Plato’s allegory of the cave and his political views

Iris asked:

Use the allegory of the cave to illustrate Plates political views. In doing so, you should b) explain how the theory of forms supports Plato’s favoured form of Aristocracy (to begin with, recall the relation between individual men and the Form of man) and c) explain how the theory of Forms grounds his criticism and rejection of democracy (where in the cave are the Athenian democrats? where are they on the divided line?).

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Cave

People in the cave are secured so they cannot move their heads. This ensures they continuously look at the cave wall upon which, shadows move and pass. Shadows are cast from actual statuettes carried by other persons as they walk in front of a fire. If one of the shackled cave occupants were set free, s/he would be able to observe the whole spectacle of the fire, the statuettes and the shadows upon the cave wall. Looking into the fire itself would very well, daze his eyes-their being accustomed to the gloom of the cave. Essentially, he would be bewildered, confused and want to return to the shadows on the cave wall for securely knowing anything as s/he has done habitually.

As such, s/he would have to be ‘forcibly dragged’ out of the cave. Out of the security of the cave and its gloom, s/he would suffer pain and distress and temporarily be blinded by the Sunlight outside. Eventually, s/he would begin to regain the power of sight. Initially, s/he would see only shadows, reflections of people and things. Secondly, s/he would be able to see the people and things -the furniture of the physical world-themselves. Thirdly, s/he would look towards the heavens and see the light of the moon and stars. Finally, s/he would appreciate the Sun and full daytime itself. With the latter, our emancipated friend understands that the Sun is the source of the seasons, the growth of plants and illumination of the world.

With his newly acquired knowledge, the ex-prisoner of the cave would reflect upon the still remaining occupants in the cave and appreciate his new position against his old one. Remembering how the prisoners used to assign credit and prestige to those who could predict and correctly identify the passing shadows on the wall; s/he would now reject such ‘credit and prestige’. S/he fully appreciates that this was not knowledge but the lowest level of ignorance.

If the illuminated ex-prisoner returned to the cave, s/he would not be able to see amidst the gloom. As such, not being able to compete in the prisoners identification of shadows, they would laugh at him, they would be critical of the value of leaving the cave for to the surface and ultimately, if they too were to be forced out of the cave, they would kill those trying to make them [e.g. the fate of Socrates].


The upward journey of the prisoner from the darkness of the cave to the blinding light of wisdom, mirrors the mind’s ascent from the Visible World [To Horaton] to the Intelligible World [To Noeton] of the Forms as described in the ‘Divided Line’. Shadows and illusions on the caves wall represent opinion, conjecture -the lowest section of the Divided Line [D]. As the prisoners predict and identify the shadows passing before them, they act with confidence in the belief that their activity identifies the truth of things. This is the second section of the divided Line [C]. The prisoner might agree with this when s/he sees the statuettes and what is done with them-they are similar to the shadows on the wall.

This is the condition of the average person in the everyday world. How wrong he is.

The truth of things does not lie with the similarities between objects or their representations. Yet s/he will not appreciate this until the cave is exited. The prisoner is ‘forcibly dragged’ out of the cave as at the moment, s/he is a ‘sightseer’-content with impressions from the sense impressions and that this constitutes what it is to ‘know’. After again going through sections D and C on the surface, the ex-prisoner also passes through section B. Here, thought itself begins with the particular objects of the everyday, visible world but becomes its own object of analysis. Maths, Geometry can be said to exist here as does Dialectic. It might also be said that this is where ‘a-priori’ thinking comes into its own. This is where the implicit nature of things is distilled by the thinker until the truth of things is found in the Forms. This brings out knowledge in the thinker [Section A of the Line]. The philosopher knows the Forms. Thus whilst there are many particular acts of justice in the visible world, no-one knows what justice is-in itself save the Philosopher Kings.

Socrates states that the Philosopher would rather stay in the realm of the Forms than deal with the tedious ugliness of the everyday world. Unfortunately in the ideal Republic, Philosophers are educated to discover knowledge so as to rule. Only those with the knowledge of a particular skill can practice it: farmers are to be farmers and philosopher kings, philosopher kings. The alternative to this just state of affairs is illness in the Polis just as if the functions within the body cease to do what they do or do it badly. Plato’s favours Aristocracy not in a ‘class sense’ -that only the Aristocrats as a class should rule; he favours Aristocracy as the those who possess knowledge to rule are the best to rule – the best/Aristos’. Members of the latter can originate in any social strata in the Republic. The education system selects them on their merit and abilities regardless of their social origins.

So knowledge is essential to good governance. Those who do not have it within them to acquire it cannot rule – if justice is to be done. Hence the ‘Athenian democrats’ would belong to section C and D in the Divided Line. They do not possess knowledge, only opinions. They are like the prisoners in the cave, they cannot appreciate the truth of things [the Forms] but only deal with the superficial, mere appearance and relations between objects and not, the Truth those particular objects partake of/in. Perhaps the democrats are the ones who carry the statuettes in front of the fire. Thereby they create the shadows, the reflections of things on the cave wall. This gives the impression of ‘reality’, of what is real to the prisoners and, they seem content to accept this insofar as they compete with each other to guess which image is coming next. Gratification through untruth is preferred to the Truth. Anyone who disrupts this with talk of the ‘Truth’ is regarded as a disruptive nuisance and like Socrates, runs the risk of being executed.


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