The Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s The Republic

July 19, 2021

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Plato and Aristotle were the most significant representatives of the conservative political theory school in Ancient Greece. Plato developed and improved the political ideas of his teacher Socrates. The influential social and state issues are addressed in his several treatises: The Republic, dialogues The Laws and The Politics. One of the core themes of the Plato’s teachings is the fair (ideal) State. It has undergone changes from the moment of unjust condemnation of Socrates in Athens and until the end of Plato’s life (“Plato,” 2008). The Republic expresses his political views, providing the explicit description of the correct or ideal State as well as the perfect human that should create it and rule. The very existence of such kind of the republic is impossible like the exercise of all other ideals, because the device of any state depends on the following parameters: the national characteristics, geographic conditions and numerous circumstances that are not taken into consideration by the philosopher. Thus he admits that the discussed idea is not feasible as long as people do not reborn. Plato’s work, like all other representations of the human relations ideal, is so far from reality that the expression Plato’s Republic is still used referring to a fantastic dream. The philosopher aims not to build the perfect State only, but describes the image of the both ideal ruler and dignified citizen of the true society. The second goal is embodied in Book VII (2002), which begins with the famous myth of the Cave. The exploration of this allegory is one of the keys to understanding the sacredness of transformation and evolution of the true ruler and citizen, who should create the State itself.

Perfect State and the Education of the Ruler in Book VII

Plato compares a perfect state with an ideal person. According to the philosopher, it should be a harmonious combination of all the abilities and inclinations, both higher and lower ones. Taken separately, every part of society embodies numerous passions, predispositions, feelings, and mental abilities of a human’s nature. Each person implicates such following features as physical and mental abilities; passions and inclinations, if they do not overstep the proper limits; reason and imagination, to fulfill its human purposes. It is doubtful that all traits of human nature could be useful and suitable for the core goals of the State. For this reason, it is the primary task of the perfect republic to distinguish talented people and to give them positions, according to their abilities.

Plato highlights that every society should be confident in its safety and durability; this significant condition of its existence can constantly remain at risk from external and internal enemies. Thus, the most intelligent and strong members of the state are assigned to protect the common motherland. It could be achieved by influence of a religion and the measures of education. The first supports consciousness of all citizens that every honored person belongs to a higher world, but not to a sensual one. For this reason, a really good education makes the entire moral and police regulations redundant; a well-bred generation is able to create a society with the high morals.

Book VII is devoted to the study of the principles that are compulsory for the rulers’ education. Plato descants on behalf of Socrates, who discusses with Glaucon, and considers the disciplines that can arouse and develop the better qualities in citizens.

You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. (“Book VII,” 2002, p.379)

The philosopher proves that the proper education is vitally important because human vices and ignorance could prevail without it. Thus, they will lead to a collapse of the State. According to Plato’s position, the perfect republic should be ruled by philosophers who can guard their land b exemplary warriors at the same time. For this case, the rulers should undergo a long lasting training. Plato is searching for the irreproachable interconnection between spiritual, mental, and physical qualities of the person, which is authorized for governing the state. The philosopher concludes that proper education should include such basic disciplines as astronomy, mathematics, geometry, harmony, dialectic, and gymnastics. Moreover, he believes that rigorous gradation of children and students according to their features and abilities helps to reach the best results in education and future governing of the state.

Plato notes that a society and each individual separately must be ready to accept a new concept of life organization and state government. The most of humans are too far from the philosophical ideals and are limited in their knowledge. Thus, it is required to expand the traditional frameworks and go beyond the habitual things for moving forward. The allegory of the Cave, which is used by Plato, discovers and develops this concept, observing the process of human’s consciousness evolution on the way to perfection.

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Allegory of the Prisoners as the Human Beings Deprived of True Knowledge

The image of the Cave is one of the most striking illustrations of the Plato epistemological conception. The philosopher refers to allegory in connection with his political agenda in the dialogue The Republic. A problem of reaching knowledge is intertwined with a problem of identifying the knowledge value that reflects Plato’s style. In this case, it is compared the two types of the state. The first one ignores philosophy and the second one considers its triumph. However, arguments about its the place in the life of people do not even rely on the epistemological digressions, but coincide with them.

In Book VII, Socrates (in Plato’s words) offers his interlocutors to imagine a cave with the people chained to the wall, who have been born here, thus never go outside. The shackles on their feet and necks since the very childhood have not given them an opportunity to turn to a wide lumen, which stretches behind the prisoners along their walls.

Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. Also figure to yourself a number of persons walking behind this wall, and carrying with them statues of men, and images of other animals, wrought in wood and stone and all kinds of materials, together with various other articles, which overtop the wall; and, as you might expect, let some of the passers-by be talking, and others silent. (“Book VII,” 2002, p. 373)

Plato tells about aliens from the outside world who possess treasures or gifts. They know numerous names of objects and have an imagination about the life full of sunlight, which is not limited to the darkness of the cave. The prisoners, in their turn, know only the walls and see just the shadows of the objects that are sneaked behind them. The whole tragedy of the situation lies in the fact that they are forced by the circumstances to give names to shadows only. Empiricism considers the ??shadows as the substance. A distinction between the sensory impressions and the truth is the starting point to discredit the sources of empirical knowledge for Plato. The prisoners can learn about the wall. They can extend their knowledge by intuitive and logical comprehension of truth only, without empirical evidence.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows. (“Book VII,” 2002, p. 374)

Those who live in the underground chamber do not have any knowledge about ??the upper world. Plato stresses that they could not be released independently. The philosopher focuses on the fact that someone else unfetters one of the prisoners and tries to bring him up. It could be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, this allegory can mean the natural inability of the prisoners to get out of the dungeon; they do not suppose that the conditions of their lives can be compared with something else, thus do not aspire to enlightenment. Secondly, the chains can symbolize subconscious reluctance of the narrow-minded people to get more knowledge than they have been given since their birth. Thus, a certain person appears to free one of them and draw to the light of the sun. However, this experiment is not pleasing to the former prisoner.

Disability to accept a new understanding of things causes not only physical pain to the eyes, but heartache as well. Obviously, the first impulse of a person, which mentally still remains an inhabitant of the Cave, is to flight back to the underground world, to the usual concepts and ideas.

Similarly, Plato highlights that getting used to the sun is a long process and the released individual should learn to look at the stars at night. It is considered to be the first step to overcome an invisible barrier. Thus, the force of a habit is one of the key factors in a process of accepting the truth. According to the new conditions of life, everything is perceived differently and the value system is changed dramatically and irrevocably.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? (“Book VII,” 2002, p. 375)

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According to the philosopher, the human, who gets new attainments would not seek to primitiveness, and never appeals to the past that is covered with darkness. Everything that has been important is lost, because the frames of knowledge have expanded and the enlightened human’s mind requires more than the dark underworld that his/her former delusions can give. In fact, such a person would not be able to remain among his/her fellows, because of reaching a new level of development. The individual understands the true nature of things, gains the precious experience, and becomes estranged from the previous approach to life. Empirical knowledge takes precedence over the guesses and assumptions.

Plato emphasizes that, coming back in the cave, the human that knows the sunlight, goes blind for a while. It is equivalent to saying that he/she cannot accept the old orders once again without embarrassment and confusion. Moreover, the prisoners will not be able to understand their former friend. He/she becomes one of those aliens who pass behind their backs, holding treasures and casting shadows. Even his/her voice turns into an echo. Thus, the philosopher argues that the person who has been able to leave the cave and get used to the sunlight is unable to refuse the new life. In other words, the individual that has known the true knowledge is ready to move further and is willing to accept a new level of understanding of life.

Sacred Meaning of the Cave in Plato’s Myth

Plato chose the cave as on object of his allegory not accidentally. Functionally, the philosopher did not need it in order to create the above shadow theater. He could use just a wall on which the shadows were projected. Moreover, studying the discussed fragment of The Republic, it could be concluded that Plato first took some ready-made image of the cave, and then began to fill it by the rather bulky structure that consist of the road, wall, and a light source behind it. In the course of the dialogue, the light source is considered to be fire, bonfire, and then – the sun. The answer could be found in the origins of Greek mythology.

Like all other nations, the Greeks placed in the cave the most terrible and mysterious creatures (Cyclops, Medusa, Typhon, etc.) and events (Zeus was holed up in a cave for not to be eaten by his father Kronos). The cave was considered to be the meaningful and significant place. Nevertheless, in contrast to other nations, Greek caves possessed some unpleasant sanctification; they variety of horrifying creatures or delinquent heroes were hidden there from the eyes and the anger of Olympic gods (“Greek Mythology,” n.d.). The cave in this interpretation is a paradoxical place where something sacred is presented, but not the Olympian gods. In Plato’s Cave the same paradoxical status is preserved.

The chained people in Book VII are characterized by Plato by one common remarkable quality. They do not feel the slightest pain because of their unpleasant conditions of live; the prisoners explore the shadows that are passing before their eyes with unflagging interest. It could be supposed, that they are engaged in knowledge of the world, despite the fact that there is nothing to learn. Moreover, they cannot get out of the cave, but it does not mean that there is no escape from the underground at all. Thus, one of the prisoners has been released and found out that the upper world truly exists. Plato’s Cave is a place where truth is sought, but does not exist.

Interpretation of the Myth

The Cave in Plato’s treatise is a layered and complex phenomenon to understand. There are four ways of treating the myth of the Cave. The first one is an ontological gradation of being that means a comparison of sensory and extrasensory things. Here the shadows on the walls are just the visible ones; the statues are the sensible things; the stone wall embodies a line that separates the two kinds of existence. The objects and people outside the underground world are true beings, leading to ideas; and the Sun means a Good (Annas, 2000).

The second one is a level of cognition. The meaning of the shadows is an imagination (eikasia); the observation of statues – beliefs (pistis), from which it is possible to come to the understanding of numerous subjects, and to the image of the Sun (indirectly at first time, and then directly). These are the phases of the dialectic, the last of which is a pure intuition or intuitive intelligible.

The next one is a quality of life that can be ascetic, mystical, or theological one (Heidegger & Sadler, 2002). The man who is guided by feelings only is doomed to live exclusively in a cave. Thus, to live in the spirit means to be guided by the pure light of truth. The movement from a sensory world to an ideal one through the philosophy of the liberation from the shackles is considered as a transformation. Finally, the Sun-Good is the highest level of knowledge and means contemplation of a Divine.

The last type of interpretation includes a political aspect. Those who have known the Sun-Good may return to the Cave to bring the light of truth for those with whom they spent the long years of slavery.

Philosopher as the Embodiment of the Enlightened Ruler

It is fundamentally important to realize that Plato’s concept is not a doctrine of the Republic itself. Primarily, his philosophy focuses on a human being and his/her ability to create the discussed state. The allegory of the Cave gives a substantial insight into how a new type of people who are remarkable by their courage, ability to think sensibly, and aspiration to self-develop, is emerging. The prisoner of the dungeon, who has acknowledged all the baseness of his/her position, will not return to the darkness. On the contrary, he/she becomes a philosopher who does not rely on changeable feelings and sensations. He/she does not make assumptions about an origin of the shadows or fire, but leaves the common space to see their sources. The mind of the philosopher is open to all things on the earth in their unity, because he/she possesses knowledge about their true sense. In a variety of phenomena he/she finds them in a generalized image – an idea. Only philosopher can establish what the true and beauty are; thus, the suppositions and beliefs of the most people remain in the shadows between nothingness and pure being.

According to Plato, a philosopher, who understands the truth, must return to the Cave and bring light to other prisoners, even against his/her own reluctance. Glaucon emphasizes that it is unfair to force the philosopher to deal with the backward people and to sacrifice his/her time that could be spent on his/her own self-improvement. Despite this, Socrates responds:

– I said, the intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State. (“Book VII,” 2002, p. 378)

The common Good is the core goal of any decent man. Plato does not deviate from this thought and continues the idea, arguing that the philosopher is the only one who is able to govern the state of the new formation. One person’s life is not more important than the republic. Thus, if the common well-being requires self-denial, the philosopher should be ready for such a step.

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The Republic by Plato is the most prominent of his treatises, which explores the two key concepts. The first one is devoted to a creation of the ideal person. The second one considers the state, which should be ruled by a philosopher. A society that must inhabit the ideal republic must be saved from the darkness and ignorance. The allegory of the Cave describes the evolution of a new type of a human being. The myth, which is described by Plato, represents an idea of ??the differences that exist between a world of the true things, and a world of illusions. Thus, the core ideas of the allegory in Plato’s The Republic are the following: the most people live far from the truth and light, satisfied by the assumptions about the real world; a man who overcomes the darkness of the Cave and leaves the accustomed frameworks, gets an opportunity to become a philosopher and find out an essence of the things; a philosopher should be aware of moral duty and return to the Cave to lead others and help them follow the light and true knowledge. Spiritual and moral evolution of a person that is sought by the human soul is the first step towards creating the ideal state.