The myth of ‘The Cave’

What people in this situation would take for truth would be nothing but the shadows of manufactured objects’

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This statement makes allusion to the allegory of the cave. In this case Plato makes reference to the cave we all live in. Is the world of shadows; the world of our own reality. It is to believe that this assertion makes mention to our own perception of this world is not very brightly. At a simply view we can tell that ‘real’ is described as experiences in which we can smell, touch, see and feel; everything that leads to our senses; in this scenario reality is everything we do when we are awake and conscious. The truth of what we believe real when we are trapped inside the cave is described as “dark as a tunnel without lights.” There is only a bright of light at the end, which allow us to see some shadows and some objects that we will say and believe they are real; even when they are not. Therefore, even when we are inside this darkness, how is possible to realize that we are deep in the shadows? I mean; there is a reality without these shadows we live on that we had never seen. The main issue that Plato put into consideration is that we don’t know until what level we have certainty or knowledge about “the world as it really is and not as we think it is”. It is believed that the main purpose in the allegory was to illustrate the perception of objects as we describe them as genuine when in reality they are not.

At deeper level, Plato represents man’s condition as being “chained in a cave,” with only a fire behind him. He perceives the world by watching the shadows on the wall. He sits in darkness with the false light of the fire and does not realize that this existence is wrong or lacking. It merely is his existence; he knows no other offers any complaint. About this situation Plato next imagines in the allegory what would occur if the chained man were suddenly released from his bondage and let out into the world (we do not know who or why). Plato describes how some people would immediately be frightened and want to return to the cave and the familiar dark existence they had before. Others would look at the sun and finally see the world as it truly is. They would know their previous existence was a ridiculous situation, a shadow of truth, and they would come to understand that their lives had been one of deception. A few would embrace the sun and the true life and have a far better understanding of “truth.” They would also want to return to the cave to free the others in bondage, and would be puzzled by people still in the cave who would not believe the now “enlightened” truth bearer. Many would refuse to acknowledge any truth beyond their current existence in the cave.

Thematic elements from the allegory of the cave continue to influence Western thought even today.     In fact, one can view the first Matrix film as an interpretation of Plato’s work. The reality of the matrix is: there is “a construct” meant to keep people enslaved. When Morpheus asks Neo: “What is real? How do you define real?” He is echoing Platonic thought. Further he tells Neo: “No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”[1]

This definitely is in direct relationship to Plato’s views on the failure of language to convey truth or to free people from mental oppression. Like “the Cartesian argument”[2] that claims we cannot know for sure about all things; I believe is similar with the allegory of the cave. Here, then, we have contexts constituted not by the distinct physical features of the environment but rather by the features of the conversational context. Moreover, Descartes[3] has argued that from our perspective the sceptical scenario is indistinguishable from that of common sense. I cannot therefore have justified thoughts about the world since I cannot provide reasons in support of the claim that there is a real world. Descartes reaches the conclusion that the only thing he cannot doubt is that he exists as a thinking being, for the very act of doubting requires him to think. Hence his famous starting point of knowledge ‘ I Think therefore I am’. In the external point of view we may not be aware-indeed, perhaps cannot be aware of the reliability of our own thoughts. Now, for Plato knowledge is not just a matter of certainty. It involves a direct acquaintance with a truer reality which results in full and genuine understanding. Plato compares it to walking consciousness. Conversely, the condition of belief is not just one of doubt, it is one of illusion. Plato likens it to dreaming. In it, we are acquainted with ‘images’, ‘shadows’ or ‘appearances’ which we mistake for reality. Sensory appearances are therefore deceptive. We must detach ourselves from them and from reliance on the senses if we are to achieve true knowledge. But, the thing is; how can we achieve this process? “There is a realm of entities not present to the senses and accessible only by reason. These entities; the forms, are the truest reality and the objects of genuine knowledge”[4]. Also, according to Plato, there are two orders of reality, two ‘worlds’: a sensible world given to experience and an intelligible world of Forms, accessible only though thought. The objects of these two worlds have quite opposite properties. There are many particular things which are to some extend beautiful. The Form; Beauty itself by contrast is one and single. The many particular beautiful things are variously described as ‘instances’ of the Form; they are said to share or participate in it or, alternatively, to copy or resemble it.

In sum; this allegory described the progress of the mind from ignorance to knowledge. Plato returns to the imagery of the sun and its light. He conceives of knowledge as a sort of illumination. It is also believed that he portrays the process of education as an ascent from darkness into light; as a passage from the perception of shadows and reflections towards the direct vision of objects and eventually of the source of light itself. Plato portrays the initial and unenlightened condition of human consciousness as like that of prisoners confined since childhood in a dark cave. The prisoners are bound so that their gaze is fixed on the wall in front of them. Behind them, out of their view, is a fire in front of which some people manipulate puppets and other figures. All that the prisoners can see are the shadows these cast on the wall in front of them. In such circumstances the prisoners naturally take the sparkling they see for reality.

When Glaucon protest that this is “an odd picture”. Plato replies that the prisoners are ‘like us’ (515a). Some prisoners are later released we don’t know how; at the end they made to turn round and look at the fire. At first they find its light painful and blinding. They resist and turn back towards the shadows[5]. Nevertheless; if a prisoner is now dragged out of the cave and into the sunlight. ‘The process would be a painful one, to which he would much object, and when he emerged into the light his eyes would be so dazzled by the glare of it that he would not be able to see a single one of the things he was now told were real.[6] This, story, I think Plato tells us, should be interpreted in the light of the images of the sun and the Divided Line that precede it (517b). It almost clear that this allegory is about the process of enlightenment. In addition it can be argued that the escape from the cave into the sunlight is one of the most and inspiring images in philosophical literature. Because it gives a picture of the liberating and illuminating power of knowledge and education. However in the other hand, at the same time, Plato’s allegory presents a bleak and pessimistic picture of the situation of the majority. Plato maintain that most people are like bound prisoners in the cave who see only a series of shadows which they take for ‘real’ In this case most of us live in the shadows of ignorance and illusion from which we do not even want to escape.’’

Now, coming back to the question: ‘What people in this situation would take for truth would be nothing but the shadows of manufactured objects’ It is tempting to conclude that: yes, unfortunately if the shadows are showed as genuine we have no much other option as seen it as ‘real’. The main reason would be that we do not know any other concept of reality. I mean how can we talk about light when the only thing that we know for certain is darkness and shadows?  In this case we couldn’t talk about a duality. We just can talk about ONE only certainty and it is because we don’t know the other side of the coin; as Descartes would say in the Cartesian doubt: we cannot know anything for sure. Also, this truth give us a perception of what is ‘real’ though the senses; therefore if is not sensorial, reality can’t be taken as authentic. 


The Language of the Cave; Andrew Barker and Martin Warner; (1992) Academic Printing and Publishing. Chapter 4: Myth, Allegory and Argument in Plato and Chapter 5: Speaking about the unspeakable: Plato’s use of Imaginery.

Plato: The Republic; edited by G.R.F Ferrari; translated by Tom Griffith; Cambridge university press (2000) Book 4.

-Plato’s Republic An introduction; Sean Sayers; Edinburgh University Press (1999); Chapter 10: The Theory of Forms.

[1] Taken from website on 28 November 2009:

 [2] Attributed to Rene Descartes In 17th century

[3] Rene Descartes: was a French philosopher, mathematician, physicist He has been dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, and much of subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which continue to be studied closely to this day.

[4] Plato’s Republic An Introduction. P107.

[5] Plato’s Republic An Introduction P.126

[6] Plato The Republic (516a)

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