The Allegory of the Cave, Unpacked
Plato’s The Republic features a discussion between Socrates and several other men in which the question of what justice (or being good) is comes up. This question quickly turns a casual conversation into a complex inquiry, as the philosophers attempt to discover what justice really is. They reach the conclusion that knowledge is crucial to becoming a just person. However, Socrates shows his listeners that not all knowledge is equal through two complex metaphors: the Line Analogy and the well-known Allegory of the Cave. The Line Analogy is essentially a diagram of the levels of knowledge that one can achieve, from knowing the tangible world to understanding the intangible one of reason and ethical ideals. The Allegory of the Cave both develops and differs from the Line Analogy. It takes this “knowledge diagram” and turns it into a detailed imaginary scenario that demonstrates what the Line Analogy means in society. The Allegory shows relationships between the levels of knowledge (how some must come before others), and both the benefits and the dangers for one who reaches the highest levels of understanding. Also, the Allegory of the Cave puts constraints on who can reach the higher levels of knowledge, noting that one can only achieve true understanding through great difficulty. While the Line Analogy stands alone as a useful and interesting metaphor, the Allegory of the Cave is critical to fully understanding it the way it was meant to be understood.
Socrates’ Line Analogy is a sort of geometrical construction of his ideas. He presents us with a line divided into four parts: “imagination,” “real objects,” “reason,” and “understanding.” Imagination, the first segment, contains the images of real objects that we conceive of in our minds, see in pictures, or hear in stories. The next segment is real objects, or the originals of imagined things, incorporating the entire physical world. These two pieces make up the “visible” part of the line. Next is the section where reason is found. Geometry, physics, and other mathematical or rational ideas that pertain to the physical world fall into this category. The final segment of the line is understanding. Here is where one can come to know “forms,” the highest and most perfect ideals of ethical concepts. If one reaches the highest point of understanding on Socrates’ line, they can understand the form of the good, for example, or justice. “Reason” and “understanding” make up the “intelligible” part of the line, because they are comprised not of things that exist in the physical world, but of concepts that can only be grasped with the mind.
Immediately following the Line Analogy in The Republic is the Allegory of the Cave, which takes the concepts from the Analogy and turns them into a metaphorical scenario. Here, Socrates imagines an underground cave where a group of people has been tethered since childhood. All they can see are shadows of “artifacts,” or statues and shapes of real objects, that are projected onto the wall in front of them. All they can hear are the voices of the people holding the artifacts, which they assume are coming from the shadows because the voices echo off the cave wall. Because the cave-dwellers have never known anything else, these shadows are their reality. One day, one of them comes untethered. He turns toward the cave entrance and at first is blinded by the light. Eventually, though, his eyes adjust and he can see the figures whose shadows he has always been viewing. When he goes out of the cave into the sunlight, he sees the real objects that the figures were modeled after once his eyes are accustomed to the brightness. However, when he goes back down into the dark cave, he is neither able to see well nor explain what was above them to the other cave-dwellers, and they ridicule him for ruining his eyes by leaving the cave.
This scenario appears odd until we see that it is constructed of metaphors. The people tethered in the cave are like average citizens who have not achieved enlightenment yet, and know only the images in front of them, the obvious facts that can be seen without effort. The things they see are like the images of “imagination,” and their “sight” is a metaphor for knowing. The shadows in the cave are the least real things, for they aren’t even shadows of real objects but only shadows of images of real objects. Though the cave-dwellers hear voices, they assume that the sounds are coming from the shadows, which are the only images they know. This is just like people who may hear about reason and understanding, but have such a limited perspective of the world that they cannot truly understand these higher ideas without knowledge of what to apply them to. Yet because the cave-dwellers have never known anything else, they believe these shadows and sounds to be reality. Socrates is implying that there is more to reality than what is immediately obvious, but we have to seek to find what else there is, like the cave-dweller who leaves his tether.
When this cave-dweller turns, he is like a person who “turns” their soul towards greater understanding. Just as it is difficult for his eyes to adjust to the light, it is difficult for our minds to adjust to unfamiliar concepts. When he sees the figures that made the shadows, he is “puzzled and believe[s] that the things he saw earlier were more truly real than the ones he was being shown,” Socrates says (page 209, 515d). If one’s perspective of the world has been limited to “shadows” for their entire life, learning new ideas can indeed be puzzling at first. However, the cave-dweller learns to see the shapes whose shadows he is so familiar with, just as one can understand physical objects even if they have only ever seen images of them before. When he goes up into the light, he will “first see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves” (page 209 516a). I take this to be his progression from the physical world to one of reason. When we learn concepts of geometry, for example, we first must see “images” of new concepts applied to familiar shapes before we can understand the concepts alone. At last, the cave-dweller becomes so accustomed to the light that he is able to look up at the sky. “Finally, I suppose, he would be able to see the sun—not reflections of it in water or some alien place, but the sun just by itself in its own place—and be able to look at it and see what it is like” (page 210 516b). The sun is a metaphor for the form of the good, which the cave-dweller is able to see through understanding. He is a philosopher, who achieves enlightment with great difficulty, as Socrates tells us all philosophers must. Socrates believed that it was only the philosopher that could escape the fetters of the cave and achieve true understanding.
This cave-dweller philosopher, Socrates imagines, is glad to have achieved true understanding about the real world. “What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners? Don’t you think he would count himself happy for the change and pity the others?” Socrates asks his friend Glaucon, who replies with an emphatic “Certainly” (page 210 515c). One who achieves the highest level of knowledge truly gains a greater quality of life, it seems. However, Socrates’ imaginary cave-philosopher now goes back to the cave where he came from. His eyes are “filled with darkness, coming out of the sun like that” (page 210 516e). Now, he can no longer see the shadows that are “reality” to the cave-dwelling people. Not only do they ridicule him for traveling out of the cave and ruining his eyes, they conclude that it is not worthwhile to leave the cave. And if one tried to force them out of the cave to see the real world, they would kill him, Socrates claims. This, then, is the danger of being a philosopher who reaches the highest level of understanding. The simple things that once seemed real and important will no longer be clear to the philosopher’s enlightened eyes, and the average person will ridicule him or her for that. Also, few people will ever achieve the same understanding once they see the philosopher, for they do not want to lose touch with their current “reality” like the philosopher did. So philosophers must sacrifice their previous lives and acceptance by former peers when they learn to see ideas that transcend what the average person knows.
The Republic is an ancient text, and Socrates’ theories may seem unusual. The Line Analogy and the Allegory of the Cave are unique, unlike many other representations of how humans can achieve understanding. However, perhaps there is something to them after all. We know there are various levels of knowledge in the world, for we can either comprehend only the physical world, or we can learn to comprehend abstract concepts that transcend the physical. The highest levels of understanding can only be achieved “with toil and trouble,” like the cave-dweller who ventures into the blinding sun. While we may not seek to become philosophers who are so enlightened that our peers reject us, understanding Socrates’ idea of the hierarchy of knowledge can help us understand our own struggle to reach to greatest level of knowledge, and to know that we are not the only ones who have difficulty getting there.