Dr. Ari Santas

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave



Background: This story is from Book VII of Plato’s Republic.  In this work, Plato begins with the question, “What is Justice?” and ends up laying out the foundations of a just society. The cave is supposed to illustrate at least two things:

  1. The relationship between appearance and reality (between the Forms and ordinary things)
  2. Why it is that people who are in touch with the Forms are misunderstood

The first point concerns metaphysics;   the second point touches on epistemology, but also on the sociology of philosophizing.


Phase 1 [in small groups, dividing the labor]


Draw pictures of the three basic scenes of the allegory of the cave. For each scene, try to include as many images (the fire, the shadows, the chains, etc.) as possible and think concretely about what they are supposed to symbolize (remember, this is an allegory!). Make a list of the images and what they stand for.

1)    the prisoners initial condition of bondage in the cave;


2)    the prisoners escape from bondage and emergence into the light;


3)    the escaped prisoners return to the cave and the unwelcome response by his former friends


Phase 2 [combine groups, share answers, then...]


1.     What is the cave supposed to represent in the “Allegory of the Cave”? What is the outside supposed to stand for? Explain your lists of the main images and their meaning.  In what ways would Plato say that most humans are in such a cave? Explain.


Report answers to the class


Phase 3 [continuing...]


2.     Why is the escaped prisoner persecuted when he returns to the cave?  Explain what Plato might mean here about the path of enlightenment.

3.     If you were the escaped prisoner who had found enlightenment, would you return to the cave and help your old friends escape? If not, why not? If so, why?

4.     Supposing you did return, how would you break the chains? What if one of them your best friend didnt want to go? Would you force her/him as you had been? How would you break the chains?