Plato's Allegory of the Cave: Part III

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on May 12, 2022

In this, the third part of our discussion of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we will see the character of Socrates discuss how and why those who have ascended to daylight and seen the sun will return to the darkness of the cave and its prisoners. In terms of the Republic’s ideal state, the Kallipolis, this amounts to an account of how and why the city’s rulers will turn (some of the time) from philosophical contemplation to the mundane task of governing their benighted fellow citizens. We will see that Plato thinks that abstract knowledge about the intelligible ultimately does prepare one for dealing with things in the sensible world, even though it alienates one from the ephemeral and mundane concerns that occupy and distract the unphilosophical. Dialectical training prepares and disposes philosophers to private philosophical reflection, but education indebts the educated to society even while it gives them the means to best serve by ruling.

Republic VII.516c-517a

Well then, if he recalled to mind his first habitation and what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow-bondsmen, do you not think that he would count himself happy in the change and pity them?” “He would indeed.” “And if there had been honors and commendations among them which they bestowed on one another and prizes for the man who is quickest to make out the shadows as they pass and best able to remember their customary precedences, sequences and co-existences, and so most successful in guessing at what was to come, do you think he would be very keen about such rewards, and that he would envy and emulate those who were honored by these prisoners and lorded it among them, or that he would feel with Homer and “‘greatly prefer while living on earth to be serf of another, a landless man,’”[Homer, Odyssey 11.489] and endure anything rather than opine with them and live that life?” “Yes,” he said, “I think that he would choose to endure anything rather than such a life.” “And consider this also,” said I, “if such a one should go down again and take his old place would he not get his eyes full of darkness, thus suddenly coming out of the sunlight?” “He would indeed.” “Now if he should be required to contend with these perpetual prisoners in 'evaluating' these shadows while his vision was still dim and before his eyes were accustomed to the dark—and this time required for habituation would not be very short—would he not provoke laughter, and would it not be said of him that he had returned from his journey aloft with his eyes ruined and that it was not worthwhile even to attempt the ascent? And if it were possible to lay hands on and to kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him?” “They certainly would,” he said.

Here Socrates considers the attitude of the enlightened person who has seen the sun toward their former status in the cave. At first they struggled to see. They were confused by and even doubted the reality of the brighter, solid things that they saw as they ascended up and out of the cave. But once they had become accustomed to the daylight world with its real objects instead of shadows or idols and direct sunlight instead of the reflected glow of flame, they would come to regard the shadows and idols as mere imitations and cast-offs of the real things. Likewise, they would regard the interest and pursuits of the prisoners in recalling and guessing the shadows as a pitiful. Plato quotes a famous line of Homer’s Odyssey, where the shade of Achilles tells Odysseus that it were better to be a poor man’s slave than king of all the dead. The prisoners are like shades in the underworld, and the enlightened is like one who has ascended back into life. (At 521c he goes further and likens philosophers to those who have ascended from Hades to the heavenly gods.) So, they would lose any ambition to achieve fame for such false games and honors, which they would now regard as worthless.

For no short time, the enlightened would struggle in such games, though; just as their eyes were ill-prepared for the light when they were first liberated, so now their eyes would struggle to make out shadows in the gloom. As they struggled in these tasks they might provoke mockery from the prisoners. Their tales of sunlight and physical objects would seem like incomprehensible nonsense to the prisoners. The prisoners would likely conclude that the journey upward had ruined the sight (and mind) of the ascended and rendered them hostile to the pursuits valued by the prisoners. If they were free to do so, the prisoners would put the enlightened to death.

What Plato describes raises important questions for education and educators. The more one learns, the more remote one becomes from one’s prior state of ignorance. For example, we typically forget what it was like when we were children and had to struggle to learn something that we now accomplish or comprehend effortlessly. Learned teachers must readjust to the ignorance of their students, presenting what they know in context-appropriate manner. This is not so much readjusting to see shadows, as Plato has it, but rather learning to communicate to those in darkness. This is less of an issue for Plato, who does not think that the majority of mankind is capable of attaining real knowledge, but he does recognize the need for philosophers to communicate certain true opinions to them.

Republic VII.517a-c

“This image then, dear Glaucon, we must apply as a whole to all that has been said, likening the region revealed through sight to the habitation of the prison, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the sun. And if you assume that the ascent and the contemplation of the things above is the soul's ascension to the intelligible region, you will not miss my surmise, since that is what you desire to hear. But God knows whether it is true. But, at any rate, my dream as it appears to me is that in the region of the known, the last thing to be seen and hardly seen is the Idea of Good, and that when seen it must needs point us to the conclusion that this is indeed the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful, giving birth in the visible world to light, and the author of light and itself in the intelligible world being the authentic source of truth and reason, and that anyone who is to act wisely in private or public must have caught sight of this.” “I concur,” he said, “so far as I am able.”

This recapitulates the “symbolic economy” of the allegory. The cave is the realm of sensible becoming, while the surface world is the intelligible world of being. Just as the sun rules, illuminates, and maintains the sensible world, so the Form or Idea of the Good reigns in the intelligible world, and thereby all that exists. This is the ultimate object of the philosophers’ pursuits.

Republic VII.517c-518b

“Come then,” I said, “and join me in this further thought, and do not be surprised that those who have attained to this height are not willing to occupy themselves with the affairs of men, but their souls ever feel the upward urge and the yearning for that sojourn above. For this, I take it, is likely if, in this point too, the likeness of our image holds” “Yes, it is likely.” “And again, do you think it at all strange,” said I, “if a man returning from divine contemplations to the petty miseries of men cuts a sorry figure and appears most ridiculous, if, while still blinking through the gloom, and before he has become sufficiently accustomed to the environing darkness, he is compelled in courtrooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the images that cast the shadows and to wrangle in debate about the notions of these things in the minds of those who have never seen justice itself?” “It would be by no means strange,” he said. “But a sensible man,” I said, “would remember that there are two distinct disturbances of the eyes arising from two causes, according as the shift is from light to darkness or from darkness to light, and, believing that the same thing happens to the soul too, whenever he saw a soul perturbed and unable to discern something, he would not laugh unthinkingly, but would observe whether coming from a brighter life its vision was obscured by the unfamiliar darkness, orwhether the passage from the deeper dark of ignorance into a more luminous world and the greater brightness had dazzled its vision. And so, he would deem the one happy in its experience and way of life and pity the other, and if it pleased him to laugh at it, his laughter would be less laughable than that at the expense of the soul that had come down from the light above.” “That is a very fair statement,” he said.

Above, in referencing putting the enlightened to death and here again, Plato is relating his allegory to the fate of philosophers in their difficult encounters with hoi polloi. Philosophers, who know about eternal, intelligible truths, lose interest in the ephemera that most humans fixate upon: gossip, popularity, power, wealth, etc. Their doubt and disdain aggravate those whose values they question. The philosophers’ disinterest or unfamiliarity with such matters can make them seem out of touch, impractical, or “lacking in street smarts”. This includes Socrates, who Plato depicts in the Apology or the Gorgias as unable to defend himself in a law court or the court of public opinion, but can defend his soul.

Philosophers’ discussions of abstruse theoretical topics sound like so much gibberish to the ignorant many. Socrates’ focus on definitions or Plato’s Forms, for example, might strike them as incomprehensible. Philosophical wisdom, then, would appear to be a liability, even though philosophers would sooner die than live without it. However it may seem, in reality it is better to suffer the disorientation of the enlightened in darkness than that the benighted in light. Philosophers see this and, like Socrates, they avoid public affairs and instead focus on the elevation of their minds.

Republic VII.518b-519b

“Then, if this is true, our view of these matters must be this, that education is not in reality what some people proclaim it to be in their professions. What they aver is that they can put true knowledge into a soul that does not possess it, as if they were inserting vision into blind eyes.” “They do indeed,” he said. “But our present argument indicates,” said I, “that the true analogy for this indwelling power in the soul and the instrument whereby each of us apprehends is that of an eye that could not be converted to the light from the darkness except by turning the whole body. Even so, this organ of knowledge must be turned around from the world of becoming together with the entire soul, like the scene-shifting periact in the theater, until the soul is able to endure the contemplation of essence and the brightest region of being. And this, we say, is the Good, do we not?” “Yes.” “Of this very thing, then,” I said, “there might be an art, an art of the speediest and most effective shifting or conversion of the soul, not an art of producing vision in it, but on the assumption that it possesses vision but does not rightly direct it and does not look where it should, an art of bringing this about.” “Yes, that seems likely,” he said. “Then the other so-called virtues of the soul do seem akin to those of the body. For it is true that where they do not pre-exist, they are afterwards created by habit and practice. But the excellence of thought, it seems, is certainly of a more divine quality, a thing that never loses its potency, but, according to the direction of its conversion, becomes useful and beneficent, or, again, useless and harmful. Have you never observed in those who are popularly spoken of as bad, but smart men, how keen is the vision of the little soul, how quick it is to discern the things that interest it, a proof that it is not a poor vision which it has, but one forcibly enlisted in the service of evil, so that the sharper its sight the more mischief it accomplishes?” “I certainly have,” he said. “Observe then,” said I, “that this part of such a soul, if it had been hammered from childhood, and had thus been struck free of the leaden weights, so to speak, of our birth and becoming, which attaching themselves to it by food and similar pleasures and gluttonies turn downwards the vision of the soul—If, I say, freed from these, it had suffered a conversion towards the things that are real and true, that same faculty of the same men would have been most keen in its vision of the higher things, just as it is for the things toward which it is now turned.” “It is likely,” he said.

Socrates now relates the foregoing parts of the allegory to the original stated theme: education. Education—say in various trades or areas of expertise—might appear to be putting knowledge into the empty vessel of a soul. In fact, true education consists in reorienting the soul in the proper direction. The soul possesses a kind of vision, intelligence, but whether it looks upon the world of becoming or true being depends on its orientation. Those with greatest intelligence can be the most dangerously evil if their cleverness is turned to the wrong ends, but given the proper direction in a good city with philosophical education can instill, they would have the keenest vision of the Good. The soul, bent by birth and the changes of the world of becoming, must be hammered straight again, turned back—returned—to its true and proper aim. (Plato’s late dialogue, the Timaeus, similarly speaks of the contemplation of higher objects straightening out the twists and bends in the soul caused by becoming and birth.) Education is the art that turns the soul in the right direction, toward the proper objects, redirecting it from sensible ephemera to the Good.

Other excellences of the soul, e.g. temperance or courage, seem more like they are acquired through practice and training, just like strength and other excellences of the body, but the basic power of intelligence is in the soul, ready to be directed or misdirected. However, redirecting the soul’s intelligence to its proper objects involves the training of the other virtues in as much as the improper objects for intelligence such as the pleasures of food and sex are the very sorts of things that are desired when one lacks moderation and other developed excellences. Thus the training of the character of the Kallipolis’ citizens, and its guardians especially, must begin with the kind of education discussed in Books II-IV. (In a future post on Education in Plato’s Laws, his last and longest dialogue, will discuss its definition of education; it has a somewhat different emphasis, but it too stresses the point that education is the inculcation of the soul for virtue.)

A downside of Plato’s view here is that it seems to take the power of one’s intelligence to be innate and fixed. Plato’s Kallipolis is highly elitist; only those with both the requisite mental capacities and decades of education are allowed to take part in the city-state’s governance. Occupations are assigned and more or less fixed for life. The city has a eugenic breeding program to make sure the right number of people are born with the capacity to be philosopher kings. One’s future occupation is not set solely by one’s genealogy—the genius child of laborer parents would be raised to be a guardian—the selection of guardian candidates is made early. (See earlier entry on education of the Guardians in Plato’s Republic.) Plato has what today would be called a “tracking” system. Leaving aside the injustice of this system’s totalitarian coercion, it is also easy to see how differences in the pace of development or forms of expression could lead to talent being lost or ignored in such a system.

Republic VII.519b-520a

“Well, then,” said I, “is not this also likely and a necessary consequence of what has been said, that neither could men who are uneducated and inexperienced in truth ever adequately preside over a state, nor could those who had been permitted to linger on to the end in the pursuit of culture—the one because they have no single aim and purpose in life to which all their actions, public and private, must be directed, and the others, because they will not voluntarily engage in action, believing that while still living they have been transported to the Islands of the Blest.” “True,” he said. “It is the duty of us, the founders, then,” said I, “to compel the best natures to attain the knowledge which we pronounced the greatest, and to win to the vision of the Good, to scale that ascent, and when they have reached the heights and taken an adequate view, we must not allow what is now permitted.” “What is that?” “That they should linger there,” I said, “and refuse to go down again among those bondsmen and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less or of greater worth.” “Do you mean to say that we must do them this wrong, and compel them to live an inferior life when the better is in their power?” “You have again forgotten, my friend,” said I, “that the law is not concerned with the special happiness of any class in the state, but is trying to produce this condition in the city as a whole, harmonizing and adapting the citizens to one another by persuasion and compulsion, and requiring them to impart to one another any benefit which they are severally able to bestow upon the community, and that it itself creates such men in the state, not that it may allow each to take what course pleases him, but with a view to using them for the binding together of the commonwealth.” “True,” he said, “I did forget it.” “Observe, then, Glaucon,” said I, “that we shall not be wronging the philosophers who arise among us, either, but that we can justify our action when we constrain them to take charge of the other citizens and be their guardians. For we will say to them that it is natural that men of similar quality who spring up in other cities should not share in the labors there. For they grow up spontaneously from no intention of the government in the several states, and it is justice that the self-grown, indebted to none for their breeding, should not be zealous either to pay to anyone the price of its nurture. But you we have engendered for yourselves and the rest of the city to be, as it were, king-bees and leaders in the hive. You have received a better and more complete education than the others, and you are more capable of sharing both ways of life. Down you must go then, each in his turn, to the habitation of the others and accustom yourselves to the observation of the obscure things there.”

The Kallipolis is a city ruled by philosophers and organized from top-to-bottom so as to cultivate character and produce new philosophers. Kallipolitan philosophers, like all philosophers, will want to reside in the “Isles of the Blest” as much as possible. That is, having found the glory and wonders of the intelligible realm they will not wish to quit it just to return their attention to mundane concerns. In other words, the philosopher kings will want to spend their time as philosophers, not kings. The founders of the Kallipolis must persuade them to “return to the cave”, as it were.

In other cities, where the education is neither organized by the state nor properly arranged to produce philosophers, however few, those who do emerge as genuine philosophers are autodidacts, geniuses who managed autonomously to attain knowledge of true reality and the despite their culture and its “education”. As such, they exist in a society that is likely hostile to philosophers; at the same time, they owe no debt to society for their singular intellectual and moral achievement. Is natural for a Socrates or Plato in Athens not to wish to bore, soil, or endanger himself with its politics.

This is not the case for Kallipolitan guardians, though. Were it not for their carefully managed city, almost none of them would have managed to become true philosophers. (Indeed, given their innate intelligence, many might have ended up as sophists or tyrants.) Thus, while more contemplation would make them individually happier, the well-being of the overall city can be preserved by appealing to the debt that the guardians owe to the city that so carefully nurtured them. (A similar argument about the debt of lawfulness one owes to one’s city and its laws occurs in the Crito, an early dialogue where Socrates defends his choice of accepting the execution Athens has ordered for him.) For Plato, the best rulers are those best able to rule but least desirous of power. Thus the Kallipolis will persuade its guardians to take turns philosophizing and ruling in order to preserve the state that has enabled them to savor the joy of knowledge.

As always, Plato raises important questions even if we disagree with his overall view. Do these guardians really owe political service to the state? Some believe that one owes a duty of obedience to one’s parents, being indebted to them for one’s life and upbringing. What do the young owe their teachers and educational institutions? Obedience? Gratitude? Attention? Does it matter that children cannot and do not make the decision for themselves to be born or raised and educated in a particular way? These are themes we will explore in other Montessorium posts.

Republic VII.520c-d

"For once habituated you will discern them infinitely better than the dwellers there, and you will know what each of the ‘idols’ is and whereof it is a semblance, because you have seen the reality of the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good. So, our city will be governed by us and you with waking minds, and not, as most cities now which are inhabited and ruled darkly as in a dream by men who fight one another for shadows and wrangle for office as if that were a great good, when the truth is that the city in which those who are to rule are least eager to hold office must needs be best administered and most free from dissension, and the state that gets the contrary type of ruler will be the opposite of this.”

It is often asked how knowledge, which is of the intelligible Forms, enhances the ability of philosopher kings to manage the affairs of the Kallipolis, here in the visible, spatio-temporal world of change. Here Socrates at least suggests the ideas that once their eyes adjust to the darkness, the enlightened ones' knowledge would enable them to better identify the ‘idols’ that imitate real objects and that cast shadows on the cave walls. Ultimately, knowledge of the Beautiful itself, the Just itself, and the Good itself would both give philosophers the proper motives (e.g. goodness, not power) and the ability to discern what would be for the best. Plato does not have Socrates elaborate on how this would work, and in another middle period dialogue, the Parmenides, Plato himself inaugurated the long tradition of questioning how his theory of Forms is supposed to work including how (knowledge of) the Forms could relate to (true opinions about) sensible things.

As it relates to education, this is a form of the issue commonly known as “transfer”. More precisely, this is the issue of whether and how one learns apply wide concepts and broad generalizations and principles to narrower domains or particulars. The problem is especially hard for Plato: his metaphysics and epistemology hold that the objects of conceptual knowledge on the one hand and those of perception and opinion on the other, belong to two distinct and entirely separate ontological realms. Even without Platonism, there is still a question of whether studying “the Good” or “the Beautiful” generally makes one any better at discerning what would be good or beautiful in practice. The best education would prepare students both to comprehend universals and apply them to particulars.

Dr. Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.