Plato: The Cave, the Forms and the Form of the Good


Plato's Analogy of the Cave

A.N Whitehood said all European philosophy is a "series of footnotes to Plato," meaning that Plato has played a major part in philosophical thinking. He was a pupil of Socrates who was executed for "corrupting the youth." After this, Plato travelled around and eventually created his univeristy in Athens. For Plato, knowledge was gained through senses (a-posteriori or empricial knowledge) - merely opinions, but gaiend through reasoning (a-priori), meaning it was certain.

The Allegory/Analogy of the Cave makes a contrast between the people who sees appearances and mistake them for truth, and those who actually see truth.

Imagine prisoners in a cave. They are chained to the floor so that they can only see the wall in front of them and the shadows of things passing the mouth of the cave. One man escapes out of the cave. It is a hard journey out of the cave. At first he is dazzled by the "real" objects which were more real than the shadows he saw in the cave. He then returns to the cace to tell his fellows, but they reject him.

This suggests people are "philosophically ignorant" and are like prisoners. They can only see the shadows playing on the back of the cave, thinking that they are real. The world outside represented "real" stuff - i.e. the world of the Forms. The prisoner who escapes is philosophically enlightened.

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Symbolism of the Plato's Cave

  • Cave: the world of sight/appearances
  • Prisoners: us, trapped in this world of appearances who believe this all as true. We are like prisoners who are being stopped from realising the real i.e. the Forms. Prisoners are in a state of "Eikasia" (the lowest level of understanding)
  • The objects/statues: imitations of the Forms
  • Objects carried by the people: represent the politicians who lead people but don't actually know the truth of the Forms or don't want people to know
  • The Fire: the sun of the world
  • The journey out of the Cave: journey of the soul upward into the realm of Forms
  • Being dazzled: analogy to the philosopher gradually learning to differentiate between the Forms and the imitations
  • The Sun: Form of the Good, the sun sustains all living things in the world above, thus the Good is the source of the other Forms and sustains them
  • Who should be the leaders?: Prisoner now philosopher - realises truth of Forms, because he's fully enlightened he should lead society, not the dodgy politicians who rule because of fame.
  • Going back into the cave: prisoner (now philosopher-king) can't see clearly on the way back down, this shows the difficulties of seeing the Forms within the world of appearances
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Analogy of the Cave

Plato said - knowledge of Forms is essential for any ruler, so that a ruler can govern justly, not to further their self-interests

Issue raised - who is most suitable to rule society? Also says everyone is stupid because they are ignorant of the Forms.

Plato used this analogy to describe the world of the Forms

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Does the Analogy of the Cave make sense?


  • Plato makes a good point that empirical knowledge can be flawed (as was shown by the prisoners thinking the shadows to be real), this is because we live in an imperfect world of appearances and imitations of the Forms. The better type of knowledge is logical reasoning (Apriori) as it is based on philosophical reason not our suspect senses
  • Plato gives a reaon for the imperfections of the world which we see all around us, admits the world is imperfect copies of the world
  • We recognise these imperfect copies of the Forms as we lives there before
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Does the Analogy of the Cave make sense?


  • There is an unclear link between the World of Appearances and the Forms. The cave analogy doesn't tell us how they are connected e.g. movement from imitations - forms, is there anything in the middle?
  • How does one actually realise the truth and the reality of the Forms in order to become enlightened? Plato mentions that the hard journey out of the cave is analogous to the soul leaving the body. That may mean a person must die in order to realise the Forms. So how can a person come back and tell the people inside the cave if they are dead? Or does it mean we can realise the truth while being here, but does one do that?
  • But Plato's argument is absolutist (it is fixed and universal truth for all in all time). But not everyone may accept this, as with Aristotle
  • No concrete proof that world in the cave or outside is real. How can you prove the prisoners and philosopher is right or wrong?
  • Just because someone is philosophically enlightened and intelligent, does that necessarily make them perfect for leadership? e.g. there is a common stereotype that really clever people have low common sense and empathy for less intelligent people, but a leader needs to know their people
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Plato's Theory of the Forms

Forms - they are perfect ideas, types of things. They are not created, they don't do anything, they are just there, timeless, unchanging, immaterial and beyond space. They are known through our intelligence and reason and belong in the Realm of Forms.

The created world (the world of appearances or particulars) is opposite to the realm of the Forms. Things are contingent (dependent for their existence) and mortal.

Realm of Forms: each form is one (there is only one idea of beauty), intelligible (only known through our intellect/reason), eternal, unchanging, non-physical and perfect

Word of Particulars/Appearances: Particulars are many (there are many beautiful things), sensible (only known through our empirical sense e.g. smell, sight), always coming in and out of existence (contingent), always changing into something else, material objects and imperfect.

Plato argues that we are able to recognise the Forms of a dog, chair or beauty. There are many beautiful things but there is something they are share - the form of beauty. We know the forms as they are accessed via our mind. Plato was only interested in the Forms of beauty, truth, justice and Good

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Plato's Forms and their relation to Particulars

Plato says that the Particulars are imperfect copies of the Forms i.e. shadows/images of Forms. The particulars share in, or participate in, the Form - the Form of Beauty is somehow present in a beautiful person.

There are various types of Forms, but everything has one. There are Forms for values like Beauty, Justice and Wisdom. There are Forms for living things like dogs and frogs and Forms for objects like tables and chairs. There are forms for mathematical concepts like circles and triangles.

The Form is what all the particulars have in common - so all cats share in the Form of cat-ness

In a way Plato does have a Form of the Forms but he has good reason for thinking that the chain stops here.

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The Form of the Good

The ultimate Form is the Form of the Good. Through an understanding of the Form of the Good, we can understand the value of all things. Any good act that we carry out in this world is an imitation of the Good

Remember! The Forms are PERFECT - their perfection or goodness is something that they share. 

  • Just as the sun in the Analogy of the Cave gives light to the Real World, so the Form of the Good illuminates the other Forms 

It is the reason why the Forms are good, enabling us to "see" the Forms, just like the sun allows us to "see" everything.

It is the ultimate end in itself - the aim of everything is goodness. 

This idea -  Form of the Good was understood later by Christians as explaining God

The Hierarchy of the Forms - 1. Physical inaminate objects - 2. physical living objects - 3. concepts and ideals - 4. unviersal qualities (beauty, truth, justice) - 5. The Good 

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Plato's Form of the Good Critique

Form of the Good is valid because:

  • The theory explains why we all recognise the same essential elements in something, as they all have bits of a Form in them
  • This argument helps us to understand the imperfections and evils around us and why they exist. So a possible explanation for the problem of evil - the world wasn't created perfect as some Christian theodicists believe it - it is imperfect anyway
  • It encourages us to question in order to learn and no accept things at face value. This gives a purpose to subjects that require thinking, like philosophy 
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Form of the Good Critique

Not valid:

  • Some critics of Plato have pointed out that surely Plato needs a Form of the Forms to explain what the Forms have in common and then a Form of the Form of the Forms and so on (i.e. infinite regress of Forms to explain another Form)
  • Plato says we recognise the Forms because of our previous existence in the Realm of the Forms, but where is the proof for that?
  • Therefore, it is possible the Forms could just be ideas in the mind, rather than a recollection of the past
  • The existence of a Realm of Forms may not be an obvious conclusion of logical reasoning! As its not really logical at first instance to say there's a world we can't see
  • If the highest Form is Good, how can we know what goodness is when 2 people of equal intellignce come to different conclusions about right & wrong? e.g. one person may argue it is divine - who's right?
  • Plato suggests that the form of Good keeps in existence the whole world of Forms like the sun gives light and casts shadows. However, when asked we will all point to the same sun, yet we cannot agree what true goodness is or how it can be proven
  • Unclear how Plato's forms relate to things in the W.o.A - do all breeds of dogs have a form or is there a general form for a dog?
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