Plato - Cave Allegory

Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, used an allegory of a cave to help his students understand this theories of experience and knowledge.

Imagine that a group of men are captured at birth and chained in a cave, so they can only look at a wall. Behind them, the captors build a fire and then walk in front of the fire so that shadows are cast on that wall. The chained-up people can only see the shadows on the wall. The captors carry by various birds, animals, and so on, making noises while they do. The prisoners think the shadows are making these sounds, and start giving names to the different shadows.

If one of these prisoners escaped, he would be blinded by the outside sun, and unable to see much of anything. If he stayed free long enough for his eyes to adjust, he might now realize that up until this point all he'd been dealing with were shadows - and now he had experienced reality. But if he went back to the other prisoners, he would be unable to see in the dark. The other captives would not trust him, as he'd have lost his ability to see in THEIR world and therefore to prove he was "one of them" to be trusted.

Plato explained that this situation was the one that lay between philosophers (those outside the cave) and the farmers and millers who focussed only on their daily life. Those who only cared about living day to day and not examining their world only saw a shadow of what life was all about - a shadow cast by the discussions around them. They got a general idea of life, but they were in the dark. When philosophers tried to enlighten them about the true nature of reality, they had no wish to listen. The things the philosophers talked about seemed far different than their shadow perceptions - and the philosophers themselves seemed too far removed from their "normal life".

But really, the philosophers were talking about the exact same issues and concerns and problems of normal life. The philosophers were simply talking about it from a "more real and clear" stance, while the farmers were seeing the shadowy, murky version that their half-hearted efforts had created for them.

Philosophy Basics Main Page

Lisa Shea Homepage