Essay: What is Plato’s Simile of the Cave? How is it Applicable to Contemporary Issues in Representation?

A philosopher, who still has followers 23 centuries after his death, can hardly be called ordinary. Plato inspired the sages of antiquity and the church fathers, medieval theologians and philosophers of the Renaissance, the great thinkers of the world – from Posidonius and Origen to Chaadaev and Heidegger. The father of idealism had an enormous impact on our whole philosophy, and even on our modern culture.

Plato was one of the great creative minds of antiquity. His genius was multifaceted. His literary heritage belongs not only to the history of ancient philosophy, but to the history of ancient science and ancient literature. It’s not just because as a young man Plato wrote talented poems (his epigrams survived till today), the philosopher-scientist in Plato is inseparable from the philosopher-poet. His philosophical dialogues and letters are among the best works of ancient Greek prose.

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Plato, who loved illustrating his reflections with figurative comparisons, expressively explains the opposition of things and “ideas” in “The Republic” through the simile of the cave (Plato, 2007). In the cave there are people chained in fetters, unable to move. Behind them is a light in the sky. Between the light and the prisoners is a road where other people walk and carry various utensils, statues, all sorts of images of living creatures made of stone and wood. Prisoners cannot see all those things, they sit with their backs to them, and only by their shadows on the cave wall they may form their perception of them. Such, according to Plato, is the structure of the whole world. And the prisoners are those who perceive visible things, which are really just pathetic shadows and likenesses, for their essence (Kernan, 2000).

In addition to the world of things and the world of “ideas”, there is a world of not-being. This is a “matter”. But it is not a material basis or substance of things. Matter of Plato is the beginning and the condition of the spatial separation of many things that exist in the sensual world. In the images of myth Plato describes the matter as a universal “fosterer”, a “godmother” of every birth and origin (Plato, 2010). Matter is completely vague and formless. Sensual world, that is, all the objects around us, is something in-between the two spheres. Between the area of ideas and the area of things, according to Plato, there is also the “soul of the world”, or the world soul. Sensual world is not a direct, but still a product of the world of ideas and the world of matter.

Man’s way to the knowledge is also shown through the simile of the cave. If to remove the shackles from the man and make him walk around and look back, he will not be able to look at the light immediately (O’Neill, 1991). Plato concludes that to contemplate the higher, it will take the habit of climbing, an exercise in contemplation. First the unchained prisoner will be able to look only at shadows, then at human silhouettes and other objects mirrored in the water, and only then at the objects themselves. But this is not the very source of light – the sun. First, the prisoner will be able to look only at nighttime celestial bodies. And only in the completion of all exercises, he will be able to contemplate the sun, not its image on the water, but the sun itself. And then he will learn that the sun is the reason for everything that he and his friends had seen sitting in the darkness of the cave (Plato, 2010).

A person possessing the knowledge will never be jealous of people contemplating the shadows. He would not dream of honors that prisoners pay to each other in the cave. He will not be mislead by the rewards given to those who was the most sharp-eyed while watching the passing objects and better than others remembered what usually appeared first, what followed, and what appeared simultaneously, and on this basis predicted the future (Plato, 2010).

This conception of knowledge is closely connected with the study of the “good”. Sun is the reason of sight. Thus, the “idea” of the good is the reason of knowledge and truth. One might considered light and sight sun-like, but one shouldn’t consider that they themselves are the sun. Likewise, one might fairly recognize the knowledge and truth good-like, but it’s not right to consider that any of them is the good (Plato, 2007).

As noted by modern researchers who investigated in detail the problem of symbolism in philosophy and aesthetics of Plato, he does not use the word “symbol”, but uses the principle of symbolism everywhere – the principle that in the next idealist tradition was named by that term. Symbol indicates the connection of two planes of reality. According to Plato, these two plans are the worlds of sensible things and supersensible ideas, the latter being understood as ontologically primary in relation to things. Sensible things are neither adequate copies of ideas, nor their arbitrary signs, but symbols hinting at the idea.

According to the teachings of Plato, the world of things perceived through the senses, is not a world of true being: sensible things continually arise and disappear, change and move, there is nothing lasting, perfect and true. And yet things are not completely separated from the true being, they are somehow accessorial to it. Namely, Plato says that for everything from true beings in them the sensible things owe to their reasons. These reasons are the forms of things not perceived by the senses, perceived only by the mind, incorporeal disembodied and non-sensuous. Plato calls them views and, more rarely, ideas (Plato, 2007). Views, ideas are the forms of things visible by mind. Each class of objects of the sensual world, for example, the class of horses, corresponds in the incorporeal world to some view or an idea – the view of a horse, the idea of a horse. This view cannot be comprehended by senses like an ordinary horse, but can only be contemplated by the intelligent mind, well-trained to such an understanding.

But why did Plato think that the idea is incorporeal, that it could not be seen with sensual sight? He thought so because the idea is the common for all its subjects. There are lots of horses in the sensual world, but the idea of a horse in the ideal world is some integrity, and as such integrity, it is the only one. This idea is what makes any sensibly perceived horse a horse, and nothing else (Puente, 2004). But Plato also thought that the common for many subjects could not be opened by the senses. By its very nature it is incorporeal, out-of-limit in relation to everything sensual. It is available only to the mind.

Since Plato divided the contemplated by senses from the contemplated by mind, transferred the ideal objects into some kind of “place beyond the heavens”, the later the term “idea”, which originally meant only the form or the cause of sensual things contemplated by the mind, started denoting the ideal, non-sensuous and even extrasensory being. A hypothesis of forms or ideas comprehend by the mind became the doctrine of philosophical idealism (Kernan, 2000).

The line of Plato’s thought was as follows. In relation to the sensual things, their views (ideas) are at the same time their causes and samples according to which these things were created, and the goals sought by the beings of the sensual world, and finally, the notions of a common basis of things of each class or category. According to Plato, only ideas make the true being.

However, according to Plato, to explain the observed phenomena and the things perceived, suggesting the existence of only views or ideas was not enough. After all, sensible things are transient, changeable, devoid of true being. Their qualities must be predefined by not only being, but somehow, by not-being as well. It means that besides the being there must also exist not-being, and, moreover, it must exist no less than the being. Plato identifies this not-being with the matter. While being is always identical to itself, not-being is other in relation to being, in other words, the area of ongoing change, appearance, birth and death, movement. Due to the existence of matter, or not-being, by the explanation of Plato, a lot of sensual things arise. Matter, which Plato likens to “mother” and “fosterer”, takes into its bosom the view (idea) and turns the unity and integrity of each view comprehended by mind, every idea into a lot of sensual things, isolated from each other in space (Kernan, 2000).

This teaching was opposed by atomistic materialism of Democritus and Leucippus, who argued that the not-being exists no less than being. But they identified their being (forms, ideas) with atoms, considered them corporeal (though comprehended by mind), and understood not-being as emptiness, empty space in which the atoms move. In contrast, Plato’s being is incorporeal, nonmaterial views comprehended by mind, and the matter is not-being (O’Neill, 1991). For Plato, the views (ideas) were primary; the concept of not-being assumes being as its condition: not-being is being too, but different in relation to the given being.

Only the imperfection of our way of thinking, according to Plato, imposes to us the notion that ideas exist somewhere in space, similar to how sensual things seem to us isolated from each other and located in space. This perception of the spatial localization of ideas is an illusion, and the source of this illusion, according to Plato, is the matter, which Plato understands hardly probable kind of space comprehended by some “unjustified” reflection, or the cause of isolation, alienation of individual things of sensual world from each other. Looking at this kind of space, we fall into an illusion: we seem to dream believing that all things must necessarily be in some place and occupy some space, but what is not on earth or in the sky seems not to exist at all (Plato, 2007).

On the basis of his doctrine of being and not-being, Plato built his doctrine of the sensual world. This world, according to the thoughts of Plato, is the middle between the world of incorporeal views (ideas) and the world of not-being or matter, dividing the unity of ideas into a variety of things, each separated by space (Puente, 2004).

According to Plato, the things of the sensual world are not not-being. They have something of being. But all that sensual things have of the being they owe not to matter, but to ideas as both their causes and samples. On the other hand, if it was not for the matter or not-being, sensual things could not exist, because there is a multitude of sensual things, and the condition for the multitude is the matter. Since the sensual things are the product of not only ideas but also the not-being, they have no true existence, and in this sense, they are opposite to ideas or views. Plato explicitly characterizes this opposition. Ideas are eternal, they do not arise and do not die, unchangeable, identical to themselves, irrelative, do not depend on the conditions of space and time. They possess all the signs of what the predecessor of Plato, Parmenides, defined as his single, eternal, unmoving, truly existing being.

On the contrary, the world of sensual things, as understood by Plato, is a world of Heraclitus: it is a world of perpetual birth and death, world of “sojourn”, not being, the world of unstoppable movement and variability, all things and properties in it are relative, transient, passing, depending on the conditions of space and time (Kernan, 2000).

From the stated, it is clear that Plato sees the existence not homogeneous. Being is hierarchical; it consists of various layers, or areas of unequal value and unequal reality. The difference between these areas of being corresponds to the difference of knowledge kinds. The highest kind of being, ideas, is the cognition by intuition, i.e., immediate appreciation. Intuition here meant by Plato is not intuition of senses, but intuition of mind. Senses see only imperfect sensual similarities of ideas, the ideas themselves can be seen only by the prepared to contemplation pure mind, which is not mixed with the contemplation of senses.

The second kind of being, lower compared with the ideas, is objects of mathematical knowledge. Mathematical objects are related to both ideas and sensual things. Like ideas, they are unchangeable; do not depend essentially on individual objects representing them in the sensual world. They are comprehended by mind, however, not by the intuition of mind like ideas, but by reflection. However, mathematicians are forced while developing their proofs to use separate images of figures drawn by the imagination.

The third kind, or more accurately, third degree, reality is sensual things, imperfect area of perpetual establishment, genesis and destruction. Sensual things cannot be the subject of true knowledge, but only of an opinion. Finally, the fourth, the lowest kind of being is the representations of sensual things, except their reflections on surfaces of shiny objects or on the surface of water. These representations, or images of things, are comprehended by means of imagination (Puente, 2004).

According to the statement of Plato, neither opinion nor imagination provides true and reliable knowledge. Just like sensual objects, the views are continually changing. In order to reach the knowledge, opinions should be linked into the unity or identity. This connection is obtained through the activity of the soul as such. The soul keeps the memory of truths which it held in the sphere of true ideas before its fall to Earth and conclusion in a body shell. Knowledge is both recollection, and relationship of reminiscent truths. By connecting all the knowledge, potentially inherent in the soul and stored in the depths of its memory, the soul, starting with a single link, can go to any subsequent links and thus, cover everything, if only it doesn’t get exhausted by the research (Kernan, 2000).

Therefore, according to the complete definition, existence must necessarily be characterized by opposite properties: it is singular and plural; eternal and transient; invariable and changeable; is at rest and not; moves and stays; acts and does not act; suffers and does not suffer. However, the opposite characteristics, according to Plato, can be combined only for the opinions, i.e. for the lowest form of knowledge. The mind discerns in which relation the subject should be thought of as identical, in which – as other, in which – as one, and in which – as plural, etc. Therefore, in contrast to opinions, the mind does not consider any combination of opposites in the same regard.

Concluding the abovementioned approach, Plato is the founder of one of the main trends in philosophy, the founder of objective idealism. His objective idealism is the doctrine of the self-existence of ideas as general and generic terms, and the core of Plato’s idealism is the doctrine of the welfare. It was Plato who introduced not only the notion of idea, but also the notion of the ideal into the culture of mankind. Plato idealized the human cognitive activity. Cognition, according to Plato, should least of all be adequate towards the knowable world; what is most important in knowledge – is the discretion of prospects for movement towards perfection (O’Neill, 1991). Plato taught the universal harmony, he was the first to speak about an ideal, spiritual love, not related to the sensual desires.

The philosophy of Plato was revived several times throughout history under the name of Platonism, involving any doctrine which lays ideal essences in the foundation of existence, and intellectual effort n the basis of knowledge, departing from intuition, and viewing experience as a result and not a source, and preaching the superiority of the eternal values in its ethics.

Plato’s influence was obvious in the first centuries AD, when the Christian worldview was formed. The influence of Plato in the contemporary theory is mostly valuable in the perspective of dialogical art. In our time, the study of theory and practice of the ancient dialogue, which had a huge impact on the world dialog and rhetorical art, can help the revival of the ancient culture of dialectical thinking, developing creative skills, as opposed to dogmatic thinking. The experience of ancient Greeks today is relevant and necessary, because we essentially face the same problems, which the citizens of Greek policies tried to understand in their own way.


Kernan, A. (2000). In Plato’s Cave. Yale University Press.
O’Neill, J. (1991). Plato’s Cave: Desire, Power, and the Specular Functions of the Media. Ablex Publishing
Plato (2007). The Republic (2nd edn.). Penguin Classics.
Plato (2010).The Allegory of the Cave. CreateSpace.
Puente, C.E. (2004). A universe of projections: may Plato be right? Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, 19(2), pp. 241-253.