The Allegory of the Cave is one of Greek philosopher Plato’s most well known works. It is an extended allegory, where humans are depicted as being imprisoned by their bodies and what they perceive by sight only. In the Allegory of the Cave Plato plays with the notion of what would occur if people suddenly encountered the divine light of the sun, and perceived “true” reality. In other words, what would happen if people actually embraced philosophy and become enlightened by it?
In the beginning of the Allegory of the Cave Plato represents man’s condition as being “chained in a cave,” with only a fire behind him. He perceives the world by watching the shadows on the wall. He sits in darkness with the false light of the fire and does not realize that this existence is wrong or lacking. It merely is his existence — he knows no other nor offers any complaint.
Plato next imagines in the Allegory of the Cave what would occur if the chained man were suddenly released from his bondage and let out into the world. Plato describes how some people would immediately be frightened and want to return to the cave and the familiar dark existence. Others would look at the sun and finally see the world as it truly is.
They would know their previous existence was farce, a shadow of truth, and they would come to understand that their lives had been one of deception. A few would embrace the sun, and the true life and have a far better understanding of “truth.” They would also want to return to the cave to free the others in bondage, and would be puzzled by people still in the cave who would not believe the now “enlightened” truth bearer. Many would refuse to acknowledge any truth beyond their current existence in the cave.
Allegories are subject to numerous interpretations and the Allegory of the Cave is no exception. Some interpret Plato’s work as related to Socrates’ life. Socrates as interpreted by Plato spent his life trying to unchain others by helping them arrive at “truth.” That he was dismissed and ultimately sentenced to death suggests that “telling” someone the truth is inadequate.
Truth must be experienced rather than told because language fails to convey belief. This theme is a constant in Plato’s work. Language is the barest shadow of reality. People who are firmly committed to a religious view often echo this statement. Faith can’t be given to other people, but must be experienced.
The Allegory of the Cave also represents an extended metaphor for the state of human existence, and for the transformation that occurs during philosophical enlightenment. When the light of the sun shines on the freed man, this is allegory for enlightenment and perception of the truth. The minor concerns of the world as he has viewed it previously are now seen as falsely held perception and he is eager to share enlightenment with others.
Thematic elements from the Allegory of the Cave continue to influence Western thought. In fact, one can view the first Matrix film as an interpretation of Plato’s work. The reality of the matrix is that it is “a construct” meant to keep people enslaved. When Morpheus asks Neo: “What is real? How do you define real?” He is echoing Platonic thought. Further he tells Neo: “No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” This definitely is in direct relationship to Plato’s views on the inability of language to convey truth or to free people from mental bondage.
Thus it is easy to see that Plato’s rather simple Allegory of the Cave continues to be reinterpreted and relevant to present day. Whether or not a person agrees with Plato’s definition of truth or enlightenment, knowledge of his argument can inform interpretation of art, film, and literature since references to it are still in common and quite popular use.