allegory \ˈa-lə-ˌgȯr-ē\ noun.
: a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation
(Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, m-w.com)
In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato attempts to illustrate that humankind is unable to attain enlightenment or a complete understanding of his own Theory of the Forms. He does this describing a cave in which prisoners are shackled in place and forced to stare at a wall for their entire lives. On the wall, they see shadows of actual things. Since the prisoners have never seen the actual things, they believe the shadows are the real objects. They have only ever perceived shadows, so that is all they understand.
Behind the prisoners are shadow casters. These people hold the real objects and create the shadows which deceive the imprisoned. The prisoners in this allegory represent the common person, the whole of humankind and—according to Plato, at least—our inability to comprehend the truth.
Here is a dramatization of the cave from the film “After the Dark.”
Plato was trying to accomplish and communicate the following:
- The difference between appearance and reality
- The beginning of the Theory of the Forms
Key Terms (as Defined by Plato)
- Appearance: That which our senses present us. Our perception of things.
- Reality: Pure objects, concepts exclusive of perception.
- Enlightenment: Complete understanding and knowledge of reality.
The Allegory in Short
- Men (humankind) are prisoners, shackled and forced to stare at a wall
- Behind the men is a fire
- Behind the fire are other men, puppets, and objects
- The fire casts a shadow of those men, puppets, and objects on to the wall
- The prisoners believe the shadows are reality
- Breaking lose from the shackles and looking beyond the fire enables us to see true reality
The Allegory in Reverse
We can have a lot of fun with technology and the Allegory. When we use social media, we tend to only present the very best views of ourselves. From Instagram filters to Facebook bragging, we share only that which makes us look good, thus becoming the puppeteers and holding our followers in shackles.
Read the Allegory of the Cave in full.