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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2021

Zina Giannopoulou*
University of California, Irvine


The allegory of the Cave in Republic 514a–18d is one of the most memorable Platonic images. The depiction of chained humans in a cavernous dwelling looking at shadows of objects cast on a parapet in front of them but unable to locate the objects themselves until one of them is freed, turns around to see the objects, and finally leaves the cave has haunted and inspired readers throughout the centuries. The prisoners are said to be ‘like us’ (515a), which is taken to refer either to human life in general or to human life in corrupt political environments. Plato's core metaphysical and epistemological doctrines are thought to inhere in the Cave, his belief that the sensible world, represented by the cave, holds people captive to defective and erroneous appearances, and that only philosophy can free and enlighten them, leading them out of the cave to the intelligible realm of the eternal Forms. The cave then houses captives since childhood who believe that shadows of artifacts exhaust reality, and captors who project images of artifacts on the wall and thereby manipulate what the captives see and hear.

Research Article
Copyright © Ramus 2021

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1. Throughout the paper, I use ‘Cave’ to refer to the allegory, and ‘cave’ to refer to the prisoners’ subterranean dwelling. Allusions to the Cave continue past 518d but they draw out implications of the allegory for the education of the rulers in the kallipolis (see 518e and following).

2. The bibliography on the Cave is vast. For studies with useful bibliography see, for example, Kraut (1991), Santas (2006), and Fine (2008).

3. On the whole, scholars have been less interested in this puzzle than in the corresponding puzzle of the compulsion exerted on the philosopher to return to the cave. For exceptions see Strauss (1964), 128; Annas (1981), 259; and Barney (2008).

4. Unless otherwise, noted, all translations come from Cooper (1997).

5. Gocer (1999) argues that the theatrical setup of the cave likely evokes not only popular entertainment in general but also Aristophanic comedy in particular. If so, Plato here alludes to his critique of the arts in Book 10.

6. Among the commentators who defend some version or other of the parallelism between Line and Cave are Nettleship (1901), Adam (1902), Murphy (1932), Raven (1953), Gould (1955), Malcolm (1962) and (1981), Cross and Woozley (1964), Morrison (1977), White (1979), Annas (1981), Karasmanis (1988), Fine (2003), and Wilberding (2004).

7. Cross and Woozley (1964), 226f.

8. For discussions see Annas (1981), 255; Cross and Woozley (1964), 227f.; Fine (1990), 232; Joseph (1948), 34; Sze (1977), 127–38; and Wilson (1976), 118.

9. Ferguson (1921) and (1922). For other political readings of the Cave, see Joseph (1948), Robinson (1953), Strauss (1964), Sinaiko (1965), and Strang (1986).

10. So when Socrates says that the prisoners are ‘like us’, he may only be referring to himself and Glaucon, and perhaps the other interlocutors who have been following the conversation thus far.

11. See Strauss (1964), 125; Ferguson (1922); and Cross and Woozley (1964), 221.

12. e.g. Bloom (1968), 404; Burnyeat (1999), 241; and Joseph (1948), 39.

13. e.g. Burnyeat (1999), 241; Cross and Woozley (1964), 221–3; and Joseph (1948), 39.

14. The sophists fit this double bill. Although they make no political contributions to the city, they attract many students and are often accused of deceiving them (Apol. 19d, Prot. 313c, Tim. 19d–e, Rep. 600c–d). In the Sophist, they are called ‘imitators’ who practice the craft of making copies (eidôlopoiikên technên, 235b8f.) and are said to ‘run off into the darkness of what is not’ (254a4f.; cf. 266a). Politicians are often associated with sophists (Gorg. 519c, 520a). In the Statesman, politicians who lack knowledge are called ‘imitators’ and said to preside over ‘copies’ (eidôlôn; 293e, 300d–e, 303c). As for artists, their likenesses are received into the souls of their listeners without their realizing it (Rep. 376e, 392c; cf. Laws 670d).

15. The Greek text follows Burnet's OCT.

16. For a discussion of the nature and problems regarding the use of the compulsion the return to the cave see Brown (2000), Irwin (1995), Kraut (1991) and (1992), and Cooper (1977).

17. The labels come from Barney (2008). Barney supports the erotic reading but finds the other two, and indeed all three, mutually non-exclusive and plausible.

18. Barney (2008), 6.

19. Cf. Barney (2008), 7. For the Socratic reading see, for example, Shorey (1935), 124; Elliot (1967); and Bloom (1968), 406.

20. I return to the distinction between external and internal forces shortly.

21. Barney (2008), 9.

22. Barney (2008).

23. Barney (2008), 15.

24. The concept of the simulacrum has a complex history within twentieth-century French thought. It appears primarily in the work of three thinkers—Pierre Klossowski, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean Baudrillard—but each of them conceives of the notion differently from the others. Klossowski derives the term from the criticisms of the church fathers against the depraved representations of the gods on the Roman stage; Deleuze (1994), 229, uses the term to describe differential systems in which ‘the different is related to the different through difference itself’; and Baudrillard uses the term to designate the increasingly ‘hyperreal’ status of certain aspects of contemporary culture.

25. Deleuze (1994) and (1990b).

26. Colli-Montinari (1969), III 3, 207.

27. Deleuze (1983b), 48.

28. Deleuze (1990b), 296.

29. Deleuze (1994), 128.

30. Deleuze (1994), 128.

31. Deleuze (1983b), 52.

32. Deleuze (1983b), 48, 53.

33. Deleuze and Guattari (1983), 4.

34. Deleuze's deconstruction of the original/copy hierarchy echoes Foucault's (1983), 44, discussion of resemblance and similitude in Magritte's paintings: ‘Resemblance has a “model”, an original…element that orders and hierarchizes the increasingly less faithful copies that can be struck from it. Resemblance presupposes a primary reference that prescribes and classes. The similar develops in series that have neither beginning nor end, can be followed in one direction as easily as in another, obey no hierarchy, but propagate themselves from small differences. Resemblance serves representation, which rules over it; similitude serves repetition, which ranges across it. Resemblance predicates itself upon a model it must return to and reveal; similitude circulates the simulacrum as an indefinite and reversible relation of the similar to the similar.’

35. Massumi (1987b), 92.

36. Deleuze (1994), 106.

37. Deleuze (1983b), 48.

38. Deleuze (1998), 136.

39. Deleuze (1994), 60.

40. The Conformist (1970), Italy/France/Germany; in Italian and English with English subtitles. US distribution: Rarovideo (2014).

41. As far as I know, the only classical scholar to have referred to The Conformist as ‘the only successful visual translation of the Cave's terms of metaphor’ is Annas (1981), 257.

42. Bertolucci's cinematic techniques in that segment of the film align him with Pasolini's ‘cinema of poetry’, characterized by the collapse of the difference between what the character sees and what the camera sees in favor of a syncretism of the two visions that Pasolini calls ‘free indirect discourse’ or ‘free, indirect subjective’, and Deleuze (1989a), 148f., describes as simulation of the character's view by the view of the camera. For Pasolini's cinema of poetry see Nichols (1976a), 542–58.

43. Kawin (1978), xi.

44. Whereas the puppeteers in Plato's cave are conscious deceivers of others, Marcello is an unconscious deceiver of himself. Yet both are deceivers, and in that sense puppeteers in their respective caves.

45. Cf. Bertolucci: ‘Because there is a camera which moves and which is itself an actor, an actor who makes the others react. The camera is a character like Trintignant, a living presence, not a recording machine’ (Goldin [2000], 65).

46. But note that his fiction weaves elements of the Lino-incident and the murder of the Quadris into the following psychologically astute narrative: a living Lino becomes the homosexual responsible for Marcello's wish to conform; an aspect of his conformism was working for the fascists; fascists killed the Quadris; Lino was not demonstrably a fascist, and Marcello was at best a reluctant and at worst a disobedient fascist; both Lino and Marcello are innocent of the actual Quadri murder, but Marcello wants to shirk any responsibility for it and to blame another; thus Lino killed the Quadris.

47. Dalle Vacche (1990), 411.

48. Dalle Vacche (1992), 62f.

49. Cf. Bertolucci: ‘[At the end of the film] Marcello understands, he achieves prendere coscienza (consciousness), but it's also instinctual, unconscious as well’ (Georgakas and Rubenstein [1985], 36).

50. The film often frames characters within bars to deepen their sense of imprisonment. These bars frequently take the form of horizontal and vertical shadows, as well as barred windows, trees, and gates.

51. Marcello's rebellion reflects Bertolucci's belief that ‘cinema is always political, but all films which are made within the system are also exploited by the system. I thought during the sixties that with movies you could make a revolution, but it isn't true. Now I think you can be at the service of the revolution. Cinema itself cannot be revolutionary—it can only be contestatario (in opposition)’ (Georgakas and Rubenstein [1985], 38). It also heeds the injunction of the Cahiers editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni (2004) that cinema must not content itself with the bourgeois project of reproducing reality but should denounce and challenge cinematic illusion.

52. Cf. Bertolucci: ‘Marcello is really a very complex character, searching to conform because of his great, violent anti-conformism. A true conformist is someone who has no wish to change: to wish to conform is really to say that the truth is the contrary’ (Goldin [2000], 66).

53. I am indebted to Dom Gavin, Millicent Marcus, Allen Miller, Mario Telò, and George Wilson for their encouragement and helpful comments on drafts of this paper. I also thank the anonymous referees of Ramus for helping me rethink some of my points. Finally, I am grateful to Kyle Khellaf for his patience, empathy, and editorial acumen.

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