Plato’s Cave: The Illusion of Affluence

This was the topic of a paper I wrote in January 2024 for a philosophy class. Shortly after finishing the paper, it occured to me that Plato’s Cave allegory can be used to explain a great many of the perceptual and prioritization problems that humanity has developed in the post-Enlightenment centuries, particularly in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and especially since the mid-20th century. As time permits, I will expand on this topic.

When Plato wrote his allegory of the cave, he was specifically writing about how people in his time were mistaking the World of Becoming – an illusory reality – for the true reality (which, for Plato, is the World of Forms). Today, it may be easy to dismiss Plato’s allegory, but this might be akin to “tossing out the baby with the bathwater.” Plato’s allegory is perennially relevant and, as will be demonstrated, still holds value for us in the twenty-first century.

The allegory opens with Socrates (through whom Plato speaks) describing the cave, noting that the prisoners have been there “since childhood” and are shackled in such a way that they cannot turn to look at anything other than a wall they are positioned towards (Republic 514a). This suggests that naivete (or ignorance) is something people are born into – whether by nature or nurture. In this situation, the prisoners believe that shadows they see on the wall, and the echoes which reverberate from it, are “real” things.

Socrates continues, asking his student, Glaucon, to imagine one of the prisoners being freed. This newly liberated individual, upon being able to turn and see the rest of the cave, experiences a challenge to his perceptions and responds violently with denial (Republic 515d-e). This could be understood to represent the fear of having one’s paradigms challenged: people build their lives on beliefs and assumptions about reality and, when that understanding is challenged, it brings all their values and conceptions of “how things are” under scrutiny.

As the allegory proceeds, the freed prisoner is dragged out of the cave and into the “world above.” Here, there is first a period of adjustment as the change in lighting has “confused the eyes” (Republic 516a-b, 517a-b). When the former prisoner is finally able to see clearly, he comes to understand the true reality of things (Republic 516b-c). This suggests that, when a person confronts their ignorance, there must be a period of acceptance and humility that provides a foundation for developing correct understanding. Upon this foundation, a person can begin to “see clearly” the true nature of things and develop an accurate understanding of them.

Plato does not end the allegory there, however. The individual, then, begins to pity those still down below in the cave (Republic 516c) and develops a preference to stay above, in whatever lowly estate, rather than return to the cave below in glory (Republic 516d). In a rather dark twist, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine what would happen were the former prisoner forced back “down there.” There is, again, a period of “confusion” of the eyes, during which time the others in the cave reason that his experience has damaged him in some way, perhaps driven him mad. This leaves them fearful of the experience – so much so that, were they able, they would kill him (Republic 517a).

The reactions of the other prisoners represent, in a way, the status quo: believing something simply because the belief is widely accepted. It is easier and more comfortable to assent to popular opinion; divergence leads to ostracization. History is full of examples of revolutionary thinkers who endured persecution and even death for their views: Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, and Galileo Galilei, to name but a few. Despite this threat, however, Plato asserts that leaving the proverbial cave is imperative for any person who wishes “to act with good sense in private or public life” (Republic 517c).

Plato concludes that it is the responsibility of those who have seen “the world above” to act as stewards to those who are still in the proverbial cave (Republic 519c, 520a-e)[1]. Historical examples of individuals (such as those listed above) who have openly contested popular opinion suggest that he was not alone in this belief. The remainder of Book VII of Plato’s Republic is primarily concerned with the correct approach to education as the means to leading the captives out of the cave[2].

To apply Plato’s allegory to the modern world, it is essential to first identify the source of ignorance – that is, the proverbial “cave.” The modern perception of affluence is well suited to this; material wealth, status, and influence have been established popularly as the true measure of a good and successful life. Encouragements to “earn more,” “make a name for yourself,” “have nice things,” and “leave a lasting legacy” enforce the objective value of affluence from early childhood. The beginning of this trend is popularly associated with the Gilded Age (Probasco, 2023), although it has probably existed in some form since the beginning of society some eight thousand years ago.

Is affluence really the measure of a good and successful life? Social status as a measure of success is reinforced by the status quo, so those who have it are like those in the cave who have “honors and accolades among the others” because they are able to predict the images and sounds (Republic 516d). Those respected individuals in the cave appear wise but their knowledge is subjective; the “affluent elite” in modern society are only wealthy and influential because of the subjective value society places on money and opinion. Objectively, an affluent individual is no more a successful person than the “acclaimed sage” in the cave has true knowledge about the nature of reality.

To approach this from another perspective, affluence is the result of the subjective perceptions of society resulting from a commonly agreed upon rule of value; it has no natural objective truth. The value of a bar of gold is whatever people are willing to pay for it; the respectability of an individual is the ratio of praise to criticism she receives from society. Similarly, a wealthy and influential person, having been stranded on a desert island, has no better chance of survival than a less affluent individual. Wealth, influence, and power only have value because society ascribes value to them.

If we treat affluence as an objective measure of success in life, we remain in the cave of ignorance, our lives consumed by pursuits of objectively worthless endeavors. Most people are unwilling to acknowledge that their efforts to pursue affluence might have no real value and will fight the challenge like the prisoner when he is first freed; those who do venture to the metaphorical “world above” to seek lasting happiness and satisfaction with life may be – and often are – ostracized and labelled “radicals” and “troublemakers,” much like the freed prisoner who returns to the cave. If one does manage to leave the proverbial cave, however, the experience is transformative (Sharma, 2019) and may save the individual from the detrimental psychological effects of wealth and money (Gregoire, 2018).

The tools often used to project affluence – particularly credit and public image – which promise to facilitate freedom keep us imprisoned in a life of servitude to maintain them.[3] Freed from the obsession of affluence, however, the individual can pursue those things which bring true and lasting happiness rather than the synthetic pleasures of the “high life.” They have “seen the Good,” as Plato might say. This is, of course, only one application of Plato’s allegory of the cave to the modern world. While Plato was primarily concerned with highlighting the illusory nature of the World of Becoming as he understood it, he created a perennially applicable allegory that illustrates the natural inclination of people to gravitate towards the convenience of illusion. Despite more than two millennia of progress, society remains in the proverbial cave and – sometimes – it’s a cave we’ve created.

[1] This does, however, raise the question as to whether it is ethical to compel those enlightened individuals to act as stewards of those still in darkness; such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present discourse.

[2] The core subject matter for what Boethius would later call “the Quadrivium” – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music – finds an early expression in Plato’s work. Given more time, it might be beneficial to speculate on how exposure to this curriculum might impact and influence the exemplified present day situation below.

[3] Consider, for instance, buying a new car because it’s “fancy” when you could pay cash for a used car. When you take out your loan, you become responsible for paying it – you become obligated to maintain a job, dependent on the paycheck to keep your car so you can keep going to your job. It is similar with rent, material possessions purchased on credit, etc.


Gregoire, C. (2018, February 8). How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel. Retrieved January 19, 2024, from Greater Good Magazine:

Harvard College. (2013). Plato: Republic Books 6-10 (Vol. LCL 276). (J. Henderson, Ed., C. Emlyn-Jones, & W. Preddy, Trans.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Probasco, J. (2023, September 23). The Gilded Age Explained: An Era of Wealth and Inequality. (K. Miller, & V. Velasquez, Eds.) Retrieved January 19, 2024, from Investopedia: Sharma, S. (2019, March 5). MIT Science Impact Collaborative. Retrieved from The Wisdom of Frugality:


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