The Allegory of the Cave
(Book VII, 514a-515a)
Η Αλληγορία της σπηλιάς.
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And now, Glaucon, let us examine our nature regarding our education and the lack of it1 and let us do so by imagining this: people living in a place, very similar to a cave beneath the surface of the earth. Its entrance is pointed towards the light and it stretches the full length of the cave. These people have been there since childhood, chained at the neck and around the wrists (515b) in such a manner that they are forced to seat in this one single position unable to turn their heads in any direction, able only to look straight ahead.
A light comes to them from a fire burning quite a distance behind them and from a higher level.
Between these prisoners and the fire there is a path that leads up towards the surface of the earth and alongside it is a small wall, a parapet, much like those which the puppeteers build in front of their audiences from which they operate their puppets.
“Yes, I can see all that, Socrates,” said Glaucon.
Imagine also, I said, that along the length of this small parapet, there are other, free people walking back and forth, carrying all sorts of objects on their shoulders the height of which reaches above the top of the wall, objects such as statues and figures of various animals, made of wood or stone or from all sorts of other materials (515c). Naturally some of these people would be talking among themselves while others would be walking silently.
“It’s an odd image you’re describing to me, Socrates with these oddly chained people,” said Glaucon.
Just like us, I said. And you must also imagine that these chained people have seen nothing their whole lives other than those shadows on the wall in front of them, shadows which have been made by the fire behind them.
“How could they see anything else,” asked Glaucon “if they have not been able to move their heads all their life?”
And so, other than the shadows of those articles that are being moved back and forth by the free people, would they be able to see anything else? I asked.
“Of course not,” he said.
And if they were able to speak among themselves would you not think that they would be convinced that the names they gave to the shadows of these various objects were the actual names of those objects?
And further Glaucon, if the voices of those carrying the objects echoed across the cave and bounced off the wall in front of the prisoners, would they not also be convinced that those voices were the actual voices of the shadows?
So, I said, so far as these prisoners were concerned there would be no other truth than that which has emanated from those shadows.
Think then, Glaucon, what would happen if these prisoners were suddenly released from their chains and were cured of their misconceptions and ignorance.
The moment one of them was released, he would suddenly get up from his seat and turn his head about, a deed that he could only accomplish now with great pain. Then he would look up towards the light, (515d) a deed which would, due to its brightness, would hurt his eyes and his sight would be too weak to discern the real objects which up until that moment he saw only as shadows.
What do you think he would say if someone had told him that what he was seeing before was mere nonsense and that now he is seeing the actual things themselves?
(515e) And then, if fact he was shown each thing that went by them and was asked to name it, would he not be mystified by it and would he not believe that what he was seeing earlier was the truer of the two things?
And finally, I said, (516a) if someone forcefully removed him from that cave and led him up a rough and steep road all the way to where the light of the sun shone, would he not suffer terribly and would he not protest all the way up that path? And when he reached the sunlight and the glare hurt his eyes would he be able to see even one of the things we call real?
“Of course not.”
He would, of course, first need to adapt himself to the light before he is able to see clearly all that is up there.
In the beginning it would be easier for him to look at the shadows, then at the reflections of people and of other things on the surface of the water and later on directly at the things themselves. (516b)
After that he would be able to also look up at the sky. Of course, it would be first easier for him to gaze at the night sky by the light of the moon and the stars before he would be able to gaze at the day’s sky with the light of the sun.
“But of course.”
Finally, Glaucon, I would imagine, he could look directly at the sun, not only its reflection on the surface of the water or its shadows elsewhere but at the sun itself, in the sky where it is and examine what sort of thing it is.
“Yes, he would.”
Then he would consider the fact that it is the sun which created the seasons and the years and which managed and (516c) presided over the whole visible world and that it is the sun which was the cause of everything they saw.
“Obviously,” Glaucon said, “this is the only conclusion he would slowly come to.”
So then, when this man thought about his first home, the cave and the erroneous thinking that he and his fellow prisoners had down there, do you not think that he would feel himself blessed for his change of thinking and feel pity his friends below?
And if his friends gave out praises and honours to those with the best sight and the greatest ability to name whatever object passed before them or to remember which object usually preceded and which followed them (516d) and which of them came in groups and to guess better than all the others which object would appear next; what do you think would be his view about all that?
Do you think he would be eager to join them again and that he’d be envious of those who had earned the praises and the power over others or would he not think as Homer has Achilles think, that he’d much prefer to be living in the world above, even as a slave to a poor man and suffer whatever he had to than to believe what his friends believed and to live as they do below the earth?
(516e) “Yes,” said Glaucon, “I believe he’d rather endure the suffering of those living under the sun than to live like his friends in the darkness.”
Now think also of this, I said. If someone like this man had returned to his old seat in the cave, would not his eyes be overwhelmed by the darkness, having suddenly come from the light of the sun?
“Of course,” answered Glaucon.
And if he wanted to join in the games of shadows played by those men imprisoned below the earth for life, before his eyes had time to orientate themselves to the darkness, (517a) something which would take a fairly long time, would these men not ridicule him and would they not say that he had returned from the place above with damaged eyes? Would they also not say that it is not worth for anyone to even try to go up there and, as well, that if anyone tried to undo their chains and forcefully take them up there, they would, if they could by some method or other, catch him and kill him?
“Definitely,” agreed Glaucon.
Now, my friend Glaucon, we must join this whole scenario, to those things we were talking about earlier (517b) and to compare this world of ours which we can see with our eyes, with that world of the cave, and the light from the fire which is down there with the power of the light of the sun here with us.
And, further, if you accept that the prisoner who had come up here and saw all the things he did see, represents the ascension of the soul from the world of mere sight to the world of the mind and of intelligence, you wouldn’t be too far from my own belief, which I’ve just put to you because you’ve asked me to do so, though god only knows if I did that correctly.
(517c) In any case, rightly or wrongly, this is how these things appear to me: when it comes to the idea of the good2, it is the last idea to appear in the intelligible world of the soul3 and it does so with great difficulty. The moment however, one sees it he would not fail to conclude that it this idea which is the cause of all the good and the beautiful in the world generally.
That it is this idea of the good that has given birth to the light in the world of sight and its very master, which is also the source of truth and thought in the world of the mind and that it is to this idea -the idea of the good- that one must turn if he wants to live wisely both in his private as well as in his public life.
“I concur,” said Glaucon, “at least so far as I can.”
In that case come and agree with me also with this and don’t be surprised if those who have reached this stage of enlightenment don’t want to do as other people do because their souls wish to live up there for ever, something (517d) which, I suggest, is quite natural that this is so, if the picture we’ve drawn so far is correct.
“Of course, it is only natural,” said Glaucon.
In that case, Glaucon, I said, would you find it strange if someone, after seeing all that godly vision4 behaved most awkwardly and ridiculously when he came into contact with such human baseness? This would happen because, before his eyes became properly accustomed to the darkness of that world it would have been much diminished and so he would be forced to enter into fierce legal battles and suchlike regarding the images and the shadows of justice, (517e) against people who have never known true justice but fight.
“I see nothing strange in this,” he said.
(518a) And anyone with a little sense, I continued would be able to figure out that the confusion of the eyes comes in two ways: one when one is coming out of the darkness and into the light and the other when he does the opposite. He must therefore accept that the same thing happens with the soul and when he sees a soul being perplexed and unable to understand something, he ought not to laugh senselessly but he should try to work out which of the two things is happening. Is this soul perplexed because it has just come from brighter life and is now unaccustomed to the darkness or, to the contrary, (518b) is it moving from a life of overwhelming ignorance to one that is glaringly bright.
And so he will think the one of these states to be a happy one and the other a sad one and if he wishes to laugh at either of these states then it would be more logical to laugh at the soul that comes from below than that which comes from above.
“Quite logical,” he said.
Well then, I continued, if all this is true, we must also accept that education is not what certain educators5 would have us believe when they (518c) say that the soul is bereft of knowledge until they, themselves place it there, as if it were sight which they can place into the eyes of the blind.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s what they assert.”
Which is quite the opposite of what we have just discovered, Glaucon, which is that everyone has in his soul the capacity to learn and the necessary organ6 to do so. And that it is also true that just as the eyes cannot turn from darkness into light unless the whole body turns with them, nor can this organ that makes it possible for everyone to gain knowledge, work unless we turn the whole soul away from the place of becoming to that of being, until its own eyes, the eyes of that organ, can adjust to and tolerate reality and that divine splendour that we call the good. (518d) Is this not so?
“It is,” Glaucon agreed.
One may suspect then that there is an art7 which deals with accomplishing this transition of the soul in the easiest and most effective way8 which not to put sight into the soul’s eye since it already has this, but to direct9 its focus from where it is to where it should be.
“Quite so,” he said.