What does Plato's Cave analogy in the 'Republic' tell us about his understanding of reality?

  • Google+ icon
  • LinkedIn icon

Before I answer, I will shorten 'World of the Forms' usually to WoF, and shorten 'World of Appearences' to WoA 

Central to understanding the cave analogy is understanding Plato's theory of the Forms. The distinction  between ideas and ideas expressed in reality is crucial to Plato. For him, knowledge of what something is, precedes you actually seeing the thing. Therefore we live in a world of appearances, of preconceived ideas, but the real world is the world of the Forms. (Remember to always capatalise the word 'Forms' when talking about them in relation to Plato!) We live in the WoA; not the most important world, filled with sentient beings. What makes these sentient beings what they are is the way in which they correspond to their individual Forms. By Form, Plato means the idea of what a thing is. For example; There are many types of cat but all conform to some degree of what a ‘cat’ is e.g. all have claws and tails. The true Forms of things are found in the World of the Forms (WoF). A Form is unchanging because it is a concept. In WoA there are only shadows or images of the Forms- Objects imitate a Form. WoA also ‘participates’ in the WoF- meaning for example the Form of Beauty is present in a beautiful person as well as a beautiful person being only a shadow of the Form of Beauty. We have an immortal soul that observed the Form before being incarnated in a body, therefore when we are born, we have a dim recollection of what Forms are. 

Let's now talk about the cave and how it all links in: 

Prisoners - People are chained up underground- They are all facing the wall and chained up so they can only look ahead of them at the wall of the Cave - The tied prisoners are in an illusionary world- Their view of reality(the shadows) is false- Our world is like this- People don’t see the forms, only the illusionary physical world  

The Statues - The only light in the cave comes from a fire located behind the wall, which is behind the prisoners. Behind the wall are people moving to and fro with statues on their heads. The prisoners can only see the shadows cast by the statues on the wall in front. The prisoners believe the shadows to be reality because it is all they can see. Statues are imitations. If you want to get the really top grades here it would be best to link in stuff about Plato's ideas of government officials and philosophers; those who are in charge who only really show us false visions of the world etc etc. 

Being Set free- At first very confused. Gradually, the prisoner will become accustomed to the firelight and will be able to see the statues. People needed to be taught about how to understand the Forms to see clearly. Actual act of teaching is distressing and force people to change their views. Hence why the prisoner is dragged into the sunlight!

WoF- Prisoners finally realise the role of the Sun; supporting life and the seasons of the year. The prisoner will no longer want to go back underground. Starts to understand that all he knows is not true reality, this new world is reality. Analogy of philosophers differentiating between the WoA and the WoF 

The sun= The form of the Good; it is also the sources of all things (Forms) 

In later parts of the analogy, Plato uses the cave to talk about ideas on leadeship and teaching, which isn't usually needed to do well in an AS level exam, but might be worth knowing. However, overall, we see that the analogy of the cave walks us through the main concepts of Plato's understanding of the differences between WoF and WoA. 

Rose N. A Level Religious Studies tutor, GCSE Religious Studies tutor...

About the author

is an online A Level Religious Studies tutor with MyTutor studying at Bristol University

Still stuck? Get one-to-one help from a personally interviewed subject specialist.

95% of our customers rate us

Browse tutors

We use cookies to improve your site experience. By continuing to use this website, we'll assume that you're OK with this. Dismiss