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Life And Meaning... Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Life can be quite eventful or mundane. Throughout history and in epochal moments man has sought to answer the question of what brings meaning to life and has attempting to understand reality. Some propose that reality and life can only be understood through our experiences and sensual engagement with our environment. Others suggested that what our experiences allow us are perceptions of a deeper, more objective reality. They purport that reasoning or rationalism is the only way of acquiring knowledge and interacting with objective reality. One of the more ardent advocates for the latter world view is was Plato. Plato gives an explanation for his thesis by using an allegory of a cave.
The allegory of the Cave is an allegory used by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic as "an image of our nature in its education and want of education" [1] Plato presents the allegory as a conversation between his mentor Socrates and his cousin, Glaucon.

In the scenario, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their arms and legs held in place, but their heads are also fixed, compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which puppets of various animals, plants, and other things are moved. The puppets cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway. The allegory continues: Suppose that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they were and could not name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees. Suppose further, that the man were compelled to look at the fire: wouldn't he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real? What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave: wouldn't the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn't he be distressed and unable to see "even one of the things now said to be true," viz. the shadows on the wall? After some time on the surface, however, Socrates suggests that the freed prisoner would acclimate. He would see more and more things around him, until he could look upon the sun. He would understand that the sun is the "source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing" [2]

Plato’s allegory of the cave was not simply a narrative but it was a highly philosophical anecdote in which He sought to explain how rationalism helps to move persons beyond the perceptions of that which is real – the mundane, and into the realm of ideas; the realm of reality. He was convinced that knowledge was garnered not through the senses and experience but through reasoning. Plato’s philosophical anecdote will help establish, within this paper, that critical thinking and reasoning allow us human beings to go beyond the simple and mundane spheres of existence. Discuss critical thinking and reasoning as cognitive (brain) power.

Discussion of Plato’s Allegory

In Plato’s allegory there are persons trapped in a cave with their hands tied behind their back. They are in an immobile position; only their gaze is fixed on the wall in front of them and persons are casting shadows on the wall before them. According to Plato, those who are chained represent all human beings who have been forced to think in one particular way; they are unable to think any other way because they are the prisoners of those who stand behind (those with power) casting shadows on the wall. Because the prisoners cannot see what or who is behind them, they accept those shadows as reality. That is their experience. Though Plato did not say how a prisoner is set free. He presupposes that one frees himself from that restricted point of view and ventures out of the cave (the one track way of thinking; thinking without reason). It is in venturing out that Plato says that one sees what is real. One is able to determine what is casting those shadows without guessing. The venturing out of what is the cave or moving beyond assumption into knowledge is dependent upon reasoning according to the allegory.

This allegory sets the stage for the discussion on a priori knowledge. For Plato believe that the sense cannot be trusted to give knowledge for that which exists in the realm of ideas (reasoning) is far greater than that which is perceived through the senses if one is to arrive at objective truth. According to an article by Brian Rice, sourced November 16th, 2008, the allegory represents an extended metaphor that is to contrast the way in which we perceive and believe in what is reality. The thesis behind his allegory is the basic tenets that all we perceive are imperfect “reflections” of the ultimate Forms, which subsequently represent truth and reality.[3] We must, therefore, move beyond this mundane and imperfect realm of existence into enlightenment through reasoning.

On the contrary, there are those who will disagree with Plato’s premise or thesis that reasoning is how one arrives at truth or knowledge. James Creed Meredith (1952), in Kant’s Critique of Judgment posits that the faculty of knowledge from a priori principles may be called pure reasoning. However, he opines, that pure reason only denotes reason in its theoretical employment. In other words, he is saying that to speak to pure reason is not a reality in a practical sense. [4]

Furthermore, Kant posits that all knowledge begins a posteriori (with experience); that our faculty of knowledge is awakened by objects that affect our senses; that we have no knowledge antecedent to experience.[5]However, even Kant admitted that not all knowledge arises out of experience – a contradiction to his view that there is no knowledge antecedent to experience. For to make an absolute state as the afore-mentioned and then say not all knowledge is derived from experience is circular reasoning.
A weakness of using sense experience to arrive at objective truth is that we can only deduce from where we stand. Our conclusion, therefore, will be from our perspective or point of view. For example, if I were to get two persons as ask them to stand to the back of and front of someone and report on how many eyes they see on the person, one will say two the other will say none. Who is wrong? Neither is wrong. They are simple giving an answer from where they stand. But how many of us have ended up in conflict because of our perception of what someone meant by something they said to us? Sometimes our perceptions or experiences tend to be so subjective that we need to reason out all the possible meanings to be able to arrive at a better conclusion which may not have to necessarily be one of “either or” but can be “both and”.
Plato’s point was that the sense perceptions cannot be trusted to lead us into objective truth. Though one may be able to guess, correctly, the image being casted on the wall without actually seeing the object, his or her knowledge still remains an assumption it is through deeper reasoning that one can really say that he or she knows.

Implications of allegory for critical thinking and reasoning

The purpose of this allegory defines clearly the process of enlightenment. For a man to be enlightened, he must above all desire the freedom to explore and express himself. This urge has to become an intense need, a driving force that unlatches deep within him a necessity to discover a new way of understanding and experiencing his relationship with himself and the world in which he lives. Within this allegory is the call for persons to not simply accept everything they see, hear or experience but to question the status quo; seek profusely after deeper understanding, meaning and reality and to establish new frontiers. Plato calls for every person to think critically. To weigh options.
If we refuse to accept present realities, if we dare to venture beyond our current state of existence can we imagine the possibilities? Can you imagine the accomplishment the power of the brain would allow us? Plato’s theory of the cave builds a strong case that the only way to make sense of the deeper realities of life is through critical thinking and reasoning. For example, in the Greco-Roman society, a female leader was never a possibility. It has never happened before as far as they knew and it was not a present reality. According to experience, it would be fair to say that a woman cannot be a leader or more recently, the appointment of the first black president of the United States. Experience would have limited our reality to what has happened before and what we know based on experience. However, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to think outside of the box. He dared to journey outside the cave. He experienced something beyond the mundane because of reasoning.

Implications for Individual
In education, to make activities effective, we must take it broadly enough to cover everything that involves growth of power; especially power of realizing the meaning of what is done. It excludes activities done under external constraints.[6]In other words for education to make sense to the individuals it must be taken outside of the realm of giving information. A person must be allowed to think, to process so that behaviours can be modified and that an appreciation for subject can be developed. According to Plato’s allegory, this student who is given the opportunity to explore comes away with a greater appreciation for what is reality and a better understanding of cause and effects; he or she understands what is responsible for the shadows on the wall. In Plato’s own words, the person who is allowed to explore would understand that the sun is the "source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing"
Furthermore, if the allegory is to be applied to an individual who belongs to a family that has been characterized by poverty from generation to generation, then it suggests that through sheer brain power (reasoning), an individual can break free. According to the allegory, what exists in society; the circumstances and experiences that keep one bound; the chains of poverty or of lack of educational opportunity or of nepotism cannot keep one bound if one can dare to think. The experiences that are in the cave are just reflections. Therefore, such a person must never accept them as reality or what must be. He or she, armed with a brain must reason his way out of that situation. Dare to dream. Dare to delve into the realm of ideas. Dare to consider the possibilities and then other realities become evident. He or she is freed from the cave of poverty.

Implications of allegory on Society
Similarly, when we look at our society, we will understand that critical thinking and reasoning allow us human beings to go beyond the simple and mundane spheres of existence. This cannot be overstated. It is through reasoning that society becomes aware of right and ethics. Any and everything is subjectivism. We cannot trust our senses and desires to help us determine right from wrong. Then what may be right for me because it feels good may be wrong for someone else and if each person is left up to conscience then there will be anarchy.

Consequently, we must move beyond the superficial level of existence. Antonio Rosmini posits that subjectivism prevent the mind they control from apprehending the existence of duties or rights[7] - much like the situation in Plato’s cave. Puppeteers casting shadows and those trapped in the cave are guessing (subjectivism) what the images are and are content to remain there because that, to them, is reality or truth when in fact they have not yet apprehended reality or truth. Rosmini further opines that in the absence of mind’s ability to apprehend rights and duties, the mind then reduces politics to fraud and violence.

Moreover, we often hear it said that the mind is a terrible thing to waste. However, in our day-to-day realm of existence we neglect to engage the mind into the realm of ideas. We place boundaries on ourselves because of our experiences or the experiences of others. Because no one has done it before, we refuse to believe that we can. In the words of Barack Obama, “Yes we can.” When experience say we have never get to another land mass except by boat, cognitive reasoning said sure we can and certainly, the Wright brothers invented the plane. They did not allow experience to trap them in Plato’s cave. It was the critical thinking of many that brought civilization to the world in which we now live and it is critical thinking that will continue to move us forward as we continue to experience the evolution of our world.


Plato’s allegory sets the stage for the discussion on a priori knowledge. The purpose of this allegory defines clearly the process of enlightenment. It seeks to explain how rationalism helps to move persons beyond the perceptions of that which is real – the mundane, and into the realm of ideas; the realm of reality. We cannot underestimate the power of the brain. We cannot limit ourselves to the mundane. We must expose ourselves to what the mind is able to perceive. Those who accept revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge, will concur with the Bible’s view that as a man is he. Put another way, we can say that one is limited in so far as refuses to engage critical thought and reasoning.

In the famous words of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, later echoed by Robert ‘Bob’ Marley, there is a need for man to “Emancipate himself from mental slavery.” Even though the physical chains have been removed there are those who still remain chained to bad experiences, chained to what others say about them; chained to the societal and cultural limitations; ignoring the world of possibilities that lie await to be apprehended by the mind that will dare to think and dream big. It is this writer’s conviction that indeed critical thinking and reasoning allow us human beings to go beyond the simple and mundane spheres of existence.



[3] platos_allegory_of_the_cave_analysis.html

[4]Meredith, James Creed. 1952. Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Oxford University Press, London.

[5]Kant, Immanuel. 1965. Critique of Pure Reason. St. Martin’s Press, New York.

[6]Ratner, Joseph. 1939. Intelligence in the Modern World: John Dewey’s Philosophy. Random House Inc., Toronto, Canada.

[7]Rosmini, Antonio (translated by: Robert A. Murphy). 2004. Introduction to Philosophy: About the Author’s Studies. Rosmini House, Durham, U.K.


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