Plato's Allegory of the Cave in Plain Words

by Leroy on May 27th, 2023. Last updated June 2nd, 2023.

I attempted to explain Plato's Theory of Forms in plain words before but explaining the Form is quite difficult as the Form is everywhere. I wanted to revisit the topic for my own benefit, because I like writing, but also to illustrate that the Form applies to many ideas, even ideas of physical things, and not just lofty ideas like Justice.

Plato himself attempted to explain his Form through the Allegory of the Cave, so perhaps putting that into plain words can provide a clearer understanding. I will first put my understanding of the Allegory into plain words -- as plain as I can manage -- and then I will pull examples from the texts.

My interpretation with some examples

My best literal translation of the Allegory of the Cave into plain words is this: The Form of something exists outside of the mental image you have given it through your senses. Because the Form exists outside of your senses, you may be misguided by the sense-image, or shadow, of it.

When I say "your senses", I mean your sight and touch and all of your other bodily feelings. When you feel and see, you make an image of what you felt or saw inside your mind. For sight, this image is simple to convey -- you surely have memories which you can see like an image in your mind's eye. But feeling is also an image as well. Fire, which is hot and burns, may seem only painful if we didn't also feel its warmth from a distance; you are able to recall both feelings, pain and warmth, and this is the "sense-image" I am talking about. Just like we can recall memories, we can also recall particular feelings, pains, smells, and much else -- these feelings of the body are sense-images, not totally separate from a visual image, and subject to the same failings as your regular memory.

When you see and feel something, like pain or pleasure, you necessarily know it, categorize it, and judge by it. However, the image of it inside your mind, made from the senses and categorized by your brain, may simply be incorrect. Socrates calls these images "shadows" because they are not the Form itself, but an image created by you for categorization and ease-of-use. In a literal sense, you control the truth of your reality, but this is not Truth.

To avoid a lofty discussion of Truth, because Plato wasn't simply talking only about lofty ideals of Truth and Justice, let me give two simple examples:

The first example is the color green. When you see the color green, you know it's not red by the image of it in your mind. For example, when looking at green grass, you know that the grass isn't red because you can see the color red in your mind's eye and see that green is different than red. This image in your mind's eye is just the shadow in your mind of the Form of green. The Form of green is all greens that should ever be called "green". When looking at an individual blade of grass, you are looking at more than one color of green because a single blade of grass does not have a single color.

The second example is "playing". We all played when we were children, but this "play" remains as a child in your memory. For example, when you see children playing at the park, the mental playback of that image in your mind may very well be what you see when you recall "playing". That is, when someone mentions the word "playing" to you, the image of children playing in the park may be what you see in your mind's eye. But of course, this is not the Form of playing because "playing" has nothing to do with children, but really only deals with having fun.

Adults can "play", but the structure of it may look different, like playing a sport or chess. "Play" in the minds of children may each be different too. They are different yet all possess the same quality of "having fun". If "play" is "having fun", then when the adults stopped playing did they stop having fun?

The answer to the age-old question of "Why have the adults forgotten what it's like to be young?" is that they possess a shadow in their mind. They have let the Form of "play" become the shadow "to be young". The phrase "to be young" does not mean someone's literal age, but means the character of adults separate from the young. The shadow "to be young" may be misguiding many. Adults do not need to rid themselves of all their learned experiences and choice judgments to act young and to have fun.

Many adults do not play. Many adults do not go outside and chase their imagination all by themselves -- especially not with others. To see like a child is to see without clouding your mind's eye with shadows. These shadows of Forms may be incorrect and ultimately blinding. A child has no pre-conceived images shadowing their mind's eye which lets their physical eyes see freely without filter.

Examples from the texts

Now that I've shared with you my take on the Allegory of the Cave, I want to reinforce it with support from the texts. I am using Bejamin Jowett's translation of The Republic. My copy unfortunately doesn't have the lettered page sections, e.g. 518a vs 518b, so I will just reference the page only.

Blind but still Seeing

Before discussing the Allegory of the Cave, Plato is discussing blindness to truth. "Blind" doesn't mean physically blind, but a mental and bodily blindness to certain truths. In the text itself, Socrates is feeling bashful about his opinions, so Glaucon encourages him. Socrates, in the middle of 506, replies, "[...] do you not know [that] all mere opinions are bad, and the best of them blind?" He continues, "And do you wish to behold what is blind and crooked and base, when others will tell you of brightness and beauty?"

Near the middle of 515, Plato says that for the prisoners, "[...] the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images." To me, Plato is saying that the prisoners are blind.

The Eye of the Body and Mind

At the top of page 518, Plato writes, "Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, [...] either coming from out of the light or from going into the light." By "bewilderments", Plato is meaning the pain the person experiences when leaving or entering the cave. When a person first leaves the cave, they are bewildered and blinded by the sight of the Sun and how bright everything is outside. When the person goes back into the cave, they are bewildered and blinded by the darkness. In both cases, they are blinded and must take time and effort to adjust.

However, Plato adds one extra point. He adds, "[this] is true of the mind's eye as much as of the bodily eye." This supports my assertion of a "sense-image" in my interpretation above -- that we make images from our other senses too, and not just from sight. The images we hold in both our mind and our body are both placed there by us. This means they can also be adjusted by us too.

At the beginning of 519, Plato begins discussing other forms of shadows, though he doesn't call them shadows specifically. He uses another example of a person whom "[...] eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below." To restate, Plato is saying that sensual pleasures, like gluttony of food and abuse of alcohol, may turn the vision to "things that are below" -- to the shadows. But there is also another important reading here, namely that "vision" here isn't referring the sight of the eyes, but the sight of the body itself. If the body has its own eye, which the senses indeed are, then that means it is capable of having its own shadows.

Many shadows of Truth

Later in 519, Plato is asserting that those philosophers who have made it out of the cave should be made to go back in: "they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not." It is not just Truth which is made a shadow in the minds of the prisoners, but their entire life, their entire doings in the cave are shadows. Their day-to-day life would be a shadow. If the entire day is regulated by the fire creating shadows, would they have seasons or even the day?

Plato in 516 says after a prisoner makes it outside and sees the Sun, "[the prisoner] will the proceed to argue that [the Sun] is who gives the season and the years." To live under artificial light means every thing is a shadow in the cave. This isn't an argument for simulation theory, or any related non-sense, because the shadows in the cave are still shadows of the Form. This means there may be another shadow of that same Form, and shadows of other Forms, including Truth. This means that to learn something, you may need to composite its image in your mind and body over time, as you have seen different degrees, or angles, of it.

This is what Plato means in 518: "[...] learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best being, or in other words, of the good."