Unit 2: Metaphysics

An Introduction to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”

Heather Wilburn, Ph.D

Plato’s Objective: illustrate the effects of education, or lack thereof, on the soul (i.e. psyche)

Part I: Two preliminary questions to start:

  • What is an allegory and how are allegories useful?
  • The aim of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is to illustrate the effects of education on the soul. What does Plato mean by education in this allegory?


Part II: The Allegory (broken into 5 sections):

Section 1 Inside the Cave & Shackled:

  • Prisoners shackled and only able to look straight ahead at the cave wall.
  • There is a fire and a wall behind them and people are carrying puppets just above the wall to project shadows on the cave wall in front of the prisoners.
  • Prisoners have never experienced anything other than the shadows.
  • Prisoners play games by attempting to identify the shadows and make predictions about which shadow will appear next. They are honored with praise and rewards.

Consider the following:

  • Is there anything about the allegory that resembles your own education?
  • What do the shadows, the puppets and statues, and the puppet masters represent in Plato’s allegory?
  • What types of rewards and praises have you or others received that would be analogous to what Plato has in mind here?


Section 2 Inside the Cave and Physically Free:

  • A prisoner is freed and painfully turns around to be blinded by the light of the fire.
  • Even once the prisoner’s eyes adjust and she is shown the puppets, she prefers the shadows.

Consider the following:

  • What does the fire represent in the allegory and why is experiencing the fire so painful?
  • Have you ever experienced a painful transformation like the freed prisoner?


Section 3 Exiting the Cave:

  • The prisoner is dragged outside of the cave.
  • This is a painful experience and she is angry because she is being forced to turn away from everything she has ever known.
  • She is also blinded again, this time by the light of the sun.
  • As she adjusts to the world outside the cave, she at first would only be able to see shadows, then physical objects, and eventually comes to contemplate the stars and moon.

Consider the following:

  • How should we think about the cognitive or intellectual transformation the prisoner has undergone?


Section 4 The Sun:

  • Over time the prisoner will adjust her vision and be capable of viewing the sun as an object of contemplation.
  • She would come to understand that the sun is responsible for the seasons and for all things that we see and know.
  • Finally, the prisoner feels grateful for the transformation that she has undergone and comes to pity those still shackled.

Consider the following:

  • What does the sun represent in this allegory?


Section 5 The Return:

  • Moving from sunlight back to the darkness of the cave, the freed prisoner would struggle to see.
  • She would not be very good at their games because of her inability to clearly see.
  • The others would tell her that she had ruined her vision by leaving and ridicule her and tell her she was unable to participate in their games.
  • She tries to free them–to liberate them so they too can be transformed, but they resist and kill her.

Consider the following:

  • Imagine the resistance you might feel if you were the prisoner trying to return as a guide.
  • Plato’s account connects desire to education. How can education be cultivated or thwarted by one’s desires? Which type of desires might be useful for the type of liberation Plato has in mind?

Here’s a video that highlights some important points to consider:



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An Introduction to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" Copyright © 2020 by Heather Wilburn, Ph.D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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