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Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is perhaps his most famous and striking literary metaphor. On the surface, Socrates is attempting to contextualize the concepts introduced at the end of the previous book (book VI), namely those of “The Allegory of the Sun” and the “Divided Line Simile.” All three of these metaphors work in conjunction to inform Glaucon (and by extension the readers) of the importance of possessing knowledge of “the good.” Without this special knowledge, concepts such as justice, to which the majority of the Republic is concerned with, are all but useless (Republic, book VI, 505a).

At this stage, a hierarchy of cognitive states and the objects over which they preside has already been established by the divided line at 509d-511e. This hierarchy is divided into two separate realms: the realm of visible objects, which are of a lower order, and the realm of intelligible objects that constitutes a higher order. The lowest form of cognition is “imagination” which presides over shadows, images, reflections, and the like. The second lowest is “belief” which presides over tangible and visible objects in the ordinary sense. Breaking out of the realm of the visible and into the realm of the intelligible, the third cognitive state in the order of the line is thought, the objects of which are conceptual and mathematical. Last and highest on the line is the infallible cognitive state of understanding, which uses Plato’s “forms” as its objects(1). Knowledge of the good is at the apex of this model of understanding, being the most important of the forms for any individual to grasp.

The Cave is designed to show the assent of the soul out of a state of ignorance towards one of understanding. The various levels of the cave correspond exactly to the segments of the divided line and their respective cognitive identities. This journey upwards is also a sort of caricature of the philosopher’s life and trials, possibly being an homage to Socrates (more on that later). These concepts will become more apparent as we follow Socrates and Glaucon through the cave.

There is some anecdotal evidence that Plato may have based his allegorical cave on one that really exists about 12 miles South of Athens: the cave at Vari. This location was used for religious purposes and shares certain thematic similarities to the one described above(2).

References and further reading:

1: Smith, Nicholas D., “Plato’s Divided Line,” Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 16, 1996, pp. 1-23.

2: Wright, John Henry, “The Origins of Plato’s Cave,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 17, Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 1906, pp 131-142.