Plato’s cave

Plato’s cave is, perhaps, the most famous and ancient analogy for education in the Western tradition.
Plato imagines human beings living in an underground cave open to the light outside. Inside men and women sit chained in a fixed position, able only to see the reality in front of them. This reality is a wall upon which are images and representations of life which the prisoners take to be true and thus their knowledge of them to also be true. But these images are in fact projected shadows made by the light of a fire burning behind them in front of which people move and carry various objects.

Plato then describes what would happen if one of the prisoners were freed and turned around so that he could see the light and the fire and so the untruth of what he had taken to be a true reality. This prisoner would, at first, be ‘pained and dazzled’ (Plato, 1997: 1133) by the light and would want to ‘turn around and flee towards the things he is able to see’ (Plato, 1997: 1133). But dragged up a steep path in the cave to the outside world against his wishes he would be blinded even more by the light of the sun. It would take time for this person to adjust to the light to learn to see again. At first he would still see only shadows of things, but then slowly new images and finally the things themselves which he could then study. For Plato, this learning is the process of enlightenment or philosophical thinking, of going from the illusions of what appears to be true to truth itself and so to knowledge of the good, beauty and justice.

The person who frees and drags the prisoner to enlightenment is Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ who ‘teaches’ of and for this truth. ‘Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it’ because ‘the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul’ already. Education is a ‘turning around’ of the soul ‘to redirect it appropriately’ (Plato, 1997: 1136).

There are many interpretations of this analogy of education. Some see the philosopher king as an authoritarian teacher, a master who takes his wisdom as an assumption of authority and hence domination over his students. Even the process of enlightenment itself taken as a process of emancipation from prevailing illusions presupposes this same assumption of authority. But Plato argues that such authority is at the same time the necessity of returning to the cave to serve the educational experience of others. Enlightenment is, for the philosopher teacher, not the satisfaction of knowledge gained in the upper world but the work to serve its truth in others and so ‘to share their labors and honors’ (Plato, 1997: 1137). And, for Plato, this is an education for justice in the city because those who rule are to be the teacher philosophers who know what justice is so that they do not fight over the shadows but instead work to educate the soul and the city.

This work of the soul in Plato is found in and as the relation between desire, spirit and reason (see the Plato and the Soul workshop 1). Desire and reason work against each other, the former seeking merely its own satisfaction, the latter, truth and freedom from illusion. Spirit is the work of their difficult relation, the work to learn of the ways in which reason mediates desire for its own soul and the soul of the city.

The workshop

Inspired by elements of Grotowskian* practice some of the lessons of Plato’s cave are recast as a physical ‘impulse’ based workshop. This provides a more visceral learning experience of the ways in which the body and its relation to itself through its relation to others, comes to ‘know’ itself differently. It’s a way to explore how our physical, spatial and sensory experience can sustain the difficult relation between mind and body as a process of education.

It is structured in three directions. The first is focused on the ordinary movements of bodies in space and the various sorts of physical contact and non-contact such movement creates and takes for granted. The second focuses on the themes of discipline and freedom in the story of the cave and the ways in which the body learns to control itself in order to give itself freedom of movement in time and space. The third is focused on how each of these distinct elements intermingle as a process of learning.

The workshop aims to foster a better understanding of the themes in Plato’s cave through an experience of our interrelated physicality. It seeks to learn about the experience of the body as an important and mediating relation of reason so that education can be seen to sustain the difficult relation between mind and body as still a question of justice because it is one of ‘know thyself’.


Plato (1997) The Complete Works, Indiana: Hackett Publishing

* The physical element of this workshop has its roots in the work of Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski conceived of an education ‘unified by a single underlying propulsion – the work on the self with and through the other’ (Laster, 2016, p.1). What Grotowski’s practical work aims to unearth is ‘somatically encoded knowledge’ (Laster, 2016, p.34). We are concerned with the spectator who has genuine spiritual needs and who really wishes, through confrontation with the performance, to analyse himself. ‘We are concerned with the spectator who does not stop at an elementary stage of psychic integration, content with his own petty, geometrical, spiritual stability, knowing exactly what is good and what is evil, and never in doubt. For it was not to him that El Greco, Norwid, Thomas Mann and Dostoyevsky spoke, but to him who undergoes an endless process of self- development, whose unrest is not general but directed towards a search for the truth about himself and his mission in life’ (Grotowski, 1968, p.40).