34 pages • 1 hour readPlato
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Plato’s Republic takes the form of a series of dialogues between the first-person narrator (Socrates, Plato's teacher) and various real-life figures. “The Allegory of the Cave,” perhaps the most well-known section of The Republic, takes place as a conversation between Socrates and Plato’s brother, Glaucon. In this section, Socrates attempts to illustrate a point about how one can gain knowledge and wisdom and “perceive [...] the Essential Form of Goodness” (paragraph 31, line 10), via a parable.
He asks Glaucon to imagine a set of prisoners trapped in a cave since birth, shrouded in utter darkness, and chained so that they can neither move their bodies nor even their heads to look anywhere other than the wall in front of them, so that this wall is the only thing they know of life. Then, he asks Glaucon to imagine a fire lit behind them, with a sort of puppet stage in front of the fire, so that other people could project shadow figures onto the wall in front of the prisoners, recreating the forms of people and animals and objects from outside of the cave-prison in shadow form.
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Rhetorically, he asks if the prisoners would not then take these shadows as the only true objects in existence, since they could not understand that they were mere shadows of objects. The shadows would be the only thing they knew, and thus would be more real than true objects, which they had never seen. Glaucon agrees that they must think this way. Socrates then asks what would happen if one of these prisoners were freed and made to turn, finally, toward the light. He would necessarily “be too dazzled to make out the objects whose shadows he had been used to see” (paragraph 15, line 5), and would believe the shadows he has seen all his life to be more real than the objects and figures themselves. He also would find the sight of the fire itself painful and would instinctually turn away, back toward the familiar darkness.
Socrates then draws this freedom a step further, hypothetically bringing the prisoner outside of the cave into broad daylight, which would be even more confusing. Instead, he suggests, it would be better to accustom the prisoner slowly, by degrees, first viewing “shadows, and then the images of men and things reflected in water, and later on the things themselves” (paragraph 21, line 3). Finally, he could look at the sun and come to the conclusions that the sun is the main source of light in the world and affects the seasons, and other scientific extrapolations. Socrates concludes the parable by imagining the prisoner re-entering the cave: were he to do so, “his eyes would be filled with darkness” (paragraph 29, line 3), and the other prisoners would not believe him, would think him blind, and would even try to kill him if he tried to free them.
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The remainder of “The Allegory of the Cave” consists of Socrates’ explication of the preceding parable, while still in conversation with Glaucon. The darkness of the cave is like visual stimuli, the fire like the sun, and the outside world in the allegory corresponds to “the upward journey of the soul into the region of the intelligible” (paragraph 31, line 5). This, then, is the “world of knowledge,” and within that world, “the last thing to be perceived and only with great difficulty is the essential Form of Goodness,” which corresponds to the wisdom necessary to govern (paragraph 31, line 9).
He continues, saying that the enlightened individual will then abhor ignorance and be unable to explain the justice he has seen through his wisdom to those who have never seen true justice, but only its shadow. He next explains that just as all the prisoners have eyes that could see the light of the outside world, so everyone has the capacity for gaining wisdom; it is merely a matter of training one’s gaze in the right direction, and coming to it gradually, by degrees.
Socrates then turns to the matter of rulers, saying that a good ruler can neither be ignorant of the “Form of Goodness,” nor can she or he remain solely in the enlightened state, divorced from the rest of unenlightened humanity, but instead has a responsibility to share that knowledge and attempt to enlighten their fellow citizens, for “the law is not concerned to make any one class especially happy, but to ensure the welfare of the commonwealth as a whole” (paragraph 47, line 1). Socrates ends the parable with the idea that good rulers must not only be wisebut must also find the act of ruling (descending from the plane of enlightenment) to be something of a burden, since “access to power must not be confined to men who are in love with it” (paragraph 53, line 10).