‘The Allegory of The Cave’ by Plato: Summary and Meaning

The ‘Allegory Of The Cave’ is a theory put forward by Plato, concerning human perception. Plato claimed that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion and that, in order to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical reasoning.

‘The Allegory of the Cave’ by Plato

 In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato distinguishes between people who mistake sensory knowledge for the truth and people who really do see the truth. It goes like this:

 The Cave

  • Imagine a cave, in which there are three prisoners. The prisoners are tied to some rocks, their arms and legs are bound and their head is tied so that they cannot look at anything but the stonewall in front of them.
  • These prisoners have been here since birth and have never seen outside of the cave.
  • Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between them is a raised walkway.
  • People outside the cave walk along this walkway carrying things on their head including; animals, plants, wood and stone.

 The Shadows

  • So, imagine that you are one of the prisoners. You cannot look at anything behind or to the side of you – you must look at the wall in front of you.
  • When people walk along the walkway, you can see shadows of the objects they are carrying cast on to the wall.
  •  If you had never seen the real objects ever before, you would believe that the shadows of objects were ‘real.

 The Game

  • Plato suggests that the prisoners would begin a ‘game’ of guessing which shadow would appear next.
  • If one of the prisoners were to correctly guess, the others would praise him as clever and say that he were a master of nature.

 The Escape

  • One of the prisoners then escapes from their bindings and leaves the cave.
  • He is shocked at the world he discovers outside the cave and does not believe it can be real.
  • As he becomes used to his new surroundings, he realizes that his former view of reality was wrong.
  • He begins to understand his new world, and sees that the Sun is the source of life and goes on an intellectual journey where he discovers beauty and meaning
  • He see’s that his former life, and the guessing game they played is useless.

 The Return

  • The prisoner returns to the cave, to inform the other prisoners of his findings.
  • They do not believe him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free.

‘ The Allegory of The Cave’ by Plato – The Meaning

The Allegory of the cave by Plato should not be taken at face value. In essays and exams, whoever is marking it expects you to have a deeper understanding of the meaning of the theory. You can then use these to think about criticisms and then to form your own opinion.

The Cave

  • In Plato’s theory, the cave represents people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world – empirical evidence. The cave shows that believers of empirical knowledge are trapped in a ‘cave’ of misunderstanding.

The Shadows

  • The Shadows represent the perceptions of those who believe empirical evidence ensures knowledge. If you believe that what you see should be taken as truth, then you are merely seeing a shadow of the truth. In Plato’s opinion you are a ‘pleb’ if you believe this (their insult for those who are not Philosophers)!

The Game

  • The Game represents how people believe that one person can be a ‘master’ when they have knowledge of the empirical world. Plato is demonstrating that this master does not actually know any truth, and suggesting that it is ridiculous to admire someone like this.

The Escape

  • The escaped prisoner represents the Philosopher, who seeks knowledge outside of the cave and outside of the senses.
  • The Sun represents philosophical truth and knowledge
  • His intellectual journey represents a philosophers journey when finding truth and wisdom

 The Return

  • The other prisoners reaction to the escapee returning represents that people are scared of knowing philosophical truths and do not trust philosophers.

It is always recommended that you read the original text by Plato to reach the top grades. If you would like to purchase ‘The Republic’ by Plato, click here!

You might also like to read about Plato’s Theory of Forms.

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117 thoughts on “‘The Allegory of The Cave’ by Plato: Summary and Meaning”

  1. that is true we should not relie on our senses perception instead we should goes beyond these senses perception where we can attain the true knowledge

    Reply
  2. The principle behind the thought is one I believe we all know, or at least can relate to but few ever have the courage to pursue. Oh we may begin to but when it gets too difficult to ponder, we retreat back to the safety of empirical reality.

    Reply
  3. your reality is a perception based on what you think you know, what do you really know. I now I can or I can not, I know I have a choice, I know that I am conscious. I can, I have, I am.

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    • I still don’t understand this concept. Is this you only believe what you see or hear rather to go out and seek the truth?

      Reply
  4. The shadows are religious beliefs. The other prisoners, the one who guessed what was next, and revered for his wisdom, is a symbol of religious “leaders.”. The prisoner who escapes is a free thinker. The prisoners who attack his message when he returns are bible thumping no-nothing’s who stick to the shadows as reality.

    Reply
    • This isn’t about religion, it’s about seeking knowledge and being rejected for it. It’s basically a huge metaphor for what Socrates went through in the Apology when he was sentenced to death for asking questions that challenged the accepted believes of that time.

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    • Plato’s allegory of the cave, is his epistemology nd view about reality. to him, dis world that is susceptible to sight nd sense experience is but an imperfect reflection of the perfect world of really real. The world of the cave nd the world of eventual reality can be akin to painting which imperfect ly copies the real one. standing on this projected fact, I think plato is right in his metaphysics.

      Reply
    • Rather, it is the opposite. It is about how materialism, or modern atheism, is based on using observations of the shadows and not seeking the truth that has always been outside their realm of “knowledge.” I believe you are missing the entire point of the allegory.

      Reply
      • Sorry, Dan, it is you who missed Plato’s point. Plato is not writing in his Cave Allegory about any divinity, per se. Instead, Plato uses symbolic reasoning and metaphor to demonstrate that, in order to be properly informed about the world around them, and to achieve true wisdom, human beings must look beyond the physical world to obtain “true” knowledge. The physical world for Plato is a pale imitation of the metaphysical world. We then, as wise human beings, should carefully examine the metaphysical world that Plato clearly delineates is a different one, from which it presupposes (the physical realm). We do this through careful and unceasing introspection and philosophical debate with others, employing The Socratic Method of Reasoning. We question reality, by not taking it at face value. Since Plato feels that the immaterial world is immune from the laws of nature and time, those things that then exist in it, are, hence, more real than their counterparts in the tangible (concrete) world of reality. You missed the point Dan. Plato’s Cave Allegory is much more concerned about generic epistemology and it has very little to do with theology.

        Reply
    • This story can be interpreted in many ways. Whether you view it from a religious, philosophical, or other perspective, it can mean different things. Some people may relate this story to religious beliefs, while others may think of an entirely different circumstance, such as social problems. In the end, no matter how you perceive it or what you may relate it to, this story is representing enlightenment from the simplicity that was previously known and the ignorance and distrust of those who are still oblivious.

      Reply
      • Anonymous,
        It’s an allegory, so, yes, it is to be interpreted on a variety of levels. But Plato’s allusions to theology (in his Cave Allegory) are very subtle, if they do exist at all. This means that any such religious allusions are not impossible, but, rather, just not very likely.

        Reply
  5. The bottom line is that the prisoners should never have committed a crime to begin with or else they would already have had a real normal reality instead of the demented one they have created for themselves by violating the law. Prisoners belong in prison (usually).

    Reply
      • The definition of prisoner is a person deprived of liberty and kept under involuntary restraint, confinement, or custody. They’re called that because it’s what they are, not because it’s more convenient. If they were guilty of a crime they would’ve either been called criminals or felons.

        Reply
  6. Ouch George! Is this your personal experience? Anything or anyone can be guilty of that. It could even be people who are told all their lives that they are their own masters and to look after their own selves/needs – suddenly they are exposed to something other than their own selfishness and bam … they are enlightened. Lots of things that keep people in the dark – I think.

    Reply
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  8. The contrast that Plato refers to is between empirical knowledge that has to be filtered through our subjective perception and philosophical argument that does not. For example; how can we be sure that your perception of the colour green is the same as mine? We cannot. However the philosophical observation that this is the case is a pure, ultimate piece of knowledge.

    Reply
  9. Socrates made it simple, our senses deceive and broke us from perceiving reality as it is. Thus, it is only logic and rational that is reliable. Thanks

    Reply
  10. THE THEORY IS UTMOSTLY IMPORTANT CONSIDERING THAT AT TIMES INDIVIDUALS LIVE IN SELF ENDORSED BONDAGE. UNTIL ONE COMES OUT OF THE CAVE THEN THEY MAY PICK REALITY AND HAVE SUBSTANTIATED PERCEPTIONS REGARDING MYSTERIES OF THE WORLD, AND THUS ATTAIN MENTAL LIBERATION WHICH WITH TIME UNFOLDS TO PHYSICAL AND TOTALLIBERATION OF THE INDIVIDUAL….

    Reply
  11. Can you say ignorance is bliss no matter what stage you’re at the ones who are tied up the shadow guys and the guys on top of the fire all three stages are ignorant

    Reply
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  13. Philosophy is life, to ignore the journey to search for the truth is equally to choose darkness or death. Senses deceives, its only logic/rational reasoning that yield knowledge. The truth will set you free …

    Reply
  14. that is a great idea from our father.it is my wish that all people will accept his theory and goes by it to the benefit of all ,thanks.

    Reply
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  16. Perhaps it simply means that our minds are imprisioned by our life experiences, represented by the prisoners in the cave. The escaped prisoner represents an ‘epiphany ‘, or ‘enlightenment’. The prisoners who wouldn’t listen, represents the difficulty people have in opening their closed minds

    Reply
  17. The persons in the cave are in their comfort zone. This is true of every group or community. They do not accept of believe in an other possibility.

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  18. The persons in the cave are in their comfort zone. This is true of every group or community. They do not accept of believe in an other possibility.

    Reply
  19. The allegory can be a wake-up call to those already imprisoned by the parochialism of their own thinking; you can’t have an idea of the whole house, for example, if you just stay in a single room within that house; somebody that has being to all the rooms and veranda, living room, has more education about the house than you have.
    So for me the myth is also the effect of education, and the lack of it.
    Thanks

    Reply
  20. Everything is made up.
    The reality of our lives is that we should be all just animals looking for food and shelter and ultimately survive (just like Apes)
    Unfortunately (or fortunately) we figured out how to communicate verbally with one another and tried to put logic to our new world. So we made up the fact that words,god,money,governments,banks,schools,Royals etc etc actually exist.
    In realty none of our world has to exist. We only need to look for food and find shelter.

    Reply
  21. Of course our senses can deceive us. But if we were all born without senses, we would not be able to make logical statements either

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  22. What Plato proved with his cave allegory is that as soon as you deprive people from correctly perceiving the world, from as many different angles as possible, and with all the senses they have, they will make false statements about the world by using “logocal (philosophical) reasoning”.
    So , more or less the opposite of what he was claiming.

    Reply
  23. one would hope that the prisoner who escaped( the “philosopher”)was open minded enough to admit that his views were subjective just like those of the chained prisoners.
    What if what he was describing to them were holograms?
    Point is: Even from the “ignorant” there may be experience-derived “philosophy”.

    Reply
  24. maybe we can never leave our caves, and reality doesn’t exist in images – light after all is only a secondary reflection from an object – our dreams are the only truth

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  25. I remember hearing that one would need a sense of absolute beauty , a sense of justice, an education, and go through a period of isolation in order to be freed and see the truth.

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  26. Look around you.. people in fear.. wearing masks, placing them in their children’s faces.. suffocating.. forgetting to smile, to laugh, to live.. Sitting compliantly on the front of their media, taking in it’s poison gulp by gulp.. worshipping censorship deep in the ignorance of their comfort.. when you bring the truth to them, they’ll cover you with all they’ve clogged inside.
    They’ll fact-check you for their own safety and for the “greater good”..
    Turning into shadows.. in fear..

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    • Thats ridiculous. There is a pandemic, of course the world is living in fear. It is clear you haven’t lost anyone to Covid yet.

      Reply
  27. None are masters, and none can discern the truth. The one who leaves the cave sees only greater shadows.
    _____

    As for any pleb who thinks the pandemic is a conspiracy, or somehow fake- you are merely that prisoner chained to a rock in a cave, staring at a wall in the flickering light, and claiming you can see shapes in it (but the puppeteers left days ago because they cannot stand you).

    Reply
  28. Doesn’t necessarily always make sense though…. It is not the fault of those who believe what they see because it’s really all they know and they have not been given a chance. Not everyone in society has the chance to escape and learn the truths of things to become the Philosopher. Plato’s views are sort of corrupt in the sense where he believes that in the Just Polis the children not showing signs of being the “good children” or the Guardians simply deserve to die while the good children are catered to and prepared to be the leaders/philosophers. It’s like giving someone a handicap at birth and then expecting them to run a marathon. Just doesn’t make sense that people are ridiculed for something they don’t have the capacity to do…. Give everyone a chance to escape the cave and then society as a collective will be educated and know the truth of things. This is my perspective at least.

    Reply

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