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The artists use light and shadows to teach the dominant doctrines of a time and place. This is not some easy task, and only a true philosopher, with decades of preparation, would be able to leave the cave, up the steep incline. The light would hurt his eyes and make it difficult for him to see the objects casting the shadows.
The chains that prevent the prisoners from leaving the cave represent that they are trapped in ignorance, as the chains are stopping them from learning the truth.
The shadows cast on the walls of the cave represent the superficial truth, which is the illusion that the prisoners see in the cave.
The allegory is presented after the analogy of the sun (508b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–511e).
All three are characterized in relation to dialectic at the end of Books VII and VIII (531d–534e).
Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall.
The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners.
They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind.
Like the fire that cast light on the walls of the cave, the human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses.
The prisoners, according to Plato, would infer from the returning man's blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey.
Plato concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave (517a).