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An Analysis and Interpretation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave


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An Analysis and Interpretation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave

An Analysis and Interpretation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave

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  • 1. An Analysis and Interpretation of Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" Sarah Langan English 1102 May 8, 2009
  • 2. Presentation Overview Selected Sources Definition of Allegory Historical Background The Allegory Plato’s Interpretation of the Allegory Other Interpretations of the Allegory Grube’s Four Levels Ingersoll’s Hindu Interpretation Weil’s Alternative Explanation Summary, Conclusions, and References
  • 3. Lastly, Bullhead Entertainment offers a visual version of the "Allegory" animated in clay .
  • 4. What is an Allegory? Ted Ellen defines an allegory as “[A] form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with … meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.” An allegory professes items and concepts of moral, social, religious, or political significance.
  • 5. Thus, an allegory’s characters often personify abstract ideas. An allegory incorporates two meanings: a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning. This presentation first presents the literal, or written, aspects of Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" …
  • 6. And then presents three alternative interpretations of the "Allegory’s" symbolism: 1. The traditional, education-focused meaning (as espoused in Grube); 2. A spiritual interpretation based upon Hindu teachings (as presented in Ingersoll); 3. An alternative, exploitative interpretation (as suggested by Weil).
  • 7. Introduction and Historical Background
  • 8. Plato (c. 428-348 BCE) introduces “The Allegory of the Cave” at the beginning of Book VII of his work, The Republic. The allegory is fictional dialogue between Plato's teacher, Socrates, and Plato's brother, Glaucon. In the "Allegory" Socrates "[compares] the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature" (Grube 186 at §514a).
  • 9. According to J. Kiff, the "Allegory" is best understood in the context of, and in relation to, Plato's metaphor of the sun (§507b-§509c) The analogy of the divided line (§509d–§513e). Please see Grube for a description and development of the metaphor and the analogy.
  • 10. Plato applies the analogy and the metaphor with his viewpoint on allegories and dialectics at the end of Book VII in §531d-§534e, and further relates these to his “idea of forms” as people struggle to see the reality beyond illusion. In this theory, Plato argues that "Forms" (or "Ideas"), and not the world as we perceive it through our senses, are the purest kind of reality.
  • 11. Thus, for Plato, only this knowledge, as manifested by the philosopher, constitutes true understanding. Knowing this, Plato uses the “Allegory of the Cave” as a means to justify the philosopher's place in society (Grube).
  • 12. Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave"
  • 13. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” presupposes a group of prisoners who have lived chained and uneducated in a cave. Plato then postulates their responses and reactions to being freed from their chains and being forced to experience life outside the cave. The following summary of “Allegory of the Cave” draws upon that presented in Grube.
  • 14. Figure 1. Plato’s Cave (Source: Cohen)
  • 15. Inside the Cave
      • Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (§514 of the Republic) is a dialogue between…
      • Socrates, the protagonist, and
      • Glaucon, the interlocutor.
      • Socrates is questioning Glaucon about the scene depicted in Figure 1.
  • 16. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine… A cave inhabited by prisoners who have been fettered -- chained -- and immobilized since birth, and who are only able to gaze at a wall in front of them. A fire lies behind the prisoners, and between the prisoners and the fire is a raised walkway, along which actors carry various “artifacts.”
  • 17. The artifacts, cutouts, or puppets, cast shadows onto the wall, and the prisoners observe these shadows moving as the artifacts are carried back and forth along the walkway. The prisoners are also able to hear echoes of the words uttered by the actors, and attribute these to the shadows. Socrates postulates a question….
  • 18. Given their situation, Socrates asks… Is it reasonable (or, conversely, not unreasonable) for the prisoners to… “in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts?” (Grube §515c). Glaucon concurs.
  • 19. Socrates suggests the prisoners’ complete society would revolve around the shadows on the wall, and… That they would respect whichever of them could successfully anticipate (or guess) which shadow would appear next… Sensing that, somehow, that prisoner better understood the “nature of things” than did the others.
  • 20. Release from the Cave
      • Socrates subsequently wonders how the prisoners might respond if they were “released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance?” (Grube 187 at §515d).
      • If one of them was freed and compelled to stand up, turn and walk toward the fire, that prisoner would, Socrates argues, be…
  • 21. …“ pained and dazzled and unable to see [to recognize] the things whose shadows he’d seen before” (Grube 187 at §515d). That is, Socrates suggests, the prisoner would now be confused as to which was real, the artifact or its shadow. Suppose further, Socrates continues, that the prisoner was forcibly dragged out of the cave and into the sunlight…
  • 22. “ Wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way?”, Socrates wonders. (Grube 188 at §516a). “Further, once into the sunlight, would he not require additional time for his eyes to acclimate to the sun, leaving his mind, again, in a fog?” (§516a) It would not be until after the freed prisoner had studied and understood his new reality, the earth and the moon, the sun and the seasons, that he would begin to understand his new reality.
  • 23. Return to the Cave
      • Socrates next asks Glaucon to ponder as series of questions and to consider the condition of this now freed and educated man (Grube 188 at §516ff).
      • Socrates wonders,
      • How would he relate to the prisoners still in the cave and them to him?
  • 24. And subsequently argues… Recalling [his] first home and what passed for wisdom there, would not the freed man consider himself happy and his former fellow prisoners pitiable? (Grube 188 at §516c). Would he not, now knowing better, disdain the “honors, praises, and prizes” awarded to the ones who best anticipated the next shadow?
  • 25. Continuing, Socrates asks Glaucon… Further, if he were to return there, would he not be rather bad at their game and subject to ridicule, too, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? (Grube 189 at §517a). Most importantly, would not the remaining prisoners be skeptical of his claims of knowledge that resulted from his trip upward? (§517a).
  • 26. Faced with that threat, Socrates concludes, “[I]f they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?” (Grube 189 at §517a).
  • 27. Socrates’s Interpretation of the “Allegory of the Cave”
      • Socrates interprets the Allegory in terms of an analogy between one’s eyes and one’s soul, or mind (Grube 190 at §518ff).
      • As the prisoner’s experience in the cave demonstrated, the eyes, Socrates argues,
      • can be confused in two ways…
  • 28. When passing from light into dark; and, When passing from darkness into the light. Similarly, the soul, or mind, Socrates suggests, can be likewise confused in two ways, when … Passing from ignorance to knowledge or … When regressing from understanding back toward ignorance.
  • 29. Education, Socrates contends, can correct this confusion, but is far more than just… “putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes” (Grube 190 at §518c) Rather, as the prisoner in the cave realized, learning can only occur when one is…
  • 30. freed from the chains that bind him and forced to turn toward the light and forced to learn to accept things as they truly are, rather than as one perceives them to be.
  • 31. Education, Socrates maintains, … has the purpose and objective of making this turning around process as effective and efficient as possible (Grube 190 at §518c-d). Ultimately, Socrates uses the “Allegory of the Cave” as his means of justifying his assertion that…
  • 32. Only the well educated, the virtuous, the philosophers, are suited to fulfill the larger purpose outlined in the Republic: To be the rulers of his utopian city, the kallipolis.
  • 33. For this reason Socrates concludes, “[The] human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really and truly philosophers acquire political power or until, through some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authorities in cities become real philosophers” (Grube x at §324b-326b)
  • 34. Three Interpretations of Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" G. M. A. Grube J. G. Ingersoll S. Weil
  • 35. Education and the "Allegory of the Cave" Grube notes that the fundamental purpose of education, as Plato articulates it in §518b-519d of The Republic,… Is not to instill knowledge, but… To change people’s behavior and desires.
  • 36. By changing their behaviors and desires, Plato argues, … People can reverse their tendency and preference to pursue what they, incorrectly, believe to be happiness,… and, instead, … Seek true happiness: the pursuit of virtue and reason .
  • 37. Grube suggests one possible way this educational process can occur (xvi - xvii). For Grube the education process of §514a ff illustrates the transition in the as it transcends appetites and desires. Grube believes this educational process and transition occurs in four stages (xvi - xvii) “ internal rule of our soul”
  • 38. In Grube’s first stage, The prisoners in the pit of the cave have received no education or training. As a result, their thoughts and perceptions are shaped by the “unnecessary appetitive desires” of §558d-§559c (Grube xvii and 228ff).
  • 39. Hence, the prisoners (Grube 188 at §516a) In the second stage, … Once the prisoners have been appropriately educated, … Mistake the images (shadows) of things as “the things themselves.”
  • 40. They are freed… (Grube xvii) From the bonds of appetite-driven desires and Motivated only by necessary desires As this education includes instruction in a craft, or possibly music, poetry, and physical training, the newly freed prisoners could then see things as they truly are, rather than as images and shadows (Grube 187 at §515d).
  • 41. In Grube’s stage three, … Some of the prisoners are further educated in mathematics and science, … Which thereby releases them from the realm of necessary desires… Leaving them limited only by spirited desires (Grube xvii and at §522).
  • 42. As a result, … These “guardians” are free to escape the cave and to see things for themselves. While the guardians may see things for themselves, because of their limited education, … They, too, may fail to grasp the totality and reality of their present situations.
  • 43. It is only in stage four, and only through education in dialectics, philosophy, and governance, that some of the guardians are able to transcend their appetitive desires and to be motivated by their rational desires (Grube xvii and Book VII, 186 ff).
  • 44. As a result of their education, the resulting “philosopher-kings” understand that, … “the greatest object of study, … the good itself”, and are able to associate this understanding to “the cause of all the other things they have seen” (Grube xvii and §505a ff).
  • 45. As Grube reminds us, not everyone is willing or able to make all of these transitions, however (p. xvii). Rather, at each stage, some of the prisoners’ appetites are too strong, too dear, for education and indoctrination to break. As a result, three classes of people occupy Plato’s ideal city...
  • 46. These three classes of people being: the producers, or artisans, who are motivated by money and appetitive desires; the guardians, who are motivated by honor and spirited desires; and the philosopher-kings, who are guided by wisdom and rational desires.
  • 47. The Hindu Interpretation of Plato's “Allegory of the Cave”
  • 48. Ingersoll offers an interpretation of Plato’s Cave derived from the Hindu perspective. An alternative interpretation of the symbolism inherent in the allegory, both direct and indirect, is quite evident in this perspective. This interpretation is presented in Figure 2.
  • 49. Figure 2: Plato's Cave (Source: Ingersoll)
  • 50. II = Individual Intuitions SP = Sensory Perceptions TM = Form TS = True Self UI = Universal Intuition Key:
  • 51. In the Hindu interpretation, Plato’s cave symbolizes man’s mind (Ingersoll). Further, The three levels of the cave (ground level, underground, and deep underground) Correspond to the three levels of direct knowledge, or perception, as manifested in or by… pratyaksha.
  • 52. In this interpretation, according to Ingersoll, ground level represents Universal Intuition, UI, or the identity of consciousness, Dharmakaya. Within Universal Intuition, the brightly burning fire symbolizes God, Isvara, While the light, itself, symbolizes accurate knowledge, vidya.
  • 53. The second level of the cave denotes Individual Intuitions, II, the passion of bliss, or, Sambhogakaya Here, the actors, Heaven realm beings, act out their desires consistent with the concepts of raga, karma, and samskaras, while the illuminated actors, again, embody vidya (Ingersoll).
  • 54. Lastly, the mobility of actors on bridge in the second level equates to the “non-localized perceptions” of Individual Intuitions. At the deep underground level, … Sensory Perceptions, SP, epitomize the “Pain of Want”, Nirmanakaya.
  • 55. At the deep underground level, The prisoners correspond to human beings who are bound or limited by local Sensory Perceptions that manifest themselves as the shadows, or inaccurate knowledge, avidya
  • 56. Thus, as Ingersoll notes, Plato’s allegory shows the… three levels of direct knowledge (UI, II, and SP), that correspond to the three levels of indirect knowledge (CP, CC, and SA) of the Samkhya model.
  • 57. Where, … CP represents conceptions of perceptions, derived from animal traits; CC represents conceptions of conceptions, derived from human traits; and SA, represents sensory actions, derived from vegetable traits (Ingersoll).
  • 58. Simone Weil’s Alternative, Exploitative Interpretation of the “Allegory of the Cave”
  • 59. F Figure 3: Plato’s Cave (Source: Weil)
  • 60. As indicated in Figure 3, for Weil, The cave represents the world; The fetters are the imagination; and The shadows symbolize the “passive states that we come to know by introspection.” For Weil, society “worships” imagination, and is unaccustomed to equating it to a prison.
  • 61. For Weil’s Plato, each person has an innate, core ability to think. When one fails to understand, it is due to the constraints of the fetters -- the limitations of the imagination. “Whenever the soul is bound by the fetters of suffering, pleasure, etc.”, Weil writes, “it is unable to contemplate through its own intelligence the unchanging patterns of things.”
  • 62. Similarly, for Weil, Plato’s morality, as Plato articulates it in the "Allegory", as well as throughout the Republic, focuses on one simple charge: Do not deceive yourself.
  • 63. If one does not have a clear appreciation of one’s actions, Weil contends, one must not undertake things for which the mind lacks clear understanding. This, Weil decides, “is the whole of Plato's morality”, and that “true morality is purely internal.”
  • 64. Drawing upon Stendhal’s assertion that... “All good reasoning causes offence”, Weil concludes that, “Intelligence offends by its very nature [and that] thinking annoys the people in the cave.”
  • 65.
      • Thus, for both Weil and Plato, anyone who remains in the cave, regardless of what that person observes there, can never be “truly virtuous.”
      • As Weil writes, “The man who has left the cave annoys the great beast” of ignorance and bliss. For the virtuous person living outside the cave, “The intellectual life and the moral life are one.”
  • 66. Ultimately, though, for both Weil and Plato, the educated must return to the cave and act there to free those who remain, for it is from among them that the future rulers shall emerge. Once adequately educated mentally in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, poetry, and logic, as well as physically through calisthenics and military service, the resulting the philosopher-kings will be qualified to meet Plato’s mandate that …
  • 67. “ it is those who are not lovers of ruling who must rule, for if they don’t, the lovers of it, who are rivals, will fight over it” (Grube 193 at §521b).
  • 68. Summary and Conclusions
      • Unlike his mentor, Socrates, Plato was both a writer and a teacher (Kreis).
      • Plato’s writings are in the form of dialogues in which Socrates serves as protagonist, or primary speaker.
      • The "Allegory of the Cave" is one such dialogue.
  • 69. In the "Allegory" Plato describes, metaphorically, the predicament in which mankind finds itself, the question of who should rule, ... and proposes a solution to that question that entails disciplined, rigorous education. Grube’s synthesis of that education process is consistent with Plato’s broader vision for the kallipolis.
  • 70. In the kallipolis , … three types or levels of citizens, the producers, the guardians, and the philosopher-kings…
  • 71. Which reflect… appetitive, spirited, and rational desires, respectively (Grube xv).
  • 72. Grube’s stages, then, I find, accurately transform the metaphorical and symbolic education of the prisoners in the cave to the educational processes Plato proposes elsewhere in the Republic for the kallipolis.
  • 73. Ingersoll’s interpretation and view of the “Allegory” through the Hindu lens I find intriguing, although, candidly, unfathomable. Ingersoll builds on Plato’s fascination with the number three, in that Ingersoll identifies three levels of knowledge both inside and outside of the cave and ascribes three types and kinds of Hindu understanding (derived from three different sources, vegetable, animal, and human) to that knowledge.
  • 74. Without some understanding of Hindu (which Ingersoll does offer elsewhere in his paper), however, I am unable to fully appreciate the correlations and correspondences he demonstrates. Lastly, I find Weil’s alternative interpretation of the “Allegory of the Cave” to be consistent with the interpretations of both Plato and Grube
  • 75. However, I sense Weil’s interpretation, being of a different psychological, philosophical, and pragmatic bent than either Plato or Grube, does offer a more accurate appraisal of our current shortcomings in education and pedagogy than does either of the other two. As Kreis notes, the “Allegory of the Cave” presents and applies many of Plato's major philosophical beliefs, of which there are several.
  • 76. I will briefly summarize these beliefs before offering my closing thoughts on the "Allegory." First, Plato believes that the world, as we perceive it through our senses, is not the real world, but only a poor copy of it. Thus, Plato contends, the real world can be correctly apprehended only intellectually, not physically.
  • 77. Second, Plato asserts that knowledge cannot be transferred from teacher to student -- an approach to learning that Paulo Friere subsequently denigrated as “the banking concept of education.” Rather, Plato espouses an approach that involves directing students’ minds toward discovering for themselves what is true, real and important.
  • 78. Today’s educators firmly avow such an approach, calling it “constructivist learning.” Lastly, Plato remains convinced that the best rulers, the philosopher-kings, are so suited not only because of their education, experience, and wisdom, but also because they would prefer not to rule. More emphatically, however, …
  • 79. Plato finds that, because of their enlightened minds, the philosopher-king has an obligation to rule that transcends his (or her) personal preference for anonymity. In retrospect, I see validity in Plato’s last two points. First, our current crisis in education, I sense, has as much to do with what we teach as it does with how we teach it.
  • 80. We could, I believe, advance and improve learning by moving away from traditional, memorization-driven education, and moving toward Plato’s concept of discovery-guided learning. Second, I agree with Plato (and with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, for that matter), that governing is hampered when controlled by those motivated by, and with a love for, power.
  • 81. Today’s “career politicians”, I find, unequivocally demonstrate this phenomenon. Rather than being motivated by a sense of duty, I sense that many of these politicians harbor motivations that are self-centered, and, for this reason, disavow term limits, as such limits would eliminate the value of seniority and, hence, limit their power. For these reasons, I can only argue that our best prospect for moving toward Plato’s morality and utopia is to follow his prescription.
  • 82. First, we must force ourselves out of the cave of ignorance through an appropriate curriculum and an effective and efficient educational system. And, second, we must complement the resulting lifetime love of learning with dedicated service to others.
  • 83. Works Cited
      • Brians, P. et al. “Plato: The Allegory of the Cave.” The Republic . 1998. 22 Apr. 2009. < world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_1/ plato.html>.
      • Brickhouse, T. & Smith, N. “Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.E).” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . 2008. 23 Apr. 23 2009 <>.
      • Cohen, M. The Allegory of the Cave . 2006. 24 Apr. 2009 < smcohen/320/cave.htm>.
  • 84. Ellen, T. Cyber-English. The Practice . 2008. 25 Apr. 2009 < lit_terms/allegory.html>. Grube, G. Plato: Republic . Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. Helium, Inc. Interpreting Plato's Cave . 2009. 20 Apr. 2009 <>.
  • 85. Ingersoll, J. G. A Synthesis of the Samkhya of Kapila, Yoga of Patanjali & Madhyamaka of Nagarjuna . 2009. 25 Apr. 2009 <>. Kiff, J. Allegory of the Cave . 2007. 25 Apr. 2009 < Plato's_allegory_of_the_cave>. Kreis, S. “Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. Plato: The Allegory of the Cave.” The History Guide . 2000. 27 Apr. 2009 < intellect/allegory.html>.
  • 86. Stevenson, D. “The Republic by Plato.” 2000. The Internet Classics Archive . 25 Apr. 2009 < republic.8.vii.html>. Weil, S. “Allegory of the Cave.” Lectures on Philosophy . 1978. 25 Apr. 2009 <>.