Plato's Cave Analogy

  • Created by: nelliott
  • Created on: 14-06-21 14:22

Background to the Analogy

  • It was written approximately 2,500 years ago
  • The analogy is found in Plato’s famous work ‘Republic’ written when he was about 40
  • It is one of three similes that Plato uses to illustrate his theory of Forms (the Similes of the Line and the sun)
  • In the analogy, Plato asks us to imagine a dialogue between Socrates and a man called Glaucon
  • Written in Athens, Greece; a centre of culture, learning and activity but also, at a time when the city was in decline
  • Plato’s intention: he was deeply concerned about his fellow citizens and felt it was his mission to present to people a better, more ethical and more considered way of living
  • Philosophers debate how to interpret its meaning
  • Analogy definition: the act of comparing one thing with another that shares similar characteristics to help a person learn about the first thing 
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  • Plato used it to explain the importance of questioning everything, in order to distinguish between the unreal, physical world (where firelight casts shadows on a cave wall) and the real spiritual world lit by the sun
  • The prisoners are people who accept everything at face value, never ask questions and never try to understand.
  • They lead meaningless and empty lives and the shadows are not real objects. #
  • The tied prisoners are in an illusionary world
  • The one who breaks away is the philosopher who wants to know what is really going on.
  • He discovers that the sun is giving life to everything and it represents the Form of the Good.
  • When he returns to the cave, he realises life inside is just a sham; the images on the wall lack colour and nothing is clear or sharp.
  • The other prisoners, lacking the philosopher’s enquiring mind, continue to live in a dark, dismal world with no desire for knowledge
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  • Plato is commenting that we do not see the Forms clearly, only the illusionary physical world
  • The people are prisoners who need to be set free because the physical world imprisons a person by stopping seeing the Forms
  • Plato was criticising the philosophers and politicians who lead the people but do not actually know the truth (Forms)
  • Robin Waterfield suggests that the prisoners being attracted to the shadows from the firelight rather than the real world above represent the way in which culture, tradition and upbringing limit people’s ability to see the world in any way other than how they were brought up
  • The freed prisoner feels out of duty that he must go below ground to educate the other prisoners and this reflects Plato’s belief that those who can see the Forms (what is true) should be the leaders of society
  • When the prisoner returns underground, he at first cannot see clearly. This illustrates the difficulties of seeing the Forms within the world.
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Plato's Message to Us

  • The relation between the physical, material world and the higher world of the Forms
  • The ways in which material, physical concerns can blind people to what is really important
  • The ignorance of humanity when people do not engage in philosophy
  • The potential for true knowledge that philosophy brings
  • That there is another world which we cannot see from the position that we are in, yet which we can reach and it will give us enlightenment
  • The initial difficulties of grappling with philosophy
  • The hostility that people often feel when faced with philosophical ideas that challenge previously held beliefs
  • The injustice at the death of Socrates
  • That education is a ‘leading-out’ and it requires encouragement 
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