Plato's Cave Myth Allegory has been the foundation for his Theory of Forms,an idea that basically shows our reality to be a shadow of a far more pure and truthful reality. But in the allegory a bunch of prisoners sit looking at the shadows on the wall casted by the fire behind them. But isnt there a glaring logical fallacy here?

If the shadows represent a diluted representation of reality arent the prisoners themselves equal to the reality in the outside world. Cant they just look down at themselves and see that their skin is not the same as the shadows casted on the wall? Or in fact the wall itself is not on the same plane of existence as the shadow; they dont look the same at all. So then how could the prisoners mistake the shadows for the world when they themselves differ at the start. And how could Plato use this allegory as an analogy to his Theory of Forms which tries to create a philosophy for how the world isnt on our plane of existence when no such disprepancy as above exists?


2 Answers 2


I agree that the specifics of Plato's Cave Parable are not easy to interpret. Concerning the shadows, specifically, I think that the idea is that the prisoners in the cave lack the opportunity to figure out what shadows are, to understand shadows as shadows. And that therefore the prisoners have no clear basis to ontologically distinguish the shadows from the wall on which the shadows appear, or from the prisoners themselves. It is not clear to what extent the prisoners are self-conscious at all. Note also that the allegory of the Cave appears right after the analogy of the Divided Line, where Plato set "perception of shadows" as the lowest level of human understanding.

The Cave allegory, by the way, is only loosely connected to the theory of Forms. Part of its idea is, as you say "to shows our reality to be a shadow of a far more pure and truthful reality". And this, whether the true reality consists of the Forms, or of anything else. But even more than about reality, the Cave is about understanding, about knowledge. It is about the lowly condition of human understanding and knowledge, and about the chances of rising above it. So this is how Plato enters the allegory:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave ...

And this is how he exits the allegory:

Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted ...


To answer the question in the most literal way, i quote Wikipedia:

Plato begins by asking Glaucon to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from childhood. These prisoners are chained so that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them and not look around at the cave, each other, or themselves (514a–b)

They are not allowed to look at anything else but the blank wall and the shadows.

Now it is true that the wall is obviously not the same plane of existence as the shadows are. But this fits right in the allegory. The wall is basically the plane of exisitence we are on. It represents the ether, the space everything exists in. Just as the flame that casts the shadows represents the good or the truth.

And yes, the prisoners themselves should be able to feel that they are more than mere shadows. However Plato would argue that a person should be also able to get in touch with their immortal soul, even though a lot of people can't/don't want to.

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