Plato’s Analogies of the Cave, Sun and Divided Line

Note: This is one of my most visited blogs on this sites, with hundreds of hits. You can find an improved and expanded version of this topic in a chapter by the same name in my book Truth, Love and Justice in the “Books and Papers” link on this website.


We might look to Plato’s Republic, written approximately 380 B.C.E., to understand better the nature of paradigms, perspectives and education. In his allegory of the cave, Plato helps us appreciate the difference between the world of appearances and the real world of ideas by describing prisoners who have lived their entire lives chained so that all they can see is the blank wall of a cave. All that these prisoners know of reality are the shadows on the wall that are created by figures and forms of various things being paraded on the heads of people walking on a raised walkway between the wall and a fire.

In that world, the prisoner who could best explain and make sense of the shadows would be considered the most enlightened. If one of the prisoners was to free himself and see the actual objects making the shadows, he would not be able to recognize, name or explain them. He would believe that the shadows are more real than the forms he is seeing with his own eyes. If further, he was to look at the fire, he would be blinded by the light and turn back towards the shadows to which his eyes are accustomed and he has regarded as real for all of his life. Suppose further that someone was to drag this prisoner out of the cave into the sunlight. He would be hopelessly blind and uncomfortable in this new world.

Most likely, he would try to return to the cave and the world he knew and to which he could relate and feel at home. If he remained outside, he would gradually come to realize the sun was the source of light and life, even for those in the cave who had never seen or knew of it. Plato uses the metaphor of the sun as the source of physical illumination to compare it to the Form or Idea of the Good, Plato’s notion of God or ultimate reality, which sheds light on deeper realities. As the sun both gives light for the eye to see as well as life to the seer, the Good gives both true insight and its sustaining powers. The sun lights up physical objects as the Good illuminates objects of knowledge. Plato compares our perceptions of world to being limited by darkness, and it is only in the world of forms illuminated by the Good that we can see truth and reality clearly through the mind’s eye. Ideas formed from the physical world are dull and shifting, like the shadows, compared to the more real forms coming from the Good, like truth, beauty and justice. Indeed, this Good is also the true originating source of the fire, figures and the shadows in the cave.

However, if this freed prisoner went back to his fellow prisoners still chained to the wall of the cave to free them from their prison, he would have a hard time convincing them to believe him. Firstly, he would no longer be able to fit into or function well  in this world of shadows as he had done before. Their ideas of truth, beauty and goodness would be in the form and language of shadows, and he would look ridiculous trying to explain things to them for which they had no conception or belief according to their very constricted worldviews. These prisoners, ignorant and afraid of these new ideas, would probably think the freed man as misled or crazy and would not listen to him.

Further Plato describe four levels of reality—common illusions, belief, reasoning and philosophical understanding, which he compares to a line divided into four parts. As we ascend out of the darkness of limited illusion and experiences, we develop some beliefs about how the world works from the visible, sensible physical objects. The third level of reasoning involves hypothesis and mathematics and the highest level is comprehension of the first principles of the whole and the Good. Each higher level contains more truth.

We might compare these four levels of knowledge to various levels of closeness to or illumination by the sun or as the various stages of insight gained from free ourselves from the caves of ignorance. Our illusions or opinions might be compared to the shadow understandings of physical objects in the cave, whereas we form beliefs about these physical object through such tools as empirical science might be represented by the figures making the shadows. Neither are real, but both reflect some aspects of reality. Our reasoning developed through mathematics and theoretical science may be like seeing with the light of the sun, whereas the sun and its light might be analogous to the Good, the first principles from which all knowledge comes.

Plato’s metaphors of the cave, sun and divided line can help us understand of how and why we understand reality and might see things differently. We are like those prisoners. Our views of reality and our worldviews are created from the shadows projected onto the walls of our imaginations, formed from the constructed images and fancies of the material world paraded before the flickering fire of our limited paradigms. Similar to the freed prisoner, we can come to understand our shadows are but reflections or representations of truth and begin to comprehend through the deeper reality of the “Good”, which constitutes the most authentic knowledge. This book is an attempt to free us from the caves of our imperfect worldviews and shine a brighter light on the problems facing education so that we can be guided by the highest principles in our search for solutions.


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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