8 julio, 2024

Myth of the cave: what it is, summary, analysis, main ideas

What is the myth of the cave?

He cave myth, also known as the allegory of the cave, is the creation of the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC), an Athenian thinker, disciple of Socrates and author of one of the most famous allegories in the history of philosophy. Plato wrote all of his works in the form of dialogues, almost always with Socrates as the main character, and in which he dealt with themes such as love, ethics, virtue, politics, knowledge, etc.

It was in one of these dialogues, the Republicwhere Plato put on the lips of Socrates, talking with a brother of Plato, Glaucon, the myth of the cave as a way of explaining his theory of knowledge.

The myth of the cave has been the object of multiple analyzes and interpretations for more than two thousand years by theologians, philosophers, poets, narrators (there is a novel by the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, rightly titled The cavern).

It should be noted that although it has remained for posterity as a «myth» (a timeless and anonymous belief, belonging to a culture), it is actually an allegory: the representation of an idea through a story or story.

Summary of the cave myth

A group of men have been locked up since they were children in a cave; there they are chained in such a way that they can only see in one direction: towards a wall where a light coming from outside is reflected, from somewhere outside the cavern.

The shadows of objects and people that pass in front of the outside light are reflected on the wall, which the chained beings mistake for real entities: they believe that the shadows are the true figures, and not their reflection.

One of the prisoners manages to free himself and walks, dazzled by the light, towards the exit of the cavern. Outside he contemplates the objects and beings that produce the shadows, but the daylight prevents him from seeing them directly, only reflected in the water (as if it were a mirror).

When he manages to look directly at them, he understands that these are the real beings and objects, and not the shadows that he saw when he was chained. He also understands that the sun is the main benefactor of human beings and of all life.

So he decides to go back inside the cavern to tell the others what he has discovered. Entering he walks clumsily due to the darkness; he goes to where his companions are and tries to explain to them what he has seen outside.

Because of his clumsiness when walking, and because of his difficulty in explaining what he has seen outside, the captives doubt the words of the free man, and even come to believe that it might be dangerous to try to get out.

The prisoners laugh and mock his story, even trying to kill him when he tries to free them from their chains. They would rather remain as they are than make the effort to free themselves from the chains and get out of the cave.

Analysis and explanation

In the RepublicPlato, through Socrates, provides a first interpretation of this myth, and explains each aspect of the story as follows:

The cavern

It is the sensible world, the reality in which we move daily. The shadows that move on the wall is the information that we receive through the senses (sight, hearing, etc.).

The light

It is what allows us to know the world, it comes from the sun, but when the light arrives indirectly, as on the wall, it can be misleading. The sun would also be the idea of ​​good, to which every human being should aspire.

The relationship with light in myth is like our relationship with knowledge: too much light blinds the prisoner, so he must look for an indirect way of observing things (through its reflection in the water), until he gets used to it and can see directly.

the released prisoner

The liberated prisoner would be the soul, which rises towards the light, towards knowledge. He would also be the philosopher trying to reveal the truth to others.

The outside

It would be the world of ideas, the reality beyond our reality. In myth, the path to the exit is difficult, to point out that the search for true knowledge is almost never easy, and requires more effort than remaining ignorant.

The prisoners

The prisoners would be the human race, trapped in the world of the senses; public opinion and common sense, which is only governed by what you can see. The chains that keep you looking in one direction represent prejudices and false beliefs.

Main ideas of the allegory

This Platonic allegory has been approached from various perspectives, due to its wealth of ideas and suggestions.

ways of knowing

Exposing his ideas about what would be the two forms of knowledge would have been Plato’s main motive: the knowledge provided by the senses and the knowledge provided by the soul or spirit, through intelligence and science.

Human nature

In this myth, Plato presents his vision of the human being, divided into body and soul. The myth also serves to show his perception of the human race, trapped in ignorance and ignorance, and with fear and hatred towards those who try to educate them.

In myth, the path outwards, towards enlightenment and knowledge, is fraught with difficulties; you must fight against personal blindness and then try to transmit that information to a humanity that does not want to free itself from its chains.

The sensible world as illusion

In the myth the world contemplated by the prisoners is not a real world, but shadows and reflections of a higher world that we cannot perceive with our usual senses. The real world would be the world of ideas, the world outside the cave, where real objects and beings are, illuminated by the sun.

This idea, that of the sensible world as an illusion, and the existence of a superior and true world, is one of the bases of idealist philosophy.

Another way of interpreting it is that for Plato the shadows and silhouettes of the cave would be part of the world of the imagination, while the view outside would be a form of scientific knowledge.

materialism and idealism

Another reason for the importance of the myth of the cave is that it exposes two ways of seeing and knowing: the materialist, through the senses and experience; and the idealist, through intelligence and spirit.

The myth of the cave and education

The liberated man is the philosopher, who by accessing knowledge also acquires the obligation to return to the prisoners, those who do not know the truth, and instruct them, even though they cling to ignorance and it may even be dangerous.

As in the ascent from the bottom of the cave towards the light, the path of knowledge is full of obstacles, and at first the truth can blind us, so we have to find ways to approach it indirectly.

We have to educate ourselves to access knowledge, and also train ourselves to be able to transmit it, assuming the risk of not being understood, as happens with the free prisoner when he returns to his companions at the bottom of the cave.

The released prisoner represents the educator, who must guide the students, the chained prisoners, towards the higher levels of knowledge, and towards the light of the highest good.

The myth as political allegory

The fact that this myth is part of the Republicone of Plato’s political dialogues, allows an approach from this field, especially if we consider that for this philosopher, citizens had the moral obligation and political duty to educate themselves.

The prisoners would become the people, and the prisoner who is released, the leader (who is also a philosopher), destined to educate and lead the community towards a better world. It should not be forgotten that in this dialogue Plato proposed the idea of ​​the philosopher king.

Theory (true and sensible knowledge)

With the myth of the cave, Plato exposed his theory of how we acquire knowledge, and how we can access the truth. In the story, the prisoners observe the shadows, a partial knowledge provided by the senses and which they identify with opinion.

The prisoner, freed from his ties, is equivalent to the soul that, through intelligence and science, can access the world of ideas, true knowledge. There is a sensible world, that of the cave, and there is an intelligible world, the one illuminated by the sun.

Both worlds are real, both forms of knowledge are true, but only with the second one can access the idea of ​​good, which in myth is represented by the figure of the sun.

For Plato, the first form of knowledge, that of the sensible world, is what we express through opinion, knowledge that may contain errors because it is based on superficial and partial information (shadows on the cave wall).

The second form of knowledge, the direct vision of beings and objects outside the cave, is accessed thanks to science and intelligence. These tools, in addition to allowing us to observe objects as they really are, lead us to the idea of ​​good.


Plato (1982). Republic. Taken from philosophy.net.
Arias, M. (2007). The myth of the myth of the cave. Regarding Saramago and the myth of Plato’s cave. Taken from academia.edu.
Zamosc, G. (2015). The Political Significance of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Taken from dialnet.uirioja.es.
Plato (2020). Taken from es.wikipedia.org.

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