Allegory of the Cave
Written by Plato
Republic: Book VII
"And now," I said, "let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened. Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets."
"And do you see," I said, "men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking others silent."
"You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners."
"Like ourselves," I replied; "and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?"
"True," he said; "how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?"
"And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?"
"Yes," he said.
"And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?"
"And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadows?"
"No question," he replied. "To them," I said, "the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images."
"That is certain."
"And now look again, and see what will
naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error.
At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand
up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will
suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable
to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the
"And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer that the things which are now being shown to him?"
"True," he said.
"And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities."
"Not all in a moment," he said.
"He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and others objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?"
"Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is."
"He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and is a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?"
"Clearly," he said, "he would first see the sun and then reason about him."
"And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?"
"Certainly, he would."
"And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, 'Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,' and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?"
"Yes," he said, "I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner."
"Imagine once more," I said, "such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?"
"To be sure," he said.
"And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death."
"No question," he said.
"This entire allegory," I said, "you may
now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison house is
the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not
misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of
the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which,
at your desire, I have expressed - whether rightly of wrongly, God
"I agree," he said, "as far as I am able to understand you."
"Moreover," I said, "you must not wonder
that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend
to human affairs; for their souls are never hastening into the upper world
where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if
"Yes, very natural."
"And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?"
"Anything but surprising," he replied.
volker doormann - 2002.06.01