And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened
or unenlightened: – Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which
has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they
have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so
that they can not move, and can only see before them, being prevented by
the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a
fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there
is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the
way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over
which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of
vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various
materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows
of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never
allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would see
only the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose
that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other
side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that
the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of
That is certain.
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are
released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is
liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and
walk and look toward the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will
distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his
former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to
him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching
nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has
a clearer vision, – what will be his reply? And you may further imagine
that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring
him to name them, – will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that
the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now
shown to him?
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?
True, he said.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged
ascent and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself,
is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the
light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at
all of what are now called realities.
Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world.
And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other
objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze
upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he
will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light
of the sun by day?
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him
in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another;
and he will contemplate him as he is.
– Plato, The Republic