Allegory of The Cave

from "The Republic"

by Plato

"And now," I said, "let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:

-Behold! human beings housed in an underground cave, which has a long entrance towards the light and as wide as the interior of the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained, so that they cannot move and can only see before them, being prevented by the from turning around their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they see the puppets."

"I see."

"And do you see," I said, "men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? While carrying their burdens, some of them, as you would expect, are talking, others silent."

"You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners."

"Like ourselves," I replied, "for in the first place do you think they have seen anything of themselves, and of one another, except the shadows which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?"

"How could they do so," he asked, "if throughout their lives they were never allowed to move their heads?"

"And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?"

"Yes," he said.

"And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that the things they saw were the real things?"

"Very true."

"And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?"

"No question," he replied.

"To them," I said, "the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images."

"That is certain."

"And now look again, and see what manner they would be released from their bonds, and cured of their error, whether the process would naturally be as follows. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his head around and walk and looks towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him that what he saw before was an illusion; but that now, when he is approaching

nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer

vision, - what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, - will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?"

"Far truer."

"And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision

which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?"

"True," he said.

"And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up that steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities."

"Not all in a moment," he said.

"He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first

he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; and, when he turned to the heavenly bodies and the heaven itself, he would find it easier to gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars at night to see the sun or the light of the sun by day?"


"Last of all he will be able to see the sun, not turning aside to the illusory reflections of him in the water, but gazing directly at him in his own proper place, and contemplating him as he is."


"He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the seasons and the

years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?"

"Clearly," he said, "he would arrive at this conclusion after what he had seen.

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow prisoners, do you suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?"

"Certainly, he would."

"And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were the quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of

hem went before and which followed after and which were together, and who were best able from these observations to divine the future, do you think that he would be eager for such honors and glories, or envy those who attained honor and sovereignty among those men? Would he not say, with Homer, 'better to be a serf, laboring for a landless master,' and to endure anything, rather than to think as they do and live after their manner?"

"Yes," he said, "I think that he would consent to suffer anything rather than live in this miserable manner."


"Imagine once more," I said, "such a one coming down suddenly out of the sunlight, and being replaced in his old seat; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?"

"To be sure," he said.

"And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows, with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not make himself ridiculous? Men would say of him that he had returned from the place above with his eyes ruined; and that it was better not even to think of

ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death."

"No question," he said.

"This entire allegory," I said, "you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the power of the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my surmise, which, at your desire, I have expressed -whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the Idea of Good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; although, when seen, it is inferred of light and of the lord of light in the visible world, and the immediate and supreme source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eyes fixed."

"I agree," he said, "as far as I am able to understand you."

"Moreover," I said, "you must agree once more, and not wonder that those who attain to this vision are unwilling to take any part in human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted."

"Yes, very natural."

"And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, appearing grotesque and ridiculous; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or

in other places, about the images or the shadows of justice, and must strive against some rival about opinions of these things which are entertained by men who have never seen the true justice?"

"Anything but surprising," he replied.

"Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, and, judging that the soul may be affected in the same way, will not give way to foolish laughter when he sees anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he

has a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, this laughter will not be quite so laughable as that which greets the soul which returns from above out of the light into the cave."

"That," he said, "is a very just distinction."

"But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes."

"They undoubtedly say this," he replied.

"Whereas our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as if it were not possible to turn the eye from

darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the Whole soul be turned from the world of becoming to that of being, or in other words, of the good."

"Very true."

"And must there not be some art which will show how the conversion can be effected in the easiest and quickest manner; an art which will not implant the faculty of sight, for that exists already, but will set it straight when it has been turned in the wrong direction, and is looking away from the truth?"

"Yes," he said, "such an art may be presumed."

"And whereas the other so-called virtues of the soul seem to be akin to bodily qualities, for even when they are not originally innate they can be implanted later by habit and exercise, the virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which never loses its power, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, by conversion of another sort, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue -- how eager he is, how dearly his paltry souls sees the way to his end; he is

the reverse of blind, but his keen eye-sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?"

"Very true," he said.

"But what if such natures had been gradually stripped, beginning in childhood, of the leaden weights which sink them in the sea of Becoming, and which, fastened upon the soul through gluttonous indulgence in eating and other such pleasures, forcibly turn its vision downwards if, I say, they had been released from these impediments and turned in the opposite direction, the very same faculty in them would have seen the truth as keenly as they see what their eyes are turned to now."

"Very likely."

"Yes," I said, "and there is another thing which is likely, or rather a necessary inference from what has proceeded, that neither the uneducated and uninformed

of the truth, nor yet those who are suffered to prolong their education without end, will be able ministers of State; not the former, because they have no single aim of duty which is the rule of all their actions, private as well as public; nor the latter, because they will not act at all except upon compulsions, fancying that they are already dwelling apart in the islands of the blest."

"Very true," he replied.

"Then," I said, "the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all, namely, the vision of the good; they must make the ascent which we have described; but when they have ascended and seen enough we

must not allow them to do as they do now."

"What do you mean?"

"They are permitted to remain in the upper world, refusing to descend again among the prisoners in the cave, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not."

"But is this not unjust?," he said. "Ought we to give them a worse life, when they might have a better?"

"You have again forgotten, my friend," I said, "the intention of our law, which does not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest, it seeks

rather to spread happiness over the whole State, and to hold the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making each share with others any benefit which he can confer upon the State; and the law aims at producing such citizens, not that they may be left to please themselves, but that they may serve in binding the State together."

"True," he said. "I had forgotten."

"Observe, Glaucon, that we shall do no wrong to our philosophers but rather make a just demand, when we oblige them to have a care and providence of others; we shall explain to them that in other States, men of their class are not obliged to share in the toils of politics; and this is reasonable, for they grow up spontaneously, against the will of the governments in their several States; and things which grow up of themselves, and are indebted to no one for their nurture, cannot fairly be expected to pay dues for a culture which they have never received."

"But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to rejoin his companions, and acquire with them the habit of seeing things in the dark. As you acquire that habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the cave, and you will know what the several images are and what they

represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their. truth. "

"And thus our State, which is also yours, will be a reality and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good."

"Whereas the truth is that the State in which those who are to govern have least ambition to do so is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst."

"Quite true," he replied.

"And will our pupils, when they hear this, refuse to take their turn at the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light?"

"Impossible," he answered; "for they are just men, and the commands which we impose upon them are just. But there can be no doubt that every one of them will take office as a stem necessity, contrary to the spirit of our present rulers of State."

"Yes, my friend", I said. "and there lies the point. You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas if men who are destitute and starved of such personal goods go to the administration of public affairs, thinking to enrich themselves at the public expense, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State."

"Most true," he replied.

"And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. "

"Do you know of any other?"

"Indeed, I do not," he said. "And those who govern should not make love to their employment? For, if they do there will be rival lovers, and they will fight."

"No question."

"Whom, then, will you compel to become guardians of the State? Surely those who excel in judgment of the means by which a State is administered, and who at the same time have other honors and another and a better life than that of politics?"