The republic is centrally concerned with how people acquire knowledge about justice, and good. The allegory of the cave and its placement in the republic is also very significant. The Allegory of the Cave uses the metaphor of prisoners chained in the dark to explain the difficulties of reaching and sustaining a just and intellectual spirit.
The allegory is set forth in a dialogue as a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon. Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult climb. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them. They have been chained in that position all their lives. There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see is their shadows. Some of the others speak, but there are echoes in the cave that make it difficult for the prisoners to understand which person is saying what.
Socrates explains that the cave represents the world and the life which is revealed to us only through the sense of sight. When he explains the ascent out of the cave, he explains this as the “journey of the soul into the region of the intelligible”. Plato then describes the four stages in our development. The first being the imprisonment in the cave, which is the imaginary world. In Stage one, people live enchained inside the cave and are curious by what they immediately see. At this stage, human beings consider only the shadows cast as being the truth of things. “This could be understood as our enchainment to the material nature of things or to our technological devices in our modern day world. It is the stage where most human beings dwell”.
At Stage Two, the chains are removed, and the prisoner is compelled to turn and to look at the things that, before, were merely shadows to him or her. Although still within the cave, the person is free in a certain aspect, they can move their heads in every direction, and it is now possible to see the very things that were along the roadway behind them that they couldn’t see before. “Before they looked only at shadows, now they are “a little nearer to what is”. The things offer themselves in a visible form in a certain way, namely, through the light of the fire and they are no longer hidden by the shadows they project. When one is freed from the captivity, it becomes possible for the person who has been freed to enter the area that is more “unhidden” as Plato calls it. But the person will consider the shadows that they saw before as being more “unhidden” than what is being shown to them in the first moments of being free.
The eyes are not accustomed to the light and the prisoner is initially blinded and confused according to Plato. The first moments of freedom would be considered painful. The blinding does not allow the prisoner to see the fire itself and from understanding how its light illuminates the things and lets these things appear for the first time. That is why those who have been liberated cannot comprehend that what they previously saw were merely shadows. They see other things besides the shadows, but these things only appear in confusion to the prisoner. The shadows appear much more sharply and because of this, the prisoner who has been freed thinks these shadows are more real than before. The prisoner feels that the more proper truth is to be found in the shadows because they are unable to recognize the shadows as shadows. The situation necessary for seeing the shadows as shadows according to Plato is freedom. Removing the chains brings some sort of freedom, but it is not yet real freedom.
Real freedom is only gained at Stage Three. The prisoner is led out of the Cave and into the light where they can see everything. The shadows no longer appear as in confusing glow of the fire. The things themselves appear in the “truth” and blindingness of their own shadow. “The openness outside of the Cave does not mean Sun’s light. The light of the Sun is a metaphor for Love in the Cave and outside of the Cave. The “looks” that show what things are, the Ideas or the Forms, are the essence of what each individual thing/being shows itself as this or that. It is only through this “self-showing” that the appearing thing becomes visible and accessible to us as human beings”.
For the prisoners inside of the Cave, to have been freed from the shadows to see the light of the fire and to see how things are shown in the firelight was a difficult task that proved too difficult for many prisoners. In their pain and confusion, they returned to the shadows. Being freed from the chains does not come about by the simple removal of the chains, and certainly freedom is not to do what one wishes. “Freedom consists in the continuous effort to accustom oneself to look upon the firm limits of the things that stand in their visible form. It is an understanding of the Necessity of things”. Freedom for Plato is being centered toward what appears in its visible form and which is most “unhidden”. Plato also talks a lot about education and views education as the constant overcoming of the lack of education.
The Fourth Stage involves the descent of the freed person back into the Cave, back to those prisoners who are still in the chains. The one who has been freed is required to lead those who are still in chains away from what is unhidden for them and to bring them to see the truth. But because the liberator has been outside of the Cave, he no longer knows his way around inside of the Cave and he risks the dangers of the overwhelming power of the kind of truth that operates in the Cave by those who tend the Fire and those who are satisfied living with the shadows, that what is called reality in the Cave is the only reality.
The notion of what truth is creates the conditions of that area in the Cave that the freed person now visits. Now, in stages one and two there were two forms of “unhiddenness” that were operating, the unhiddenness of the shadows and the unhiddenness of the man-made fire. “These two views of unhiddenness represent two factors essential to the truth, not only does the “unhidden” render accessible whatever appears and keeps it revealed in its appearing, but it constantly overcomes a hiddenness of the hidden”.
Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to being freed. When he sees that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he is confused. They can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but at first, he’ll assume his shadow life was the reality. Eventually, when dragged out into the sun, be painfully dazzled by the brightness, and stunned by the beauty of the moon and the stars. Once he becomes accustomed to the light, he will pity the people in the cave and want to stay above and apart from them, but think of them and his own past. The new arrivals will choose to remain in the light, but, says Socrates, they must not. Because for true enlightenment, to understand and apply what is good and just, they must go back into the darkness, join the men chained to the wall, and share that knowledge with them.