, 520d, 520e-521a) that society as a whole can be improved only if its rulers have worthier matters to attend to than occupy themselves with civic administration, and are forcibly summoned to exercise this public function.

The cave allegory highlights the philosophically crucial distinction between appearance and being, encourages scientific research rather than political involvement, and stresses the confluence of political authority with philosophical learning as a necessary prerequisite for the just state.

Impact

Because of its easily comprehensible character, the cave allegory has triggered numerous layman-level studies on Plato’s thought and philosophy as a way of life in general. It has also offered inspiration to many writers and artists throughout the centuries. In fact, Martin Heidegger (one of the most important 20th c. philosophers) found in this myth the origins of a characteristically modern conception of truth as correctness of judgment in the face of what he believed to be a more primordial and profound conception of truth as natural un-concealment or un-hiddenness [a-lêtheia].

During the 20th and 21st centuries, technological inventions that have facilitated the advent of “virtual reality” have rendered the Platonic myth more timely than ever. The science fiction movie called The Matrix (a 1999 US-Australian production directed by the Wachowski brothers that reaped lots of awards) stands out as an emblematic instance of the impact of the cave allegory on the contemporary mass entertainment industry.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Karasmanis, V. "Plato’s Republic. The Line and the Cave." Apeiron 21 (1988)
  • Inwood, MRockmore, T., Partenie, C. eds. . Heidegger and Plato: Toward Dialogue. Evanston, 2005.
  • Annas, J. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic. Oξφόρδη, 1981.
  • Huard, R. T. Plato’s Political Philosophy: The Cave. New York, 2007.
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