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“Allegory of the Cave” by Plato Essay

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Updated: Oct 15th, 2021


As seen in the writings of Plato regarding Socrates, which some will argue is a blending of the two philosophers’ ideas, one of the requirements for a moral and ethical man is that he must first know “his spiritual self as it really is, including all its shortcomings, strengths and potentialities” (Sahakian, Sahakian 32). This is, ultimately, the journey being taken by the unnamed man and boy in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006) as they travel from somewhere in the northern United States to the south in order to find a climate they can survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland the country has become.

As Plato was a disciple of Socrates and the source of much of the information we have regarding much of what this man had to say, Socrates’ concept of ethics is relevant to an understanding of Plato’s views and the discoveries of the characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novel. According to Socrates, it is the man who does not know himself who cannot accurately judge his own capabilities and his own unique path to the greatest good based on accurate use of his strengths and knowledge of his weaknesses. Socrates takes this another step by suggesting that knowledge of oneself will instruct from within regarding those things which are good (moral and ethical) and those things which are not.

He suggests this by claiming that things that are good will make us feel happy inside while things that are bad will be immediately recognizable to the man who knows himself because these actions will cause “spiritual degradation and mental deterioration” (Sahakian, Sahakian 33) that will be immediately apparent.

As the man and boy travel through the barren landscape, it can be seen that the ethics of the boy have developed along different routes than the ethics of his father, leading them each to different paths of salvation. This progression can be most clearly seen by making a comparison between Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the situation in which the man and boy find themselves within McCarthy’s novel, particularly in terms of the characteristics of the cave, the nature of the forms presented and the ultimate enlightenment each character receives.

The cave

Plato’s allegory begins with the placement of all humans within a dark cave, positioned in such a way that they can only see what their captors have elected to allow them to see. Within the primitive technology of his time, Plato described such a position. In the dialogue he presents, Socrates explains “here they [human beings] have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads” (Kreis 2004).

From where they sit, the world is composed of the shadows of things that are passing behind them, illuminated by a light source that cannot be seen or guessed at. Within this world, there is no color or natural light. What the people know about their world is extremely limited and sharply defined by the simple and relatively concrete terms of dark, light, hot, cold, here and not here. It is two dimensional, defined by height and width but never provided depth or texture. There are no real conceptions for shades of grey, no need to make fine distinctions and no decisions that must be made that are not drastic, such as the decisions one might need to decide if one suddenly found oneself free of their constraints.

Within the dialogue, Socrates goes on to explain that when one of these individuals is released from the bonds that bind him, “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” (Kreis 2004). Even when facing the true reality, these individuals will strive to reject what they see, still preferring to believe that what they once knew is still real.

However, Socrates continues the discussion by explaining that once this individual is forced to live in this newer light, the person will begin to understand their new perception as being the true reality by degrees: “… 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” (Kreis 2004). From this acceptance, Socrates theorized that the person would be very reluctant to return to the cave and would instead take pity on those he had left behind him in the cave.

The connection between Plato’s cave and the world introduced at the opening of McCarthy’s novel is almost impossible to miss. It is described as “nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” (McCarthy 3). The people are required to wear anything they can find as screens over their mouths in order to breathe through the ash-filled air and the sun is permanently hidden behind the clouds, as are the moon and stars.

Everything, everywhere has been burned, turning the world into black and grey underneath a ‘sullen’ light that casts only feeble shadows at its peak. What colors that do exist are muted within this light and covered by the pall of ash and the biting cold. There are no animals, no plants and very few people.

Of these, most are rightly considered hostile. “The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought” (McCarthy 75). The reduction of the world into only a limited number of possibilities sounds very much like the reduced world of Plato’s cave.

The connection is made undeniable, though, with the description of the man’s dream in which “he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand” (McCarthy 3) and the light source seems to have been their bodies symbolizing that both individuals are ‘enlightened’ beings. The man and boy are experiencing the same sort of pain and natural rejection of true reality that is described by Socrates as being felt by the man emerging from the cave.

The difference here is that the pain is the pain of a man being forced to re-enter the darkness of the cave despite all his conceptions of a better world. His reluctance to accept the reality before him forces him to feel pity for the young son who will never experience all the joys he’d once hoped to give him. This is obvious in the touching scene when he finds the can of Coke. “[H]e put his thumbnail under the aluminum clip on the top of the can and opened it.

He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. … You drink it … It’s because I won’t ever get to drink another one, isn’t it?” (McCarthy 20). As the man comes to realize, the world he remembers will never be anything more than a fantasy world to his son, a place of unrealizable possibilities for which the son must ultimately pity the father for having lost.

The forms

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato sets forth the idea that mankind is only living in an illusion of life, that the reality is beyond the scope of our own senses and can only be reached through the intellect. As has been described, humans are locked within a specific position that only provides them with a two-dimensional, strictly limited understanding of the world around them. In this vision, Socrates explains that the human beings are watching a giant screen on which marionettes and other things dance, but the humans can only see the shadows of these moving things.

The actual colors and nature of these things cannot be perceived from such a perspective, but not having known anything else, Socrates argues that the humans don’t know there’s something to miss: “To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (Sahakian, Sahakian 388). While the people understand that the shapes on the screen are triangular or circular, they are unaware of the significance of the pyramids or the rubber ball. Although this is their reality as they can see it, Plato indicates a sense of mystery must pervade everything as the light source itself must provoke a sense of inquiry.

This can be compared in a very material sense with the forms of the remaining world that are often recognizable to the father, but have no meaning for the son. The sharing of a can of Coke is only one instance where the father, because of his knowledge of the world before the cataclysm that occurred, is able to find safe food and water for them to drink. The son sees a round metal cylinder, which could be something good to eat or something poisonous or something to power a kind of useful machine.

Toy trucks are given sound only through the vocal chords of the father rather than having ever actually heard one and trains are, to the boy, only stationary creatures standing on tracks to rust away with the centuries. Again, though, the author introduces a particularly poignant symbol of the differences between the forms of the father and those of the son with the finding of the sextant. A sextant is a tool of navigation that utilizes the sun, moon or stars as a light source to find direction (Nova 2002).

The man “held it to his eye and turned the wheel. It was the first thing he’d seen in a long time that stirred him” (McCarthy 192). The reason he didn’t bring such a useful tool back for his son to use was because it no longer worked. The sun, permanently hidden behind clouds of ash, could only provide the earth with a diffuse light. Much like the hidden source of light in Plato’s cave, it is incapable of providing direction.

The Salvation

In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates explains that when one of the individuals from the cave is released from the bonds that bind him and “he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself”, he has made an intellectual journey into a higher realm of understanding. Through this description, Plato introduces the imagery of a mountain, alluding to the depths of the cave, the ascent of the freed mind and then, finally, making the jump to the heavens by forcing his character into the presence of the sun.

With this imagery, one can easily understand how the person who stands higher on the mountain would be able to see things clearer than those standing in the valley, or the cave. Once his eyes become adjusted to the new light, this individual is able to more correctly assess the reality of the world he finds around him by degrees: “… 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” (Sahakian, Sahakian 388).

If that person returned to help the others find their way out of the cave and could make himself accepted as such, Socrates indicates the people would have a tendency to idolize him, but having only been ahead of them in seeing the true reality, this leader would be reluctant to take on such a role. However, if the person had returned to their imprisonment within the cave before their sight was adjusted, they would instead be ridiculed, considered crazy by the inhabitants of the cave who had never left and held as an example for why no one should try venturing out of the cave.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator tells the reader about the dream the man was having just before he woke up into the grey world of his present reality. In the dream, “he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand” (McCarthy 3) and the light source seems to have been their bodies symbolizing that both individuals are ‘enlightened’ beings. However, the son was born just after the apocalyptic event occurred and has no memories of the world his father survived.

This is indicated through his incomprehension of the forms left over from his father’s world but doesn’t explain why he should be considered an enlightened being. Constant references to his blond hair and angelic look continue to reinforce the idea that the son is perhaps even more enlightened than the father. The reason for this relates back to Plato’s basic metaphor of adjusting one’s eyes to the light. While the man continues to hope for a better future for his son, he slowly begins to realize that the type of fire that once burned in him is useless in this new world. The discovery of an old coin forces the man to face reality. “The lettering was in Spanish.

He started to call to the boy where he trudged ahead and then he looked about at the gray country and the gray sky and he dropped the coin and hurried on to catch up” (McCarthy 173). As he realizes his survival skills and knowledge are based upon a world that no longer exists, the man’s fire can be seen to burn into ash and he dies, instructing his son to continue going south and to keep his fire burning.

The fire of the son, though, is enlightenment brought about by already having his eyes adjusted to the new light of the world. He is aware that he has lost much in losing the world of his father, but he is also aware that he must find a means of surviving in this world. Intuitively, he perceives that this salvation will only come from finding a way of joining up with other ‘good people’ and beginning the process of rebuilding society.

While his father’s goals are simply to keep the two of them alive, the boy realizes that the final destruction of humanity is the loss of kindness. He finds it increasingly difficult to obey the instructions of his father as they continue south, finally breaking down in tears to force his father to do the right thing for a man who had thought to steal everything they owned. Later that evening, the man tells the boy, “I wasn’t going to kill him” and the boy answers back “But we did kill him” (McCarthy 219).

The boy is the leader of the future because his eyes are already adjusted to the light of a world completely alien and incomprehensible to those of his father’s generation. Although he will require the help of the elder members of a group to interpret the forms of the previous generations, it will be his clear sight in identifying the unique value of the human being that will eventually push him to become the carrier of the light his father envisions.


Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is an interesting investigation of Plato’s allegory of the cave from the perspective of an enlightened society being forced to re-enter the darkness of a completely alien and hostile world. Both stories rely on a darkened, two-dimensional world in which options are few, environments are hostile and colorless and light is diffuse and mysterious. Within these worlds, there are items or forms that are equally mysterious and unidentifiable, such as the can of Coke and the flare gun that shoots fire to alert someone of a presence as compared to the marionettes and fire of Plato’s world.

While these are amazing things, they are things that just don’t exist and thus remain outside of the world of the child or the people in the cave. The man, having come from an enlightened world, introduces his son to those things that were missed as is predicted by Plato, but is unable to pass that enlightenment along because it no longer applies to this new world under this new light. Thus the man moves in a reverse direction from the enlightenment of Plato. However, the boy, also moving in this same direction, is moving into a new enlightenment. Like Plato’s enlightened leader, the boy understands the world as it is revealed under his new light and shows promise of finding humanity’s salvation in his mercy and kindness.

Works Cited

Kreis, Steven. “Plato: The Allegory of the Cave.” 2004. The History Guide. Web.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Nova. “How a Sextant Works.” Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance. Nova Online. New York: PBS, (2002). Web.

Sahakian, W. and Sahakian, M. Ideas of the Great Philosophers. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1966. Web.

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