Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Background Info: Socrates was a Greek philosopher famous for the way he taught his students about
philosophy. He used a method called “Socratic dialogue,” meaning that he made his students realize their
beliefs by asking them many questions and then examining the answers. This method was derived from
Socrates’ fundamental idea that a teacher did not give a student knowledge, rather the teacher only needed to
make a student realize the knowledge that he or she already possessed, and that virtue (goodness) was equal
to knowledge of one's true self.
Plato became a philosopher through his study with Socrates. Plato is also the reason that people today know
so much about Socrates. Socrates did not write down his own ideas, but Plato did write them down as a
series of dialogues (conversations) between Socrates and other people. One of the most famous of these
dialogues is The Republic, which contains the “Allegory of the Cave,” a conversation between Socrates and a
man name Glaucon.
Next, said I (Socrates), here is a parable to illustrate the degrees in which our nature might be
enlightened or unenlightened. Imagine the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber
underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been
since childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can only see what is
in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads. At some distance higher up is the light
of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track1 with a parapet built along it,
like the screen at a puppet show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top.
I see, said Glaucon.
Now behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures
of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Naturally, some of
these persons will be talking, others silent.2
It is a strange picture, Glaucon said, and a strange sort of prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; for in the first place prisoners so confined would have seen nothing of
themselves or of one another, except the shadows thrown by the firelight on the wall of the Cave facing
them, would they?
Not if all their lives they had been prevented from moving their heads.
And they would have seen as little of the objects carried past.
Now, if they could talk to one another, would they not suppose that their words referred only to those
passing shadows which they saw?
And suppose their prison had an echo from the wall facing them? When one of the people crossing
behind them spoke, they could only suppose that the sound came from the shadow passing before their eyes.
In every way, then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those
Now consider what would happen if their release from the chains and the healing of their unwisdom
should come about in this way. Suppose one of the prisoners was set free and forced suddenly to stand up,
turn his head, and walk with eyes lifted to the light; all these movements would be painful, and he would be
too dazzled to see the objects whose shadows he had been used to seeing. What do you think he would say,
if someone told him what he had formerly seen was meaningless illusion, but now, being somewhat nearer to
reality and turned towards more real objects, he was getting a truer view? Suppose further that he were
shown the various objects being carried by and were made to say, in reply to questions, what each of them
was. Would he not be perplexed and believe the objects now shown to him to be not as real as what he
Yes, not nearly so real.
And if he were forced to look at the fire-light itself, would not his eyes ache, so that he would try to
escape and turn back to the things which he could see distinctly, convinced that they really were clearer than
these other objects now being shown to him?
And suppose someone were to drag him away forcibly up the steep and rugged ascent and not let him
go until he had hauled him out into the sunlight, would he not suffer pain and vexation at such treatment,
and, when he had come out into the light, find his eyes so full of radiance that he could not see a single one
of the things that he was now told were real?
Certainly he would not see them all at once.
He would need, then, to grow accustomed before he could see things in the upper world. At first, it
would be easiest to make out shadows, and then the images of men and things reflected in water, and later on
the things themselves. After that, it would be easier to watch the heavenly bodies and the sky itself by night,
looking at the light of the moon and stars rather than the Sun and the Sun’s light in the day time.
Last of all, he would be able to look at the Sun and contemplate its nature, not as it appears when
reflected in water or any alien medium, but as it is in itself in its own domain.
And now he would begin to draw the conclusion that it is the Sun that produces the seasons and the
course of the year and controls everything in the visible world, and moreover is, in a way, the cause of all
that he and his companions used to see.
Clearly he would come at last to that conclusion.
Then, if he called to mind his fellow prisoners and what passed for wisdom in his former dwellingplace, he would surely think himself happy in the change and be sorry for them. They may have had a
practice of honoring and commending one another, with prizes for the man who had the keenest eye for the
passing shadows and the best memory for the order in which they followed or accompanied one another, so
that he could make a good guess as to which was going to come next. Would our released prisoner be likely
to covet those prizes or to envy the men exalted to honor and power in the Cave? Would he not feel like
Homer’s Achilles, that he would far sooner ‘be on earth as a hired servant in the house of a landless man’ or
endure anything rather than go back to his old beliefs and live in the old way?
Yes, he would prefer any fate to such a life.
Now, imagine what would happen if he went down again to take his former seat in the Cave. Coming
suddenly out of the sunlight, his eyes would be filled with darkness. he might be required once more to
deliver his opinion on those shadows, in competition with the prisoners who had never been released, while
his eyesight was still dim and unsteady; and it might take some time to become used to the darkness. They
would laugh at him and say that he had gone up only to come back with his eyesight ruined; it was worth no
one’s while even to attempt the ascent. If they could lay hands on the man who was trying to set them free
and lead them up, they would kill him.
Yes, they would.
1. The track crosses the passage into the cave at right angles, and is above the parapet built along it.
2. A modern Plato would compare his Cave to an underground cinema, where the audience watch the play of
shadows thrown by the film passing before a light at their backs. The film itself is only an image of “real” things
and the events in the world outside the cinema. For the film Plato has to substitute the clumsier apparatus of a
procession of artificial objects carried by persons who are merely part of the machinery, providing for the
movement of the objects and the sounds whose echoes the prisoners hear. The parapet prevents these person’s
shadows from being cast on the wall of the Cave.
Paragraph 1: What is Plato's larger argument in "Allegory of the Cave"? How might the cave metaphor
relate to the ways that gender is represented in the culture of the annual New York Toy Fair?
Paragraph 2: Peggy Orenstein's essay gives us a first-hand account of someone who has "left the cave"
of the girlie girl culture. What does Orenstein's tour through the New York toy festival tell us about
how toy company use our "shadows" for profit? What do you make of her comments about the
emergence of the doll toy (at the turn of the century) and Barbie (in the 60s)? How do these two
events relate to the larger tensions around femininity and marketing that shape contemporary toy
culture? As you discuss this tension, please feel free to comment on any of Orenstein's other insights
into the history of gender and/or the gendered world of toy marketing that surprised you.
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