Summary of The Allegory of the Cave
The goal of an education is to provide an escape from the destitution of ignorance. The Allegory of the Cave, by Plato, illustrates the shimmering impact education has on the soul: its ability to enlighten the individual in order to promote the common good. Without an education, an individual is limited to the beliefs instilled upon him, and therefore cannot get any farther than they allow him to go. Socrates describes a desolate scene: a group of people have been cave-bound their entire lives. Their reality consists of shadows of statues whose movements are orchestrated by unidentified people behind a wall.
This represents the way every human being begins his life: vulnerable to the will society places upon him. Every one begins their life void of knowledge, or in an imaginative state. “To them, I said, the truth would be nothing but the shadows of the images” (Socrates, 267). Our truth is limited to what we’ve been exposed to. Education is an apparatus to escape from the limitations we are born with. People latch on to what they know in order to play it safe. They dismiss beliefs which differ from their own because the unknown is threatening.
Plato writes: “And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him” (Plato, 267. ) Socrates theorizes that one of the prisoners is released from the shackles, and looks towards the fire. The bright fire would strain his eyes, and he would discover his reality consisted only of the shadows of manipulated statues.
He understands the statues were not real, but now accepts the statues and fire as the truth because that is all he knows. This represents belief. Without proper knowledge, an individual latches on to whatever he hears. This leaves him at the disposal of anyone who gets his attention. The cave-dwellers accept only what they have been exposed to. They experienced reality, so the scope of their knowledge is limited. Plato then insists that the prisoner would be dragged out of the cave and into the outside world. However, he will not have the ability to comprehend it with his eyes alone.
He writes: “When he approaches the light he will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities” (Plato, 267). This represents thought. He now realizes that what he is seeing is more authentic than the statues, and witnesses the real world. However, his knowledge is limited because he does not have the ability to function properly in the world with latent intellect. This changes when he is able to see the sun, which represents understanding. The sun is the source of all things, and is in turn representative of all that is good.
The journey out of the cave represents the pursuit of an education, in which only the brightest are able to actualize. Plato explains: “The prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world” (Plato, 268). Reaching the state of supreme understanding is honorable, and does not come without discipline: “in the world of knowledge the idea of good comes last of all, and is seen only with effort” (Plato,268).
Education is not intended only to instill knowledge, but to direct it to the common good. Plato explains that the knowledgeable person is not intrinsically just, and needs to be directed in that manner: “Did you ever observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue- how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eyesight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness (Plato, 269).
Therefore, it is the duty of the intellectual to direct his inferiors in the correct manner. Plato explains that the philosopher must return to the cave and direct the action of the prisoners for the common good. The philosopher is the best person to do this because he would do so out of a sense of duty, not for personal gain. This makes for the best type of ruler. “Whereas the truth is that the state in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and the most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst” (Plato, 270).