The allegory of all allegories, Plato's Allegory of the Cave is not the rosiest take on the reality of human existence. You might even call it downright bleak: it envisions the world as a dark cave, human beings as trapped prisoners, and all of our experiences as nothing but shadows on a wall. "See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling," instructs Socrates, "with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave" (514a).
Imagine a cave with a small tunnel of light leading out and hundreds of human beings tied up so that they can't move—they just stare straight ahead all day long (creepy, we know). But they do get a little entertainment: there's a rockin' shadow-puppet show projected on the wall in front of them with a fire burning in the back for light. Since this show is all these poor people can see, they think it's the best, most awesome reality ever. They chat about it, gossip, call people names... you know, the usual.
So that's how life goes down in the cave until one day, one of the prisoners manages to break free and begins to figure out what's going on. It takes a while for his eyes to adjust, but gradually, he sees that there is a much brighter speck of light at the end of another tunnel. So out he goes... and wow, you can imagine how amazing and beautiful the real world looks to him compared to that two-dimensional, dark cave he's spent all his life in.
Feeling sorry for all his fellow prisoners, the freed prisoner goes back down and explains to everyone that they're all trapped in this massive cave, and everything they think is real is an illusion. Guess what? They think he's nuts. He keeps trying to convince them, and he's finally able to persuade a few... but the rest choose to remain where they are.
All right, so what's the deal with this wacky story? Well, the prisoners in the cave, we're sad to say, are us: human beings. We think the real world around us is the cat's pajamas, but we are oh so wrong. That one prisoner who freed himself and realized this? That dude's a philosopher. Philosophers are brave enough to leave the familiarity of the cave and explore the real world of light.
So what's the real world of light? Well, that would be Plato's concept of "the forms," which you can learn more about in our "Forms" section. What you need to know here is that the forms are what Plato believes is true reality. By pursuing philosophical knowledge with courage and persistence, you can get to a place where you can actually see them. Once you do see them, you'll never be satisfied with the ho-hum world most of us see. You'll even try to get your friends to pursue them with you, but like the freed prisoner everyone laughed at, plenty of people just won't believe you.
What It All Means
Even though Plato's Allegory of the Cave can seem pretty darn bleak, remember that it's meant to be a wake-up call for everyone to stop settling for an imperfect, unexplored life. Since Plato believed that human beings could eventually free themselves and head upwards to the real world by leading a life of philosophical consideration, the Allegory's bleakness is really meant to be motivational, to make people understand how limiting and self-defeating an "unexamined life" can be.
It's also meant to remind people that they should be skeptical of everything. Yep, even of what's right in front of your eyes. The key to being a philosophical person is to take everything you encounter in life as an opportunity for scrutiny and self-improvement.
Plato was definitely going for shock value with this haunting image—and shock is what he got. The Allegory of Cave has become one of the most unforgettable, talked-about moments in the history of philosophy. In one way or another, almost every major philosophical viewpoint since Plato has responded to, attacked, or reimagined this foundational image of human existence.