PLATO'S ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE
(FROM PLATO'S "REPUBLIC", BOOK VII, 514a-c to 521a-e)
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is
enlightened or unenlightened : -- "Behold ! , human beings living in a
underground den, which has a mouth open towards
the light and reaching all along the den. 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 chains from
turning round 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 show the puppets."
"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 ? Some of them are talking, others silent."
"You have shown me a strange image, and they are
"Like ourselves", I replied. "And they see only their own shadows,
or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite
wall of the cave ?"
"True", he said. "How could they see anything but the shadows if 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 they were naming what was actually before them ?"
"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 will naturally follow if the prisoners
are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of
them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round
and walk and look 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 ?"
"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 and take 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
"True", he said.
"And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and
rugged ascent, and held fast until he's 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; then he will gaze upon the light of the
moon and the stars and the spangled heaven. And he will see the sky and the
stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day ?"
"Last of he will be able to see the sun, and
not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own
proper place, and not in another, and he will contemplate him as he is".
"He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and
the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the
visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which
he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold ?"
"Clearly", he said, "he would first see the sun and then reason about
"And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and
his fellow-prisoners, do you not 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 quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark
which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were
together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the
future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy
the possessors of them ? Would he not say with Homer :"
"Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner ?".
"Yes", he said, "I think that he would rather suffer anything than
entertain these false notions and live in this miserable
"Imagine once more", I said, "such an one coming suddenly out of the sun
to be replaced in his old situation; 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 den, 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 be ridiculous ?
Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and
that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one
tried to loose another and lead him up 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 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 poor belief, 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; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the
universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of
the lord of light in this visible world, and the
immediate source of reason
and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who
would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye
"I agree", he said, "as far as I am able to understand you".
"Moreover", I said, "you must not wonder that those who attain to this
beatific vision are unwilling to descend to 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
"Yes, very natural".
"And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine
contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a
ridiculous manner; 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 images
of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have
never yet seen absolute justice ?"
"Anything but surprising", he replied.
"Any one 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, which is true of the mind's
eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he
sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to
laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the
brighter light, 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, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh
which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den".
"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 the eye was unable to turn
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 into that of being, or in
other words, of the good".
"And must there not be some art which will effect conversion in the
easiest and quickest manner; not implanting the faculty of sight,
for that exists already, but 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 always remains, and by this
conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other hand, hurtful
and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing
from the keen eye of a clever rogue ? -- how eager he is,
how clearly his paltry soul 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 there had been a circumcision of such natures in the
days of their youth; and they had been severed from those sensual
pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were
attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the
vision of their souls upon the things that are below -- 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".
"Yes", I said; "and there is another thing which is likely, or rather a
necessary inference from what has preceded, that neither the uneducated and
uninformed of the truth, nor yet those who never make and end of their
education, 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 compulsion, 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 -- they must continue to ascend until they
arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not
allow them to do as they do now".
"What do you mean ?"
"I mean that they remain in the upper world : but this must not be
allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the
den, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth
having or not".
"But is not this unjust ? he said; ought we give them a worse life, when
they might have a better ?"
"You have again forgotten, my friend", I said, "the intention of the
legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above
the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the
citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the
State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he
created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in
binding up the State".
"True", he said, "I had forgotten".
"Observe, Glaucon, that there will be no injustice in compelling our philosophers 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 at their own sweet will, and the government would rather not have them. Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude 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 the general
underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have
acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the
inhabitants of the den, 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 the rulers are most reluctant
to govern 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; there can be no doubt that every one of them
will take office as a stern necessity, and not after the fashion 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 silver and gold, but in
virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas if
they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after
their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the
chief good, 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 ought not to be lovers of the task ? For, if they
are, there will be rival lovers, and they will fight".
"Who then are those whom we shall compel to be guardians ? Surely
they will be the men who are wisest about affairs of State, and by whom the
State is best administered, and who at the same time have other honors and
another and a better life than that of politics ?"
"They are the men, and I will choose them", he replied.
NOTE : There is an on-line version of this text also available at
http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/rep29.htm, where you'll find the rest
of Plato's works.
"The allegory of the alien"
(an illustrated allegory presenting an in-depth analysis of the alien intervention on Earth, including the alien technique of human mimicry used by aliens living on Earth masquerading as humans to operate inside the "visible world").