The Allegory of the Cave and The Meaning of Education (2023)

Dear readers,

Today, I would like to share with you a simple post about the meaning of a not-so-simple word — education.

I found the subject difficult to write about — this is the late-twentieth-something version of this article.

Quite difficult, in fact.

Despite having spent the majority of my life steeped in an education system, it was impossible to make “education” comprehensible.

Yet I couldn’t get away from the idea of writing about what an education means, so unfortunately for you — here you are.

The Beginning

The first school in the world was Plato’s. Did you know that?

At least, the first school for the purpose of “higher learning” was Plato’s Academy in Athens, Greece in the 4th century BC.

If you went to school sometime in the last 2,500 years, you learned that Plato’s Academy was the birthplace of moral philosophy — that is, if you don’t count the Hebrew scriptures.

Why do I say moral philosophy and not simply philosophy?

Believe it or not, philosophy pre-dates Socrates, only the “pre-socratic philosophers” as they were called asked only one question — “What is the world made of?”

Socrates would be the first person to ask not “what is the fundamental nature of reality,” but rather “what is the essence of living a Good life?”

By “Good Life” Socrates wasn’t referencing the idea of being a millionaire by age 30, he meant a life that lived in accordance with the Highest Good.

The Highest Good, or simply The Good, is that source of Being from which everything else derives its goodness.

It is Goodness itself — the ideal form of what makes anything (including a life) “good.”

The Good, along with the Beautiful, and the True, became the famous transcendentals of philosophy. They are the highest forms in Plato’s so-called “intelligible” realm (i.e. “heaven”).

Interesting random facts about Plato’s transcendentals, with absolutely no agenda behind them:

  1. There are three logically distinct forms:

  2. The Good

  3. The True

  4. The Beautiful

  5. Yet, because you cannot have any one of them without the other two, they are inseparable and in fact identical.

  6. Together, they form Being itself. One reality, one Highest Good, in three distinct forms.

If that sounds familiar to you, then you get it.

If it doesn't, call me.

At any rate, the reason I am giving you this look into Platonic metaphysics is because for Socrates — and thus Plato — the whole goal in life was to study these transcendentals.

The point of life was to “transcend” the illusory material world, through the study of philosophy, and ascend into the spiritual world of the forms.

That is why Plato started his school — to study the virtues, so that he and his students could achieve nothing less than salvation.

Salvation from what? From the material world, to free the Soul from the material prison of this world and be united in spirit with The Good itself.

That was the very beginning of school.

Quite a far cry from the garbage heap that is the American educational system today, wouldn’t you say?

The Allegory of The Cave

This grand metaphysical vision of the world can be found in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, which appears in Book 7 of his Republic.

In it, Socrates describes a darkened cave where we are to imagine a group of people who have been there from birth, chained with the entrance of the cave.

Their bodies are locked in place, and they cannot take their eyes away from the wall opposite the entrance to the cave.

Behind these prisoners occurs a kind of puppet show, with a fire between the show and the entrance to the cave, so that the shadows of the puppets are cast on the wall.

The entrance of the cave is above the prisoners, so the light from the outside world does not reach them directly:

The Allegory of the Cave and The Meaning of Education (1)

Socrates bids us to imagine what the prisoners would do with their time. If they had truly never known they were in a cave to begin with, wouldn’t they believe the cave was all that existed?

“Of course!” Socrates’ student Glaucon responds dutifully.

Wouldn’t these prisoners believe that the shadows that they see on the walls are the true things themselves, being unable to turn their heads to see the puppets?

We can even imagine these prisoners awarding each other honors and prizes for those who were the quickest at identifying the shapes as they passed by on the wall.

Socrates then describes the process of someone who is freed and “compelled” to turn their head to look up at the light.

“He’d be pained an dazzled and not able to see things whose shadows he had seen before” says Socrates,

“Wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s being shown?”

“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated this way?

“And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single tone of the things now said to be true?”

Socrates then describes how eventually this man would become used to the sunlight, and realize how much more amazing the outside world is to the cave.

Happy and joyful at the world he has discovered outside the cave, he begins to study everything on his own with no outside compulsion.

His ultimate goal is to see the Sun itself clearly, the source of all light, by which we see everything else.

Of course, he can never truly see the Sun clearly, so he will spend the rest of time studying the Sun — getting to know the source of all light.

Eventually, this man realizes that he should try to go and free the others in the cave so that they too can experience this senseless Joy.

He stumbles back into the cave, now too dark for him to see, and seems like a clumsy fool to the other prisoners in the cave whose eyes are still adjusted to the darkness.

When the freed man tells them of the world outside, he sounds like a raving maniac to the other prisoners.

When he insists that everything which gives their lives meaning is nothing but shadows and lies — they rise up and kill the freed man.

So we come to it finally, the meaning of education.

The Meaning Of Education

We get the word education from this story, actually.

The word comes from two Latin words “ex” (out of) and “ducare” (to lead). So, education literally means “to lead out of.”

To lead out of — what? Out of the cave.

Out of our delusions, false beliefs, prejudices, and fallacious judgements. We must be led out of the darkness of our ignorance, materialism, and vice.

We are led instead into a world of beauty, virtue, and light.

This process does not begin with our own “free will” however.

Notice that the story begins with the freed man being “compelled.” He is forced, in the beginning, to look at the light.

Why? Because it hurts, the path of education (salvation) is painful in the beginning.

We need a teacher — someone who already knows that the path we are on is worth the pain — to push us along.

Eventually, however, if our education is done correctly, we should mature and desire to learn on our own as we see the incredible beauty of the Truth.

At that point, we begin to search for ourselves what is True, Good, and Beautiful.

Our lives take on a virtuous and moral character, because the virtues are more real than the things that first appear real to us in this world.

This is the meaning of an education. It is not idealistic, nor is it wishful-thinking to say an education is the moral formation and enlightenment of the student.

That is what education is aimed at, that is what an education means — a good education anyway.

Conclusion: The Philosopher and The Messiah

If you’re a platonist, then this process is much more than a mere education — it is the pathway of salvation.

Plato seemed to believe, more or less, that one could literally transcend the world through the study of philosophy.

The outside world in his Allegory represents the immaterial reality that Plato believed was the final reality.

Through this process of education that I’ve described, Plato felt you could ascend to heaven simply through the enlightenment of the mind.

There was one famous platonist, however, that disagreed with Plato quite forcefully.

The battle that ensued between them dictated the development of the intellectual tradition in the West for nearly three millenia.

The philosopher's name was Aristotle, and he was rather convinced Plato had it wrong.

Aristotle accepted the groundwork of Plato’s metaphysics by recognizing there was an objective, ontologically-independent, source for our moral beliefs and virtues.

However — Aristotle did not believe anyone could escape the cave. We are material beings, argued Aristotle, and no amount of enlightenment will be enough to change the nature of man.

The best we can hope for, according to Aristotle, is to make the cave more like the world outside the cave.

For him, there is an infinite chasm between men in the cave and the outside world.

We can shape the material world to be more like the immaterial one, but no salvation is to be had — man is doomed by his vicious nature and natural limitations.

The debate between followers of Plato and followers of Aristotle seemed to rage on endlessly.

There suddenly came a very surprising answer by another man, however, which changed the direction of philosophy and education forever —

“I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.”

Radically, here was a man turning the whole debate on its head — he was not offering a pathway of enlightenment, he was claiming to be the Sun itself.

The Sun of the heavenly realm, which our freed man loved so dearly, descended into the cave of its own accord to illuminate the material world through His revelation of Himself.

This, according to the Christian vision of education, was the only truly “freed man,” who came to show us that He was (in His own nature!) the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

He insisted that everything in our lives were shadows and lies — that there was a world out there for us filled with beauty and light — and we killed Him for it.

He asked us to follow Him — to follow Him up out of the darkness of our sinful indolence, out of the darkness of barbarism, of ignorance, of hatred and pride.

He is asking us still — we can spend our lives learning how — and that is the meaning of an education.

Further Reading

Republic by Plato

The Cave and The Light by Arthur Herman

The Gospel of St. John

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