The Allegory of the Cave: Summary and Analysis
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The Allegory of the Cave by Socrates and written by Plato in “The Republic” is, as its name suggests, an allegory that has been popular for years and has been included in the philosophical studies of many academic institutions.
To begin with, it might be necessary to define the meaning of the word “allegory” for this will give a better understanding of the text. An allegory “is an abstract representation of principals or ideas through the use of characters, figures, or events…In most cases, allegory is the term used (rather than metaphor) when the symbolic representations reflect an aspect of human behavior and values” (Hewitt, 2005). Therefore, it can be said that the Allegory of the Cave will reflect a certain characteristic of humans in terms of the behavior they manifest and the values they possess.
The Allegory of the Cave is a tale which narrates the story of prisoners chained in a dark den, often portrayed as the cave, and showed how those who are chained and stuck in that cave would only see their shadows and those that pass by behind them, which are actually shadows made and shadows of the prisoners. That which created the shadow is the opening of the cave that faced the light. For they are unchained, they could never see what was going on behind and they were deprived of the chance to turn around and have a look.
The prisoners in the cave represent the people, in general. More so, the shadows that were created were perceived by the prisoners as their reality for they are bound to look at one, and only one, direction because of the chains. Their reality is something that is impaired for they never knew what else was there beyond the shadows and there was no way they could ever find out in their situation. For them, it was already real because it is all they could ever see.
Socrates sees similarities with people and the prisoners in the cave. The fact that the prisoners could see nothing but shadows implies something important with respect to the human perception of reality around them. Those which we consider as realities from the very start may not actually be the reality that exists in his world for we might have a vision limited by the chains that bind us. Our realities do no go beyond what is reflected by the material and concrete things in this world and the lack of will to look otherwise will leave us with that very same reality. Also, it will impair our notion of Goodness and also, the terms we ascribe to the things we see as reality are not exactly terms for the things that exist but merely, things that live in our mind. The shadows seen by the prisoners depict this greatly because the prisoners can see things, may it be real or unreal, believe them even without further knowledge about the shadows, and would call them reality even though these shadows can only be held on to through their minds.
It is said that for the people to see the reality, there is a need to break free from the chains and go out of the cave and onto the light and bright part outside the cave. If the prisoner perceives the shadows as reality and accepts it as it is, then he will remain that way forever. Just like us, if we remain in our reality and be contented with that which is offered to us, then we will be trapped in a reality which is untrue and unyielding. However, if one would dare to ask what is there beyond what is deemed to be the reality in this world, then it would be the start of a process that would break the chain. It is a long and crucial process but it can be done.
Once we would have the courage to break away from the chains, we would also have the chance to turn around and look at the source of shadows. It is then that Socrates said that we would be able to see the sources of the shadow and will proceed to explore the realities that really is. Socrates said “…my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed” (as cited in Marmet, n.d.).
Therefore, the reality is considered by Socrates as the stepping stone unto which everything Good will start and will be the fountain of “reason and truth in the intellectual.” This will be the beginning of a journey of discovery and exploration and will lead from one step to another until everything is completed, or at the very least satisfied. However, it is to be noted that this process is painful and can either push persons back into believing the realities they perceive before the breaking of the chains or will wander around until they could adjust to the world outside the cave.
Once we would reach and pursue the stage where people would be able to see the outside world, which is beyond the reality they see among the shadows, then we would start to see the things beyond the shadows or any medium that they may take before. Through this, we would be able to see the real sources of the shadows, those things that really exist, and that will be the point where we gain awareness.
With such enlightenment, it is expected that other people may be skeptical or be in humor about the things we are now able to see beyond the shadows. It is not suggested that one would go back into the former state of believing the shadows as reality because it is more painful and pitiful than ever to have seen such reality outside and would still dare to go back to the previous belief of the shadows. What Socrates emphasized is that a person should go back into the cave of darkness, not to be tied back into the chains, but will have to patiently lead the group of prisoners for they are not in the same level of awareness and has the need to be guided towards the light.
For us, it would teach us the way to find reality and enlighten also those who are not gifted with the same. It might be hard but a leader will do so.
Hewitt, J. (2005). What is an Allegory? Retrieved September 26, 2007, from http://www.poewar.com/whaat-is-an-allegory.
Marmet, P. (n.d.). Allegory of the Cave. Retrieved September 26, 2007, from http://www.newtonphysics.on.ca/HEISENBERG/Appendix.html.