Bolling 1

Erika Bolling
Maya Alapin
English 220
The Meaning of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
When you are born your mind is already functioning and as a baby you learn new things
as your development progresses. The average person learns something new every day, and we
may be conscious of it or we could not, but education is a part of the humanistic routine, thus
allowing us to be an evolving species. On the contrary every human’s mind is flawed and it can
allow us freedom or it can close us off to the world. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the prisoner,
in my opinion, represents the average human being, who puts no effort into learning. Just as the
prisoner, anybody who builds onto their former education can gain the enlightenment that Plato
describes as being open with yourself and your surroundings. In this analysis on the meaning of
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I will explore everyone’s ability to gain enlightenment.
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes a setting where there are men who “have
been chained foot and neck since childhood. The chains keep them in place and prevent them
from turning their heads, so that they only see forward” (Plato 175). Plato goes on to say that
there is a fire behind the prisoners and in between that there is a bridge that people outside of the
cave cross to go to market. The only things that the prisoners see are the shadows from the
people that would cross a bridge behind them. Peter Losin claims that the “prisoners- and by
implication the ordinary uneducated person- has no access to intelligible forms. In fact, [they
have] no idea there are such things” (Losin 53). I believe this to be true, because if you are
unaware of something then how do you know it exists? You don’t, until you learn about it and
think about it rationally. A problem with students in this century is that they learn something and
Bolling 2

they believe it to be true just because their teacher, or their friend told them so, but if you learn
anything from Plato, it should be to think rationally and not to come to a conclusion unless you
have looked at every bit of evidence and reasoning (Losin). The question then arises; how would
the prisoners know what the shadows really were? If all they have seen is shadows since they
were children, do they know that these “shadows” are actually people? They would not be able
to communicate with the other slaves because they haven’t been taught a language to discuss
what these shadows might be. So how can they determine what these objects are? I believe that
once everyone is born every one has the same amount of knowledge as any other baby on the
planet. When free thought is developed and the willingness to do something is acquired, it
separates the enlightened and knowledgeable, from the average human being who is still
searching for it. The only thing that the prisoners know to be true is that there are black images
that dance across the wall in front of them. They do not know those are real people behind them
because they don’t know any better, that is all they know and they assume that those shadows are
real, not knowing what other possibilities and truths lie behind their backs and outside of the
Plato then goes on to say that one of the prisoners gets released, by chance, and he is
“forced to stand up, turn his head, walk and look up to the light of the fire; all this causes him
pain and the glitter blinds him to the things whose shadows he formerly saw” (Plato 176). The
prisoner would at first be confused to see the truth only to think that what he was used to seeing
isn’t what he thought it was. Just as we do when we learn something new there is a slight
confusion as the brain begins to process if what we just learned is true or not. The information is
stored and we can move on to learn something else that might incorporate the new information
that was just stored.
Bolling 3

Once the prisoner is released and ventures outside he finds more things than he could
have ever imagined. Plato explains that the prisoner “at first [would] most easily make out
shadows” (Plato 176), because that is what he is used to seeing since he was a child, and then
“apparitions of people and things in the water, then the things themselves” (176). Then Plato
claims that he would “contemplate the heavenly bodies and heaven itself” (176). This is
something that many people around the world contemplate; is there really a heaven or a god?
And just because some people believe there to be, does that make them any more educated or
enlightened as a person who believes in evolution? This is where I begin to wonder if Plato is
correct in saying that the prisoner would contemplate the heavens. If he was never told about the
heavens, how would he know to believe and even contemplate if there is a heaven? This topic is
one that is still very current in this generation, there are people who are so set on there being a
god and there are people who are so set on science, which becomes a conflict. Why can’t there
be both? If you follow Plato’s advice one should take into consideration that both can exist
together. Who’s to say one is right over the other?
In the paragraph where Plato talks about the prisoner widening his views, an important
passage is brought up; exploring that education is a process and a pathway and only after you get
the basics of new things then you can start broadening your horizons to more things, just as the
prisoner did in this dialogue. Just like young students who learn the basics in elementary and
middle school of writing, mathematics, science and many other subjects, they can then use those
basic skills to broaden their knowledge. If students, like the prisoner, never had a chance to learn
the basics and how to use thought process, then they would be just as confused as the prisoner
when he was released. They would not know what is right and what is wrong. This is a
resounding concept for everyone in the world. Steinar Bøyum states, when talking about Plato’s
Bolling 4

philosophical knowledge, that we are “practical people, concerned with whether this or that
action is just, this or that state is good, or this or that thing is beautiful” (Bøyum 546). The
average person on this planet, is usually focused on one thing, completing one task at a time,
with the occasional multitask. Since we are only focused on a specific thing at a time, we have
no time to gather what is all around us. Robin Barrow claims that to have “true knowledge
involves getting outside of various disciplines of thought themselves and be reasoning about the
pure forms to arrive at an understanding of the very premises on which other systems of thought
or disciplines are based” (Barrow 50). I don’t particularly agree with Barrow because if you are
going to school and learning why do they call that an education when by Barrows definition it
isn’t? I think that Plato was wrong when he defines education and knowledge is being able to see
everything around you. I don’t agree with Barrow’s definition of education and knowledge
because I think that without education there would be no knowledge. I strongly believe that
education is the pathway to get to knowledge. To bring a Buddhist belief into the matter, I also
believe that nothing is infinite, nothing last forever, so people can’t really have a full grasp of
knowledge. And since I think that education is the process to get to knowledge, and I believe
knowledge to be ever changing with every moment. I agree that someone can be close to what
Plato describes, if someone is open minded and reasons with everything and doesn’t shut
anything out, and that is when I think they have attained “philosophical knowledge.”
When the prisoner leaves he is forced to look at the sun and walk towards it. The
meaning of the sun, in my opinion is in Plato’s terms philosophical knowledge and being aware
of everything and anything around you. And once you start to walk towards that light you gain
the knowledge to become a philosopher. When the prisoner first went out into the sun it caused
him pain because the only things he knew were shadows and darkness and being outside, in the
Bolling 5

open, would be in exact opposition of what he knew inside of the cave. In any case he would
want to run back to a place that is secure and what was familiar to him, and he would “see the
[objects in the cave] as truer, and more stable and more substantial than the hazy and elusive
forms glimpsed with squinting eyes out in the open” (Bøyum 546). Since the prisoners eyes were
hurting he had no choice to see the outside world through squinted eyes making everything
blurry, and to him, possibly not real. This can be applied to any one who is learning something
new, the squinted eyes, to me, means hesitation, and if you are going by Platonic learning you
should hesitate with what you learn and reason with yourself to conclude what is true and what
isn’t. Any person would want to go back to a familiar place, for instance when a student moves
from a high school to college, they are in a completely different area, everything around them is
different and strange and there is going to be that moment when they want to go back where they
are comfortable and where they know where to go and what to do, just as the prisoner did. In the
end the student is at this said college for a reason and that is to attain knowledge, just like the
prisoner was trying to attain by walking toward the light. The student will find their way to a
new sense of self and new base of knowledge, with the willingness to proceed on through
college. Some of the things these students learned in the past may be applied, just like the
prisoner first looked for shadows. Then as the student opens their mind and the new information
learned enters their mind they will have a broader knowledge base to again expand upon, just as
the prisoner did to gain enlightenment in the end of the Cave.
The meaning of Plato’s cave is that anyone can reach that enlightenment phase, that
which includes knowing where you are, everything that surrounds you, including objects,
thoughts, air, feelings, and people. However this knowledge is not easily attained. As the
prisoner was released and forced to go into the light, he then found the willingness to proceed on
Bolling 6

his own. People who want to attain enlightenment must find it inside them to liberate themselves
and open their mind. Kerry Burch says that the Allegory of the Cave “directs would-be liberators
to investigate that region of the psyche where desires to know are created or destroyed, where
education becomes either an instrument of liberation or of discipline of control” (Burch 7). I
would have to agree with this because once you learn something or become aware of something
you have the choice to run with it or forget it, and that very choice can be the start of or the end
of your enlightenment pathway. You can use that knowledge to your advantage, just as any
person would use their knowledge to get a job, start or refute an argument, teach a class, and so
many more options. With any knowledge you are stronger than you were when you had a lesser
amount. The more you know the better off you are, and the more rounded you. If you can allow
yourself the chance to learn the most you can, there would an unlimited amount of opportunities.
Things that would finally be in reach, when earlier in your life you never thought it was possible.
All of this starts with the single person who is willing to push themselves to new limits, and have
a willingness to educate themselves. It all starts with you.

Bolling 7

Works Cited
Barrow, Robin. Plato and Education. London: Redwood Burn Limited, 1976. Print.
Barrow talks about knowledge and education in the Cave, and how to attain the
phosophical education Plato talks about

Bøyun, Steinar. “The Concept Of Philosphical Education.” Educational Theory 60.5
(2010): 534-559. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
In this journal Bøyum talks about the Allegory of the Cave and the specific parts
that identify with education and Plato’s philosophical education

Burch, Kerry. “An Enlightenment ‘Experience’ And Plato’s Parable Of The Cave
Reflections On A Vision Quest Gone Awry.”Philosophical Studies In Education
42. (2011): 6-16. Education Research Complete. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
“The Parable directs would-be liberators to investigate that region of the psyche
where desires to know are created or destroyed, where education becomes either
an instrument of liberation or of discipline of control” (7).

Losin, Peter. “Education And Plato’s Parable Of The Cave.” Journal of Education 178.3
(1996): 49. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.
Plato. The Republic. Trans. Raymond Larson. IL. Wiley-Blackwell, 1979. Print.