The Allegory of the Cave
From Plato’s Republic (Book VII 514-521a)
[Dialogue between the Teacher (Socrates) and the Student (Glaucon)]
Compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this:
Imagine human beings living in an underground cave, with an entrance high up, which is open to
the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same
place, with their necks and legs chained, able to see only in front of them, because their chains
prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and
behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, is a path stretching between them and the
fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers
above which they show their puppets.
I’m imagining it.
Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of objects that
project above it- statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every
material. As you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking and some are silent.
It’s a strange image you’re describing and strange prisoners.
They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these Prisoners see anything of themselves
and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?
How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?
What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them?
If they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used
applied to the things they see passing before them?
They’d have to.
What if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d
believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers
passing along the wall was talking?
I certainly do.
Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the
shadows of those objects.
They must surely believe that.
Consider then, what it would be like if they were released from their bondage and cured of
their ignorance. When one of them was freed and suddenly forced to stand up, turn his head,
walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be in pain and dazzled and unable to see the things
whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen
before was actually empty, but now, because he is a bit closer and turned toward the real objects,
he sees more correctly? Or to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by,
asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss
and that he’d believe that the shadows he saw earlier were truer than the real objects he was now
If someone coerced him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt and wouldn’t he turn
around and run toward the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re clearer than the new and
unfamiliar ones he’s being shown?
If someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough steep path, and didn’t let him
go until he dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be in pain and irritated at being treated
that way? When he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see
a single one of the things now said to be real?
He would be unable to see them, at least at first.
I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world
above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things as reflected in
water, and finally he would see the actual things themselves. At first, he’d be able to study the
things in the sky and the sky itself at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon more
easily than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.
Finally, I suppose he’d be able to see the sun, not merely images of it reflected in water or
some shadowy place but the sun itself, in its own place and be able to study it.
At this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years,
governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he
It’s clear that would be his next step.
What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place in the cave, his fellow
prisoners, and what was accepted as truth there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself blessed
for his change and he’d pity the others remaining in the darkness?
If there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at
identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier,
which followed later, and which appeared simultaneously, and who could best divine the future,
do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy the prisoners who were honored
and considered powerful? Instead, wouldn’t he feel with Homer that he’d much prefer to “be a
poor servant of a poor master,” and endure sufferings here in the light rather than think as they
think and live as they live in the darkness?
I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that again.
Consider this also. If this man returned to the cave below and sat down in his old seat,
wouldn’t his eyes be unable to focus coming suddenly out of the sun like that?
They certainly would.
Before his eyes had recovered because the adjustment would not be quick, while his vision
was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows,
wouldn’t he be ridiculed by them? Wouldn’t they say that he’d returned from his upward journey
with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? As for anyone
who tried to free them and lead them above, if they could somehow get their hands on him,
wouldn’t they kill that person attempting to free them?
They certainly would.
This whole image, Glaucon, describes what we said before. The visible realm should be
likened to the prison of the cave and the light of the fire inside it to the power of the sun. If you
interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the upward journey of the soul to
the intellectual realm, you’ll grasp what I hope to convey, since that is what you wanted to hear
about. Whether it’s true or not, only God knows. But this is how I see it: In the world of
knowledge, the idea of Good is the last thing to be seen and it is reached only with great effort.
Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and
beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the
intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act
sensibly in private or public must see it.
I have the same thought, at least as far as I’m able to see.
Come then, share with me this thought also: It isn’t surprising that the ones who get to this
point no longer desire to occupy themselves with mundane and silly affairs and that their souls
are always pressing upwards, eager to spend their time above in the true light, for after all, this is
surely what we’d expect if indeed things fit the image I have described.
Now, what happens when someone turns from the divine search back to the corruptions of
human life? Do you think it’s surprising, since his sight is still weak, and he hasn’t yet become
accustomed to the darkness around him, that he behaves awkwardly and appears completely
ridiculous when he must, either in the courts or elsewhere, contend with the shadows of truth and
the ideas the shadows represent and dispute the way these things are understood by people who
have never seen truth itself?
That’s not surprising at all.
No, it isn’t. But anyone with any understanding would remember that the eyes can be
confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the
darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light. Realizing that the same applies
to the soul, when someone sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something, he won’t laugh
mindlessly, but he’ll take into consideration whether he has come from a brighter life and is
dimmed through not having yet become accustomed to the dark or whether he has come from
greater ignorance into greater light and is dazzled by the increased brilliance. Then he’ll declare
the first soul happy in its experience and life, and he’ll pity the latter. But even if he chose to
make fun of it, at least he’d be less silly than if he laughed at a soul that has come from the light
What you say is very reasonable.
If that’s true, then here’s what we must think about these matters: Education isn’t what some
people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into
They do say that.
Our present discussion, on the other hand, shows that the power to learn is present in
everyone’s soul and that just as the eye cannot be turned around from darkness to light without
turning the whole body, so too, the ability to know truth can only occur with the movement of
the whole soul through increasing levels of light. This is moving upward and coming into being
(becoming) is able to discern the brightest thing that exists, which is, the One we call Good.
Isn’t that right?
Then education is the art concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around the soul
toward the light in the most easily and effectively way to do it. It isn’t the art of putting sight into
the soul. Education should take for granted that sight is already there but that it isn’t turned the
right way or looking where it ought to look, so education tries to redirect it appropriately.
So it seems.
Now, it looks as though the other so-called virtues are those of the physical body, for they
aren’t there beforehand but are added later by exercise and practice. However, the virtue of
reason seems to belong above all to something more divine, which never loses its power but is
either useful and beneficial or useless and harmful, depending on the way it is turned. Have you
ever noticed this about people who are said to be vicious but clever, how keen the vision of their
little souls is and how sharply it distinguishes the things it is turned toward? This shows that its
sight isn’t inferior but rather is forced to serve evil ends so that the keener it sees, the more evil it
However, if a soul like this from childhood was turned away from those things that would pull
its vision downward and if being rid of these, it turned to look at true things, then I say that the
same soul of the same person would see these good things most sharply, just as it now does the
evil things it is presently turned toward.
What about the uneducated who have no experience of truth? Isn’t it likely, indeed, doesn’t it
follow necessarily from what was said before, that they can never adequately lead a city? But
neither would those who’ve been allowed to spend their whole lives being educated. The former
would fail because all their actions, public and private are not aimed at a single goal; the latter
would fail because they refuse to act, thinking that they had life but they are living in a place of
Then, it is our task as leaders to encourage the best natures to reach for what is most important,
namely, to make the ascent and see the good. But when they’ve made it and looked sufficiently,
we mustn’t allow them to do what they’re allowed to do today.
To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their
experiences and knowledge, whether they are considered of less worth or of greater.
Then are we to do them an injustice by making them live a worse life when they could live a
better, more comfortable one?
You are forgetting again that it isn’t the law’s concern to make any one class in the city
outstandingly happy but to contrive to spread happiness throughout the city by bringing the
citizens into harmony with each other through persuasion or compulsion and by making them
share with each other the benefits that each class can confer on the community. The law produces
such people in the city, not in order to allow them to turn in whatever direction they want, but to
make use of them to bind the city together.
That’s true, I had forgotten.
Observe, then, Glaucon, that we won’t be doing an injustice to those who’ve become
philosophers in our city. What we’ll say to them when we encourage them to guard and care for
the others, will be just. We’ll say, “When people like you come to be in other cities, they’re
justified in not sharing in their city’s politics, for they’ve grown there at their own will, against
the will of the constitution. Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for
a culture in which they have never received. But we’ve made you leaders in our city and leaders
of the people, as it were, both for yourselves and for the rest of the city. You’re better and more
completely educated than the others and are better able to share in both types of life. Therefore
each of you in turn must go down to live in the common dwelling place of the others and grow
accustomed to seeing in the dark. When you are used to it, you’ll see vastly better than the
people there. Because you’ve seen the truth about fine, just, and good things, you’ll know each
image for what it is and also what it represents. Thus for you and for us, the city will be
governed, not like the majority of cities nowadays, by people who fight over shadows and
struggle against one another in order to rule and have power, as if that were a great good, but by
people who are awake rather than dreaming. The truth is surely this: A city whose leaders are
least eager to rule is governed in the way that is free from a faction, while the city whose leaders
crave power is the opposite.”
Then do you think that those we’ve nurtured will disobey us and refuse to share the
responsibilities of leading the city, each in turn, while living the greater part of their time with
one another in the pure realm?
It isn’t possible, for they are just people.
Each of them will certainly go to lead because it is something they must do, however, exactly
the opposite is what’s done by those who now lead in each city. This is how it is. Your wellgoverned
city will become a possibility only when the truly rich rule— not those who are rich in
gold but those who are rich in what is necessary to be happy, namely, a good and rational life.
But if those hungry for mere things go into public life, thinking that the good life is theirs for the
taking, then the well-governed city is impossible. There, leadership is something fought over and
this kind of civil and domestic war destroys the people and the rest of the city as well.
That’s very true!
Translated by Monica Davis, 2000, from the references:
Greek text based on the following:
Plato. Platonis Opera, ed. John Burnet. Oxford University Press, 1903.
Plato. The Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. 2nd ed./ rev. by C.D.C. Reeve.
Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.
Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Alan Bloom. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 1991.