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Plato’s Cave

en: Cave allegory (Plato); hu: Barlanghasonlat.

en: Cave allegory (Plato); hu: Barlanghasonlat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Theory of Forms is not simply an argument presented in one of his works which was sealed there, but is scattered in several dialogues; it was initiated in The Republic, Book X, the distinct features of the Forms talked about in the Phaedo, having gone back to The Republic in Books VI to VII for the allegory of the cave and the metaphor of the sun, with mentions and discussions in Meno, Cratylus, Symposium, Phaedrus, Parmenidus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Philebus, Timaeus and Seventh Letter. Plato has spoken on the Theory of Forms in over a span of forty years, in which the theory has refined and attained a full-fledged illustration—no wonder Plato’s works have added generously to Western philosophy. Interestingly, even though the theory is about ‘forms’, Plato had not used this word in his dialogues, and instead referred to ‘ideas’ and ‘eidos’ to unravel his theory. This is not to suggest that forms are formed by the subjective reflections of any person, which is the meaning derived by the word ‘idea’ in English, but in fact are seen as the ultimate, intellectual truth.

Forms are, in the simplest sense possible, abstract metaphysical entities which are found in a different world from the physical world. They persist in the mind of Creator, or God, and they are seen to have several unique properties which are extensively mentioned in the Phaedo. To start off, forms are unchanging and eternal. They are fundamentally transcendent, as they do not exist in time or space. Their transcendence crucially explains why forms are unchangeable because forms do not relate to time and are eternal; they are also found in several places simultaneously and its existence in one particular place is not needed to allow its existence in another—thus temporally and spatially independent. For instance, as Plato speaks in his dialogue, the idea of beauty remains consistent and eternal. Instead, it may be perceived and seen as horses, garments or men in varying degrees of beauty, which are but copies of the forms.[1]

This brings us to another characteristic of forms. Forms are pure and exist by themselves, because where a physical object is an amalgamation of several properties such as height, weight or color, a form is an independent property. Ultimately, it’s implied that forms are in fact the unseen and intelligible realm which cannot be perceived. Plato explains in Phaedo this very point, the soul to the body, for the former is the unseen and immortal while the latter is the material being which can be seen and is mortal.[2]

Forms are also, indeed, the causes of the existence of what we can see. Since they are the pure-most idea that exists in a nonmaterial realm, unseen by the human eye, it comes to mind: how does one explain the material world which is the one we live in? Plato suggests that forms are the cause behind everything that exists in the material world and provides a reason behind why a particular object is the way it appears to be. It is logical to assume that all which exists in the world is, in fact, a mere copy of the true form, which is imperfect and keeps us from contemplating on the intellectual truth, which is superior to the physical truth which is distorted and changing. Plato’s Phaedo provides a useful summary for this concept, listing the attributes of Forms (or souls, in context) as “divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable”.[3]

Where Plato highlighted the different aspects of forms in Phaedo, he gave an allegory in The Republic to elucidate his Theory of Forms. In chapter 7 of this book, in a fictional dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, Plato begins the parable of the cave by describing prisoners who have been captive in a cave since childhood. Their necks and legs are chained so that they cannot move, and especially are unable to turn around their heads. Hence, they can only see what lies before them, which happens to be a wall. Immediately behind them is a raised passage, and further beyond the passage is a fire which is lit throughout the length of the cave, reaching the roof. He goes on to give a scenario in which people, with their livestock and material items cross the passage, and some of them would happen to converse as well. Their items and belongings would cast a shadow on the walls and their voices would echo in the cave. Since the prisoners were incapable of turning around and envisaging these people as they were, the only world they would be familiar with, would be in fact distorted shadows and unclear voices. They would perceive it as the truth.[4]

Once Plato is done describing these ‘strange’ prisoners and their prison (as felt by Glaucon), he speaks of a situation in which the prisoners are forgiven and set free; for the first time, they see outside the cave with their own eyes. The prisoner is likely to, in Plato’s opinion, to be pained by the glare of light and he will be unable to look straight into the light. Since he is alien to this new world and cannot tolerate the sharp pain resulting from the light, he will assume that his world of shadows is closer to the truth than the world he is in now.

Of course, in time, as he spends more time in this newfound world, he will slowly progress from looking directly to shadows to reflections to the actual objects, ultimately looking up at the moon and the sun. Hence, once the former prisoner has grown accustomed to this world, he will realize that it is far more than he could have ever imagined; he will only then understand how stunted his life was when he was in the cave. It would become apparent to him that what he and his companions saw in the cave were simply shadows cast by the fire. He will pity his fellow prisoners who had never seen the light of day back in the cave. He would prefer, in words of Plato, “better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, than to rather than think as they do and live after their manner”—he wouldn’t entertain those false beliefs about the world anymore. And if he were to go back into the prison, not only would he be in much distress, he would no longer be able to see the nuances which make every shadow unique, and the prisoners would deem their old associate a blind one instead. They would assume that it was better to stay in the cave than to be freed, since it took away his sight, and would prevent any other prisoner from being let out above.[5]

The elements of Plato’s parable work to create a very solid example for his Theory of Forms. As he goes on in the dialogue, it becomes apparent that the prison is an allegory to the material world, the sun is the form of Good and the ascent of the prisoner from the prison to the world above is in fact, the ascent of a soul to the intellectual world of forms. Hence, forms cast ‘shadows’ on the material world, and one who is unfamiliar with the pure forms will assume those shadows to be the whole truth. In other words, when a person looks at the world with his eyes, he is bound to only see the imperfect, material world, but when he looks at the world with his soul and intelligence, he will see the reality of things. By understanding the forms and the form of being ‘human’, one can grasp the eternal forms and learn the meaning of being human.

Furthermore, Plato also discusses the metaphor of the sun, which follows the allegory. The sun represents the form of Good, as mentioned before, which is found in every perfect idea that exists in the spiritual, eternal realm. This is because their perfection is in fact a positive in nature, and it is the essence of Good which allows them to persist in such an infallible manner. The form of Good is the source of all light in the visible world and is source of reason and intellectual through which we can see the forms in the material world as well.[6]

Plato’s Theory of Forms was not represented like other arguments held by Plato, because it has been spread over literature with no assertion as Plato himself is in much doubt about his explanation; no wonder the Allegory of the Cave is a popular token of literature rampant in just about any philosophy book. Other than being a fantastic parable, though, the Theory of Forms and its relevant literature was meant to solve two particular problems which were felt important by Plato at the time, relevant to the issue of universals. Firstly, there was the ethical problem which baffled men, that how it could be possible for a person to life a happy and fulfilling life when attachment to anything in this world would’ve resulted in pain, because the world was in a constant state of change and metamorphosis. And of course, once seen logically, it could not be understood why the world seemed permanent, and yet change was a fundamental part of its permanence. Hence, Plato started with proposing two separate realms, the material world and the actual reality which comprised of forms, building up to the Theory of Forms. In essence, Plato insisted that detachment from the material representations of the forms and focus on them only could lead to intellectual enlightenment and satisfaction.

Needless to say, Plato was not entirely firm about his Theory, having criticized its limitations in Parmenides, and even his student Aristotle did not agree with his philosophical thought on the matter. But this Theory has been in the footnotes of many a philosophical debates, having much room for discussion and speculation and being a precursor and comparative to Plato’s ideas for government and politics.


Bhandari, Des Raj, and R. R. Sethi. Studies in Plato and Aristotle. 6th ed. Delhi: Chand, 1963.

Brickhouse, Thomas . ”  Plato [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy].” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Lewis & Clark College, 9 May 2009. Web. 23 Jan. 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/plato/&gt;.

Burnet, John. Early Greek philosophy,. 4th ed. London: A. & C. Black, 1930. Print.

Ferrari, G. R. F., and Tom Griffith. The republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Grote, George. Plato, and the other companions of Sokrates. London: J. Murray, 1865.

Guthrie, W. K. C.. The Greek philosophers, from Thales to Aristotle. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

Jowett, Benjamin. Plato’s the republic. New York: The Modern library, 1941.

Marías, Julián. History of philosophy,. New York: Dover Publications, 1967.

Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. Socrates to Sartre; a history of philosophy.. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975.

Thilly, Frank. A history of philosophy. 3d ed. New York: Holt, 1957.

[1] Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Phaedo, (Forgotten Books: 2008), p. 37.

[2] Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Phaedo, (Forgotten Books: 2008), p. 39.

[3] Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Phaedo, (Forgotten Books: 2008), p. 40.

[4] Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Plato: The Republic, (Forgotten Books: 2008), p. 265-266.

[5] Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Plato: The Republic, (Forgotten Books: 2008), p. 266-268.

[6] Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Plato: The Republic, (Forgotten Books: 2008), p. 268.


3 comments on “Plato’s Cave

  1. Pingback: understanding metaphors like the tree of life, the eyes to see and the ears to hear « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  2. Pingback: Plato and Forms

  3. Pingback: Plato's Philosophy

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This entry was posted on April 9, 2012 by in Philosophy.
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