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August 16, 2022

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Explained

Have you ever wondered how philosophy and narrative intersect? Where the difference lies between a film and reality? One way we decipher this complex message is through Plato’s Allegory of The Cave.

It is one of history's most important philosophical works dating back thousands of years. Learning about it can fundamentally change how you approach writing screenplays.

Here's Plato's Allegory of the Cave: explained.

What is Plato's Allegory of the Cave?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is an allegory: a story with a hidden meaning. In much the same way, Orwell's Animal Farm is not really about animals but what those animals represent, so the Cave is not really about a cave.

The story

The story is told as a dialogue between philosophers Glaucon and Socrates, narrated by Socrates.

A group of prisoners live in a cave. A bright fire is burning behind them, seemingly preventing them from escaping. A series of people they can't see project shadow puppets onto the wall in front of them.

To the prisoners in the Cave who have lived there since early childhood, this is what they believe to be their world. However, one prisoner manages to escape, and somebody drags one of the prisoners around the fire and into the real world.

Once they escape the Cave, the freed prisoner is initially angry and upset because their eyes burn in the overwhelming sunlight. But eventually, their eyes adjust, and they see the world for what it is, a new reality.

If this man tried to go back into the Cave to rescue other prisoners, he would not be able to do it. His eyes, having adjusted to the sunlight, would not be able to see in the darkness of the Cave.

The hidden message

The hidden message of Plato's Cave is an escape from ignorance.

Reality is but a construction. The world is only as big as we can imagine. Plato's Cave has at its heart internal conflict. If we open our minds to new ideas and belief systems, we can expand our universe. And when we don't, we will no longer be able to step back into the darkness so easily.

The Cave story also reveals something more fundamental about narrative itself. Narratives exist within a cave so that we as an audience exit when we leave the cinema or turn off our television, adjusting to the light of our own safe world, removed from the ideas presented to us in the film.

Where can you read the Allegory of the Cave?

Following this link, you can read the original Plato's Allegory of the Cave. It is a classic work of literature well worth investigating for yourself.

You can read a more detailed summary of the Allegory of the Cave as part of Plato's Republic here.  

If you want to incorporate some of these ideas into your screenplay or are particularly interested in meta-narrative, then it is well worth making some notes that you can refer back to later.  

How to use allegory in your screenwriting

You might wonder what utility Allegory of the Cave has in the practical work of writing your screenplay. In fact, it's very useful.

The Allegory of the Cave is closely linked to Joseph Campbell's theory: Hero's Journey and Dan Harmon's Story Circle. All narrative is a growth journey, out of the darkness and into the light.

The Cave - the world your main character inhibits - is generally relatively small and restrictive. Growing up and leaving the comfort of home is philosophically enlightening but, at first, overwhelming.

In Harry Potter, Harry is rescued from the small and abusive world of his Aunt and Uncle's cupboard under the stairs. He then enters the Wizarding World, where everybody knows his name. In the process, he develops friends and learns why his parents were killed.  

In the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and the other third years, now thirteen, are permitted to leave Hogwarts for the first time and explore the even bigger world of the Wizarding village of Hogsmeade.

In Shrek, Shrek is forced to leave the comfort of his swamp - the Cave - for the wider world, including the town of Far Far Away, where he encounters love for the first time in the form of Princess Fiona. But he also experiences the prejudices of Lord Farquaad.  

Shrek is pictured smiling.
Shrek is forced to leave the comfort of his swamp - the Cave - for the wider world.

Consider what the Cave of the world you are writing about is. It could be your main character's home or their hometown. If you're writing a coming-of-age novel, it could be school or college, with your characters reaching maturity when they leave.

Examples of Plato's Allegory of the Cave in film

There are some more obvious examples of Plato's Allegory of the Cave in today's films, in which characters realize they are trapped in their own worlds. These include The Matrix and The Truman Show.

The Truman Show

Truman Burbank lives and grows up in a world he believes to be normal. However, his life is being recorded all day for an entertainment show in the outside world, and the people he encounters are actually actors.

Eventually, the illusion starts to crack, and Truman becomes aware that he is in a metaphorical cave from which he must escape.

Jim Carey in The Truman Show.
The Truman Show is the perfect example of Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

Truman's escape from the Cave symbolizes his growth into a mature adult and the realization that the Cave we all live in is only what our imagination allows. Escape forms a pivotal point of Truman's character arc development.

The Matrix

The Matrix offers a similar proposition: that the world we are living in is merely a simulation. The main character Neo has a choice: take the blue pill and forget about all the suspicions he's had about the world in which he lives or take the red pill and uncover the truth.

After choosing the red pill, Neo wakes up in a pod full of liquid and learns that humans are being pacified with a simulation of reality to keep them passive, to computers who have taken over the world. The blue pill represents ignorance while the red pill represents truth and intellectual enlightenment even though that truth is hard to digest, much the same as the prisoner in the Cave who is dragged out into the real world.

Considering Plato's Allegory of the Cave can help you become a better writer

Plato's Allegory of the Cave helps us consider the relationship between reality and fiction. A film can help viewers step outside of their own Cave by presenting them with fresh perspectives and new ways of looking at the world.

Furthermore, all narrative is centered around the idea of growth in which the central characters must escape their own Cave to live within the bigger world.

Ready to start writing?

Now that you have a fresh perspective, are you ready to put your ideas to the page? Try Arc Studio pro for free today (no credit card required!).

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!


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Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Explained
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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