An Analysis of "The Allegory of the Cave"

The Allegory of the Cave is Plato's explanation of the education of the soul toward enlightenment. He sees it as what happens when someone is educated to the level of philosopher. He contends that they must "go back into the cave" or return to the everyday world of politics, greed and power struggles. The Allegory also attacks people who rely upon or are slaves to their senses. The chains that bind the prisoners are the senses. The fun of the allegory is to try to put all the details of the cave into your interpretation. In other words, what are the models the guards carry? the fire? the struggle out of the cave? the sunlight? the shadows on the cave wall?

Socrates, in Book VII of The Republic, just after the allegory told us that the cave was our world and the fire was our sun. He said the path of the prisoner was our soul's ascent to knowledge or enlightenment. He equated our world of sight with the intellect's world of opinion. Both were at the bottom of the ladder of knowledge. Our world of sight allows us to "see" things that are not real, such as parallel lines and perfect circles. He calls this higher understanding the world "abstract Reality" or the Intelligeble world. He equates this abstract reality with the knowledge that comes from reasoning and finally understanding.
On the physical side, our world of sight, the stages of growth are first recognition of images (the shadows on the cave wall) then the recognition of objects (the models the guards carry) To understand abstract reality requires the understanding of mathematics and finally the forms or the Ideals of all things (the world outside the cave).

But our understanding of the physical world is mirrored in our minds by our ways of thinking. First comes imagination (Socrates thought little of creativity), then our unfounded but real beliefs. Opinion gives way to knowledge through reasoning (learned though mathematics). Finally, the realization of the forms is mirrored by the level of Understanding in the Ways of Thinking.

The key to the struggle for knowledge is the reasoning skills acquired through mathematics as they are applied to understanding ourselves.

The shadows on the cave wall change continually and are of little worth, but the reality out side the cave never changes and that makes it important. The ideals are mainly our concepts of courage, love, friendship, justice, and other unchanging qualities.

I know this is a bit tricky, but it is how I see the allegory, and most of it is in the preceding and following books of The Republic. I think you should read those chapters, think about what I have said and zero in on what the allegory means to you.

For a real treat, compare the allegory to Sir Francis Bacon's Idols of the Mind!

Michael O'Leary


Another Visual Representation