The essence of the allegory is that mere perceptions can be quite misleading and can even be very far from the truth, which is reality. The allegory of the cave is a story that resonates throughout the ages because it has a very powerful message in it. Socrates engages a student named Glaucon on a substantive but hypothetical discussion on what constitutes appearances in relation to what is the reality. In it, he imagined people living inside a cave being tied up with a fire behind their back. This way, shadows of the people are cast on the wall in front of them, giving the appearance of what can be construed as real people, when in fact, these shadows are just mere representations of these same people but anyone of them watching it is very likely to think it is the real thing itself. Its message is that perceptions can oftentimes be distorted from what is reality if people are not aware of what is happening.
Perceptions can create misconceptions or the appearance of reality if people do not know what is real and true. In other words, there is the very distinct probability of a wrong impression, very similar to the anecdote of the three blind men who tried to feel an elephant with their hands, and came with different conclusions as to which body part of the elephant it was they were feeling. When people are blind, not only in a visual sense but in their minds, they cannot see what is real if they had not seen truth yet or seen the light, sort of.
All ancient Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (the three most famous) wrestled with what constitutes mere appearance or perceptions and what is truth or real. Socrates urged to endeavor for the verities in life such as truth, logic and reason, and not for the inanities like honor and glory, which are very superficial only (Plato 3).
Further, this is what ontology is all about, which is the determination or study of the categories of reality, or what Socrates termed as the world of becoming and the world of being which is the attainment of the absolute truth (reality) or alternatively, enlightenment. Everybody should strive for the truth and those who claimed to have attained enlightenment are often reluctant to share these with the others, for fear of being ridiculed or looked askance. Enlightenment is attained when a person discovers truth to be eternal and universal. Hinduism has very similar beliefs, in which people must not confuse the temporal with the spiritual. All perceptions are subjective because it can vary from person to person, while truth is objective because it is absolute and applies to everybody and in all times and situations.
Interestingly enough, Socrates is an advocate of elitism. This is because he had used the idea of attainment of enlightenment as a prerequisite for those who will hold public office. He hinted at this when he asked the question if there is anything higher than political ambition which he likewise answered as the only thing higher is true philosophy. In other words, he had arrived at the conclusion that philosophers make the best politicians or public leaders because they had been trained in the art of governance and had seen the light, so to speak, which is not available to the masses. This enlightenment is the vantage point from which leaders are best able to govern with wisdom, because as philosophers, they do not have ambitions for office. It makes them impervious to the allure of power, and can therefore govern more effectively.
The significance of this article is the strong argument for a rule of the elites, because it is considered as a superior form of government, better than democracy which is chaotic and at times unmanageable. This view has been echoed likewise by Plato, the student of Socrates. Socrates wanted a selection process for his so-called “guardians” who will govern wisely, but this brings up a more problematic situation, that uttered by the Roman poet Juvenal, “who will guard the guardians?” Elitism has been around for some time without people knowing it so.
Plato. The Republic: Allegory of the Cave. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2012. .