Plato’s metaphors: The Chariot Allegory

Le Char d'Apollon, Odilon Redon

In the Phaedrus Socrates compares the soul to a chariot with a charioteer and a pair of winged horses. Whereas the chariot of a god has two good horses, that of a human being has one good horse and one bad, unruly horse that is the cause of much hardship for the charioteer. The soul, he says,

…has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing – when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground – there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature.

The chariot of a god is able to soar to the top of the vault of heaven, such that the god is able to step outside the rim of heaven and contemplate the colourless, formless, intangible essence of reality. The revolution of the spheres carries the god round and back again to the same place, and in the space of this circle he feasts his mind upon justice, temperance, and knowledge, not in the form of generation or relation, which men call existence, but in their absolute, universal form.

Despite their bad, unruly horse, the chariots of the imperfect souls that are most alike to the gods are able to ascend high enough for their charioteers to lift their heads above the rim of heaven and catch a fleeting glimpse of the universals. However, the rest are not strong enough to ascend so high, and are left to feed their mind on nothing more than opinion.

In time, all imperfect souls fall back to earth, but only those that have seen something of the universals can take on a human form; human beings are by their nature able to recollect universals, and so must once have seen them. The imperfect souls that have gazed longest upon the universals are incarnated as philosophers, artists, and true lovers. As they are still able to remember the universals, they are completely absorbed in ideas about them and forget all about earthly interests. Common people think that they are mad, but the truth is that they are divinely inspired and in love with goodness and beauty.

Adapted from

Plato’s Metaphors: The Sun, Line, and Cave

1. The Metaphor of the Sun

1. Just as it is by the light of the sun that the visible is made apparent to the eye, so it is by the light of truth and being – in contrast to the twilight of becoming and perishing – that the nature of reality is made apprehensible to the soul. 2. Just as light and sight may be said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so science and truth may be said to be like the Good, and yet not to be the Good; it is by the sun that there is light and sight, and it is by the Good that there is science and truth. 3. Just as the sun is the author of nourishment and generation, so the Good is the author of being and essence. Thus, the Good is beyond being, and the cause of all existence.

2. The Metaphor of the Line

A line is cut into two unequal parts, and each of them is divided again in the same proportion. The two main divisions correspond to the intelligible world and to the visible world. One section in the visible division consists of images, that is,
shadows and reflections, and is accessed through imagination. The other, higher section in the visible division consists of sensible particulars and is accessed through belief. One section in the intelligible division consists of Forms and is accessed through thought, but via sensible particulars and hypotheses, as when geometers use a picture of a triangle to help reason about triangularity, or make appeal to axioms to prove theorems. The other, higher section in the intelligible division also consists of Forms but is accessed by understanding, a purely abstract science which requires neither sensible particulars nor hypotheses, but only an unhypothetical first principle, namely, the Form of the Good. The purpose of education is to move the philosopher through the various sections of the line until he reaches the Form of the Good.

3. The Metaphor or Allegory of the Cave

Human beings have spent all their lives in an underground cave or den which has a mouth open towards the light. They have their legs and their necks chained so that they cannot move, and can see only in front of them, towards the back of the cave. Above and behind them a fire is blazing, and between them and the fire there is a raised way along which there is a low wall. Men pass along the wall carrying all sorts of statues, and the fire throws the shadows of these statues onto the back of the cave. All the prisoners ever see are the shadows, and so they suppose that the shadows are the objects themselves.

Picture by Dr Tom Stockmann

If a prisoner is unshackled and turned towards the light, he suffers sharp pains, but in time he begins to see the statues and moves from the cognitive stage of imagination to that of belief. The prisoner is then dragged out of the cave, where the light is so bright that he can only look at the shadows, and then at the reflections, and then finally at the objects themselves: not statues this time, but real objects. In time, he looks up at the sun, and understands that the sun is the cause of everything that he sees around him, of light, of vision, and of the objects of vision. In so doing, he passes from the cognitive stage of thought to that of understanding.

The purpose of education is to drag the prisoner as far out of the cave as possible; not to instil knowledge into his soul, but to turn his whole soul towards the sun, which is the Form of the Good. Once out of the cave, the prisoner is reluctant to descend back into the cave and get involved in human affairs. When he does, his vision is no longer accustomed to the dark, and he appears ridiculous to his fellow men. However, he must be made to descend back into the cave and partake of human labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not. This is because the State aims not at the happiness of a single person or single class, but at the happiness of all its citizens. In any case, the prisoner has a duty to give service to the State, since it is by the State that he was educated to see the light of the sun.

The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst… You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life… And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

pic-plato