Thoughts on Plato's Allegory of the Cave

by Grace Garland | Published on 25 January 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Learning, real learning, is transformative. Once you have learned a thing, something about you fundamentally changes, and you see the world “with new eyes”. This is, of course, a figure of speech, a metaphor, one that can be connected to a two-and-a half-thousand-year-old allegory about education by the Greek philosopher Plato. As the country digests the latest matric results, and all the subsequent commentary trying to make sense of them, I wish to share the famous story of Plato’s cave, along with some educational themes that arise from it.

Allegory of the cave Image source: World Wide Kitsch

In Republic1, Plato describes a rather odd scene: a group of people are chained by their necks and feet to the walls of a dark cave. They have been this way since birth. Onto the wall in front of them are the shadows of figures, thanks to a play of the light from a fire at the back of the cave. The shadowy shapes of people, animals and artefacts provide the only stimulation in an otherwise drear existence, but the chained people have never known anything else. They have words for each of the different shapes, study them, and compete for who is best at recognising them.

One day, one of the people somehow escapes from his chains, turns around, and makes his way out the cave’s entrance. He is dazzled by the sunlight, almost blinded, and utterly bewildered by what he can barely squint at, believing it a mirage, or a trick. He wants to return to the comforting truth of the shadowy cave walls and rest his sore eyes, but is prevented and forced to slowly adjust and take in the sight of his surroundings. Real people, real animals, real artefacts and, finally, the dazzling sun itself. After the initial shock, he is delighted.

Remembering his fellows in chains, he returns to the cave to share his joy, to explain to them that there is a whole world beyond the shadows, and that it is beautiful. In darkness, he must squint again, waiting and waiting for his eyes to adjust. Fumbling to his old seat, he is greeted by sniggers, followed by outright jeering when he can’t name a single one of the shadow figures on the wall. “Your eyesight is ruined!” they laugh at him. “Why would anyone take this journey you describe, only to come back half-blind?”

We never find out if the man gives up on them and returns to the world above, but the story suggests ominously that, were he to try to free them and lead them upward with him, they would try to kill him.

 According to Plato, the vast majority of us are the people chained to the cave. Few, very few, ever make it out. Why?

Human beings naturally perceive the world as it is and take it to be true. After all, we have no reason to believe it isn’t. Our concepts of things are shadowy – shaped by our own shallow understanding, or others’ opinion, or the biases and prejudices of our community. It is only through great effort and a certain discomfort – we must be willing to let go of our previous understanding of reality – that we come to see things differently.

The journey out of the cave and into the sunlight is a metaphor of the journey of a thorough and lifelong education, which forces one to question what everyone else takes for granted and to accept that one’s understanding of the world was only a shadow of the real thing. Unsurprisingly, the English language is replete with imagery that likens knowledge to light: “shed light on the issue”, “enlightening”, “illuminating”.

Plato’s fundamental point is about the nature of “the good”, which he likens to sunlight, as that which gives all knowable things their value – but I won’t get into that philosophical pickle here. Instead, a few comments on the character of true education, which the Allegory of the Cave implies, are in order.

Firstly, learning of this kind is as much of the soul as it is of the mind. You do not emerge with a Degree of Enlightenment, or an A+ in Truth. Indeed, high-school leavers have not been educated in the way Plato is describing: they have at least taken some steps away from the cave wall, but are nowhere near seeing the sun. None of us is. The allegory describes a whole human life in search of truth, one that may never lead to fully grasping it, but one that would be far more meaningful than the alternative.

Secondly, back in the cave, the returning person cannot reconnect with those he has known all his life, because his reality has been changed. Or rather, he has learned that what he took to be reality before is not correct, and his fellows don’t take kindly to him saying so. This divide will not be unfamiliar to anyone who is a first-generation graduate, or even a first-generation matriculant, who battles to relate to their own family. They have taken the critical first step, and found themselves alone. The transformative nature of learning can have an unintended divisive effect when it is only experienced by a few people. Asymmetrical access to high quality education is therefore not only an injustice, but a fragmenting force with long-term nefarious consequences.

Lastly, because the journey of enlightenment necessarily involves a willingness to be blinded, it will be beyond those who refuse to admit ignorance, or who associate ignorance with weakness. Relatedly, it would be disastrous if the leaders of society were to display this attitude, happy to compete over shadows for the adulation of their peers and followers. Plato worries about debates over the “shadows of justice” in courtrooms and parliaments among “people who have never seen justice itself”. This has particular resonance in the South African context, where rhetoric and doublespeak have come to characterise political debate.

Concluding on a lighter note, it is important to say that knowledge is, fortunately, something that can be quite easily transmitted. It is not finite like property, or capital, that tend to accumulate to themselves. In an ideal case, knowledge is infinitely shareable, because the moment someone willing to share it comes across someone willing to learn, an educational moment can take place. And thus can begin the (never-ending!) lifelong endeavour to see the world clearly.

1. Plato, Republic. In Cooper, J. (ed). Plato: Collected Works. Hacket (2007). Pp 1132-1135.


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Grace Garland is an Associate of The Ethics Institute, responsible for communications and editorial projects. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School. She is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.