A Summary and Analysis of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Perhaps the most famous idea in all of Plato’s work is the Allegory of the Cave. This much-discussed (and much-misunderstood) story is a key part of Plato’s Republic, a work which has the claim to be the first ever literary utopia.

In The Republic, Plato and a number of other philosophers discuss the ideal society, focusing on education, political leadership, and the role and responsibility of the individual within society.

The Allegory of the Cave represents a number of the core ideas of Plato’s thinking in one short, accessible parable. But what is the meaning of this allegory? Before we offer an analysis of Plato’s idea, here’s a summary of what he says about it in The Republic.

Allegory of the Cave: summary

One of the key ideas on Plato’s Republic is his theory of forms, where ‘forms’ means much the same as ‘ideas’. And the Allegory of the Cave represents Plato’s approach to ideas.

We are invited to imagine a group of people sitting in an underground cave, facing the walls. They are chained up and they cannot move their heads. Behind them, a fire is forever burning, and its flames cast shadows onto the cave walls.

Between the fire and the cave walls, there is a road, and people walk along this road, carrying various objects: models of animals made of stone and wood, human statuettes, and other things. The people who walk along the road, and the objects they carry, cast shadows on the cave walls.

The people who are chained in the cave and facing the wall can only see the shadows of the people (and the objects they carry): never the actual people and objects walking past behind them. To the people chained up in the cave, these shadows appear to be reality, because they don’t know any better.

Reality, to these people chained in the cave, is only ever a copy of a copy: the shadows of the original forms which themselves remain beyond our view.

But someone comes and unchains the people in the cave. Now they’re free. Let’s say that one of them is set free and encouraged to look towards the fire behind him and his fellow cave-dwellers. He can now see that the things he took for reality until now were merely shadows on the wall.

But this knowledge isn’t, at first, a good thing. The revelation is almost overwhelming. The light of the fire hurts his eyes, and when he is dragged up the slope that leads out of the cave, and he sees the sun outside, and is overwhelmed by its light.

In time, however, he comes to accept that the sun is the true source of light in the world, the cause of the seasons and the annual cycle of things. And he would come to feel sorry for those who remain behind in the cave and are content to believe that the shadows on the cave wall are reality. Indeed, the people who remain behind in the cave believe he wasted his time in going outside and simply ruined his eyes for nothing.

But the man who has been outside knows there is no going back to his old beliefs: his perception of the world has changed forever. He cannot rejoin those prisoners who sit and watch the shadows on the wall. They, for their part, would resist his attempts to free them, and would sooner killer him than be led out of the cave, as he was.

And so if the man who has seen the sun returns to the cave, his eyes will take time to adjust back to the darkness of the cave and to the shadows on the wall. He will now be at a disadvantage to his fellow cave-dwellers, who have never left the cave and seen the light.

Allegory of the Cave: analysis

An allegory is a story that has a double meaning: as The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory puts it, an allegory has a primary or surface meaning, but it also has a secondary or under-the-surface meaning. This is certainly true of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. But what is its secondary meaning?

Although The Republic is classified as a work of philosophy, it is structured more like a dialogue or even a play (though not a dramatic one), in that it takes the form of a conversation between several philosophers: Socrates, Glaucon, Plato himself, and a number of other figures are all ‘characters’ in the Republic.

The Allegory of the Cave, as Plato’s comments indicate, is about the philosopher seeing beyond the material world and into the ‘intelligible’ one. The symbolism of the cave being underground is significant, for the philosopher’s journey is upwards towards higher things, including the sun: a symbol for the divine, but also for truth (those two things are often conflated in religions: Jesus, for example, referred to himself as ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ in John 14:6).

Plato insists, however, that the philosopher has a duty to return to the material world, to the world of the cave and its inhabitants (or prisoners), and to try to open their eyes to the truth. It is no good leaving the cave behind. The philosopher must return down into the cave and face ridicule or even persecution for what he has to say: he has to be prepared for the unpleasant fact that most people, contented with their mental ‘chains’ and their limited view of the world, will actively turn on anyone who challenges their beliefs, no matter how wrong those beliefs are.


People come to love their chains, and being shown that everything you’ve believed is a lie will prove too much (as Plato acknowledges) for many people, and even, initially, for the philosopher. (It is curious how prophetic Plato was: his teacher and friend Socrates would indeed be ridiculed by Aristophanes in his play The Clouds, and later he would be put on trial, and sentenced to death, for his teachings.)

In other words, those people who have seen the ideal world, have a responsibility to educate those in the material world rather than keep their knowledge to themselves. So we can see how Plato’s Allegory of the Cave relates not only to the core ideas of The Republic, but also to Plato’s philosophy more broadly.

There are several further details to note about the symbolism present in the allegory. One detail which is often overlooked, but which is important to note, is the significance of those objects which the people on the road are carrying: they are, Plato tells us, human statuettes or animal models carved from wood or stone.

Why is this significant? These objects cast their shadows on the walls of the cave, and the people chained in the cave mistake the shadows for the real objects, because they don’t know anything different. But the objects themselves are copies of things rather than the original things themselves: statues of humans rather than real humans, and models of animals rather than the real thing.

So, as Robin Waterfield notes in his excellent notes to his translation of Plato’s Republic, the objects are ‘effigies’ of real things, or reflections of types. This means that the shadows on the wall are reflections of reflections of types, therefore. So (as Waterfield puts it) the shadows on the wall might represent, say, a kind of moral action, while the objects/statues/effigies themselves are a person’s thoughts on morality.

When these thoughts are observed in the material world (i.e., on the cave wall), we are observing a moral action somebody has taken, which is a reflection of some moral code or belief (the effigy that cast the shadow).

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