The Allegory of the Cave Summary: What Did Plato Mean?

In this Allegory of the Cave summary, you will learn what this popular piece of Western literature means and represents. 

One of the most popular allegories of all time, The Allegory of the Cave by Plato explores how the senses are connected to gaining knowledge. Often studied and not fully understood, this allegory has much to teach about people and how they perceive truth. It’s also one of several great allegory examples from literature.

This particular story, ie many of the Greek philosopher’s tales, is formatted as a dialogue, this time between Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and his brother, Glaucon. It is from Book VII of Plato’s Republic.

To understand Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, you must first understand what an allegory is. According to Merriam-Webster, an allegory is an expression of truth or generalizations about human existence through symbolic fictional figures and their actions. In other words, an allegory shows real-world ideas with fictional characters.

The Allegory Of The Cave Summary: The Main Idea

The Allegory Of The Cave Summary

The main idea of this allegory is the difference between people who simply experience their sensory experiences, and call that knowledge, and those who understand real knowledge by seeing the truth. The allegory actually digs into some deep philosophy, which is not surprising since it comes from Plato. Its main idea is the discussion of how humans perceive reality and if human existence has a higher truth. It explores the theme of belief versus knowledge. 

The Setting

Allegory Examples
Behind the prisoners, a fire casts light and shadow on the wall

This allegory takes place in a cave with no light in it other than a fire. In the cave, a row of prisoners is chained facing a wall. The wall is the only thing they can see. Behind the prisoners, a fire casts light and shadow on the wall. People walk on a raised walkway between the prisoners and the fire-carrying puppets. The puppets create shadows on the wall of the cave.

The Perception

Plato theorizes that the group of people tied up in the cave would assume that the shadows they see on the wall are reality. Plato’s theory further states that the echoing sounds the prisoners hear are perceived as reality. 

This false reality is all that the people in the cave know. They have no true knowledge of the real world. However, they fully believe that what they see on the cave wall is reality, and even try to name the shadows they see passing by.

The Game

Plato further adds to the allegory by stating that the prisoners will play a game. The game is guessing which shadow appears next. When one prisoner guesses correctly, he receives praise from the others, who call him “master.”

Plato uses the game to demonstrate that the master may be praised by others in the same level of knowledge as him, but that he does not actually know truth. Thus, the prisoners are ridiculous when they choose to admire him.

The Escape

Plato’s cave allegory further proposes that one of the prisoners escapes or gains freedom from the cave. The freed prisoner moves toward the fire, which temporarily blinds him. As he gains his eyesight and moves into the real world, he gains a greater sense of reality. 

After understanding greater reality, the prisoner returns to the cave to try to compel the other prisoners to experience this new world, but when he returns to the cave, his eyes can no longer see in the darkness.

Now, the prisoners mock the freed prisoner because he cannot see the shadows of objects on the wall in front of him. Plato theorizes that they may even become violent to the other prisoner as he continues to describe the outside world, and descending back into the cave becomes dangerous.

The Meaning

So what is the meaning of this allegory? Many philosophers believe it is a look at the effect of education on human beings and the human soul. When the freed prisoner, who represents a philosopher seeking knowledge, is finally able to see the real world and learn about it, he is able to have true thought about real things.

When he is able to look at the sun and realize that it brings life to the entire world, he is finally able to reach the stage of understanding.

The goal of education, therefore, is to pull people out of the “cave” and enlighten them in the real world with real objects. The return to the cave to help the other prisoners is important, but cannot be permanent once the learner has had experience in the real world. Once a human being gains knowledge, going back to complete ignorance is impossible.

Further Breaking Down the Allegory

Plato’s cave allegory also shows four stages of life. The first stage, that of the prisoners in the cave, is imagination. In this stage, human beings are only imagining what reality is like, just like the prisoners viewing the shadows on the wall.

The second stage is the stage of thought. This stage occurs when the person realizes that there are real things, what Plato calls the Forms, that exist outside of the shadow world. 

When his eyes adjust, he is able to take in the actual sun and its light, and this is the stage of understanding. Eventually, he reaches full enlightenment, which Plato called the Form of the Good.

The Allegory of the Cave in Pop Culture

The idea – that we may not know what true reality is – becomes the basic meaning of this allegory, and this theme comes up in pop culture quite often. Many books and movies carry this theme, giving the reader or viewer the chance to question their own perceptions. Here are some examples:

  • The Truman Show In this popular movie, the main character, Truman Burbank, discovers he is living in an elaborately created reality TV show, and that discovery shakes his understanding of the world.
  • The Lego Movie Though it’s meant for children, The Lego Movie explores the same ideas of the Allegory of the Cave as Emmet discovers he is just a plaything for a boy and his dad.
  • Fahrenheit 451 – In this book by Ray Bradbury, society becomes the fake reality and the main character must ascend to true reality as he pulls away from society and its rules. 

A Final Word On The Allegory Of The Cave Summary

The Allegory of the Cave proposes one of life’s ultimate questions: what is reality? According to the allegory, reality is dictated by our perception of it, and as we gain knowledge through education, perception changes.

Because the Allegory of the Cave answers one of the most basic human questions, its main themes are the foundation for many books and movies in modern culture. If you look closely, you can see the idea of reality and perception woven into many compelling tales.


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FAQs About the Allegory of the Cave Summary

What does the cave represent in the Allegory of the Cave?

Plato’s cave represents the superficial physical reality that people who are in ignorance believe. It shows the folly of accepting what one sees at face value without pursuing additional education and enlightenment. 

When was the Allegory of the Cave written?

The Allegory of the Cave came into being around 380 BCE when Plato published The Republic. Today, it is considered a main part of Western literature studies.