Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Can we place ourselves in an attitude of prayer?
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man
I’ve chosen this passage (for a number of reasons, but) because it performs the same kind of epistemological ‘conversion’ as the allegory of the cave. Lord, open our eyes to see things as they really are.
Exercise: In groups of two, three or four, name a person from contemporary culture (entertainment, politics, etc.) who can play the following roles in our drama:
Socrates (Davide; Yoda, Star Wars) – Venerable teacher with cutting wit.
Glaucon (Arthur, Sword in the Stone) – Attentive, friendly student. He is emboldened by the presence of the teacher.
Thrasymachus (Brad Pitt, Fight Club) – Popular sophist and hedonist.
Polemarchus (Jowarski) – Inheritor of both wealth and society.
Cephalus (FPJ) – Wealthy father of Polemarchus, he is a self-satisfied playboy who, for sheer age, has begun to take on the façade of virtue and continence.
The point of this exercise is to visualize these dramatic personalities a little better; none of these people say anything without having something at stake. We’ll not understand Plato’s dialogues unless we pay attention to who is speaking and why.
The text we want to look at today is of tremendous power. Maybe I’m making space for mediocrity, but I think I’m being sincere when I say that maybe the best I might be able to do with it is to show the limit of my understanding before it. The Republic is so far from a how-to book or a treatise. It is a work of art; it’s not subject to being merely understood. It’s more as if our wrestling with the text, and even our failing to understand it, is supposed to produce knowledge of something else. The purpose of studying the Republic is not to understand it as a book, but to understand its subject matter; not, as Aristotle would say, to understand the good, but to become good.
We have to imagine, then, our venerable teacher (Yoda) taking us aside for a very long talk. He’s someone we’ve admired for a long time, but then he has a lot of admirers. We’re not used to being able to listen to him explain himself; usually we have to pick up what he might mean from snippets of conversations we overhear or that other people repeat to us. But here, today, for some reason, he takes us aside, and only us, and he speaks to us directly. It’s like a smorgasbord for starving refuges; it’s so overwhelming to be addressed directly by Socrates that at first we’re not even able to pay close attention to what he’s saying. It’s like we’ve come out of a darkened movie theatre, and just as we step outside into the bright afternoon, there’s the star of the show (Angelina Jolie) and she’s talking to us. She wants to go out with us. Brad Pitt’s let her down again and can we listen to her vent her frustrations for a while?
Socrates doesn’t lecture; you can’t buy the book and study up the night before. He talks to people, and what emerges out of the conversation, emerges. How many times have we thought about being that lucky person he chooses to talk to for a few minutes? But here, in the Republic, he simply talks. For hours and hours, without an introduction and without being interrupted, he just tells us a story. What could possibly be so important that he would break his silence so extravagantly?
Given Socrates’ biography, it’s not surprising that the Republic is about justice; but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It starts just with Socrates talking: I was going down to the pier (to Piraeus) yesterday with Glaucon. We prayed to the goddess there and watched a festival, and then we were coming back here to Athens. But we got waylaid by Polemarchus and a bunch of other people. Wait. What’s this got to do with anything? I’ve always dreamt of talking to this person and here he is rambling on about completely inconsequential things that happened to him. We’ve noticed before how the people who talk to Socrates always seem so disoriented and now we think, ‘Well (Jesus), no wonder!’
Socrates is going to repeat to us, only pausing occasionally to add a narrative comment or two about tone or facial expressions, a very long and complicated conversation he had with a group of people, taking turns in conversation with him—like a pack of wolves chasing a moose. And he’s going to speak in their voices and tell us not just the gist of what they said and what resulted from the conversation; he’s going to repeat it verbatim. Is he working through something he feels guilty about? Does he need to get something off his chest? Does he feel like he let these people down in some way? Does he want me to help him think it through? Why else would he be telling this to me? Surely he doesn’t think that I have the kind of education and expertise that would help him in some way?
We’re not going to repeat the whole conversation in a one-hour class, but different people offer him definitions of justice, and he discusses their ideas with them. But mostly he doesn’t think their definitions are very adequate. Cephalus thinks it’s telling the truth and paying whatever you owe (331b-c). Well, that stands to reason; he’s rich. He can afford to pay what he owes. He tells us in the same breath that it’s his money that saves him from being dishonest. We wonder if his notion of speaking the truth isn’t just as shallow.
As soon as Socrates starts to probe this answer—would you give what you owe to a friend if the friend is out of his mind and what you owe him is a deadly weapon?—as soon as Socrates starts to probe his definition of justice, Cephalus relinquishes the argument to his heir, Polemarchus. Socrates dispenses with them easily. We agree with Socrates all along, and it’s then that it dawns on us: it’s working. We’re thinking along with Socrates as he works through this recitation of a conversation. Maybe I couldn’t have given the answers that he gave if I were on my own, but I’m not entirely bereft of expertise in this field either.
But then Socrates starts talking about Thrasymachus. This is different. The tone changes from almost disinterested politeness to defensiveness and high drama. Thrasymachus is a heavy hitter, and we see the way that he affects Socrates. In fact, he tells us that Thrasymachus ‘frightened and flustered’ him. Socrates becomes more careful. Thrasymachus thinks that ‘justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger’ (338c). The sheer audacity of his proposal is disorienting, and we blink our eyes trying to adjust to the change in the setting. To skip ahead, it’s as if we stepped back into a cave out of the afternoon sun, and have to adjust to the relative darkness before we can even understand what he’s saying. Laws are different in different constitutions, but what is the same in all of them is that they are always written by the powerful and work to their advantage. Justice, then, is to follow the law, unless you are the strongest, in which case justice is to seek your own advantage. In every case, though, justice serves the stronger.
Well, this is wrong, but we couldn’t necessarily explain how it’s wrong. The definition seems to work functionally, but we secretly hope that Socrates can debunk it because it isn’t what we mean when we say justice. Why would Thrasymachus even suggest such a counter-intuitive definition of justice? It’s not hard to see that it will make him popular with people who have power. And maybe that’s his game.
Socrates takes issue with the idea that a ruler, insofar as she is a ruler, seeks her own personal advantage. Insofar as she’s a ruler, she seeks the advantage of the people she rules. Maybe she is also selfish, but insofar as she is selfish, then she is a money-maker or something like that, but not a ruler. Grudgingly, Thrasymachus concedes this point. But he still thinks that it is to a person’s advantage to be unjust; if we are just it is because we fear the consequences of injustice. But for Socrates, since injustice causes conflict, even people who seek personal advantage have to utilize justice in order to hang onto their advantage. So, justice is really more advantageous, even to the powerful, than injustice. Very sullenly, Thrasymachus agrees, though under duress.
And this is where Socrates allows us to see a chink in his armor. Thrasymachus agrees, but reluctantly. And he’s embarrassed because many of the people who are there have been impressed with him in the past and have often heard him brag about how he would handle Socrates in a debate. Describing his defeat to us now, Socrates says that he was sweating a lot—‘because it was summer’ (350d). Wait a minute Socrates: Earlier you said that this conversation happened ‘yesterday,’ and now you say it was summer? What are you playing at? Are you working through something for your benefit, or for ours? This is maybe our first hint that Socrates contrives this whole situation for our education. Did this conversation ever even happen? Is he talking so expansively to give us time to think? Is this whole construct a backgrounding for what Socrates/Plato hopes will happen in our minds as we think along with the discussion?
Now something even more remarkable happens. Glaucon, who is the friend of Socrates—they have spent the whole day together, going to the festival in Piraeus—enters the conversation. Glaucon is the brother of Plato, who wrote the dialogue we’re reading. How much of it is Plato and how much of it is Socrates? We don’t know, because Plato almost never appears in his own dialogues. We know that he was very close with Socrates—even closer than his brother Glaucon. But it’s as if their friendship is too intimate for him to bring it onto the page, to analyze it the way he does ‘justice’ or the idea of ‘friendship.’ Plato will have been front and center with many of these dramatic situations he retells, but he always writes himself out of the retelling. In Glaucon (and his other brother, Adeimantus), Plato makes something like a cameo appearance.
Glaucon and Adeimantus, then, take over the argument of Thrasymachus, but without the vitriol. They want to hear justice praised in itself, not for the advantages it brings us. They notice that it would be very much to a person’s disadvantage to practice justice while having the reputation for being unjust, and they want to know how justice would be superior to injustice even if this were the case. They don’t agree with Thrasymachus, but they want a fuller explanation of what justice is. So they play the role of the devil’s advocate. Glaucon says,
I won’t betray you, but rather defend you in any way I can—by goodwill, by urging you on, and perhaps by being able to give you more appropriate answers that someone else (474a).
This is the attitude of a good student and of someone who loves to learn. He is not afraid to ask sincere questions when he doesn’t understand, but his questioning is in the mutual pursuit of understanding. Students like this are a tremendous assistance to a good teacher, if for no other reason than because they urge their teachers to work harder. The main construct of the Republic would never have come to be enacted without Glaucon’s persistent inquiry. In this sense, even though Socrates does most of the talking, it is entirely appropriate to say that they learned from one another.
All of this preamble (357a) is necessary because it accounts for the genesis—and therefore the significance—of what will follow. In order to answer Glaucon’s query, Socrates will enjoin them to build together a ‘city in speech’ (369c). Their hope is that, if justice is difficult to observe in the individual, perhaps it will be easier to dissect on the larger scale (368c ff.). But it’s important that we not forget the dramatic, rhetorical construct that gives way to the things that will follow. There’s an example here that is directly appropriate: As the three of them proceed to build their city in words, they discuss what kinds of stories their citizens should tell their children. Obviously, they should be truthful and about meritorious behavior if they want their children to exemplify these qualities. And we might be tempted to take this at face value—if it weren’t for what follows. They proceed to talk about how these stories should be told, and they decide that narrators should not imitate multiple characters, especially villainous ones, but simply tell their politically and theologically corrected stories. Now, this is highly ironic: Socrates, remember, is talking to us, imitating a bunch of characters, including himself. Several of the people he imitates are clearly shabby characters. But in his imitation, his own character tells us that narrators should not imitate multiple characters. The point of these ironies seems to be clearly that: we are to avoid taking anything we hear at face value. Remember that the purpose of this construct is for us to think for ourselves as we listen along—not to be told what to think.
I’m going to have to skip over most of the conventions they agree on for the construction of their ideal and just city, but the basic character of political organization is that we need different people to provide different functions because no one individual can provide for all of his or her needs. Justice, then, in the city, would be for each person to do their own part (433a). The just individual, then, is one who’s emotional and spirited parts are ruled by her rational part. Again, justice is a kind of harmony, when each part does what is appropriate to it.
Now, that’s all very well and good. But how does one—a city or an individual—come to be ruled by reason when the cultural norm is for people to seek their own advantage? The temptations to join suit are overwhelming. Socrates concedes that even a philosophical nature will be lead astray in a destructive environment—unless, that is, some god happens to come to its rescue (492a). He all but concedes Glaucon’s facetious argument that if a good person were granted the power of invisibility, she would do exactly the same as an evil person. The trick, then, is to so constitute society that people want to be good.
And this is where the allegory of the cave comes in. Imagine there were people bound in the darkness, with their chains so affixed that they could only look forward. There, on the wall in front of them, images appear and speak to one another. It is the only reality they know, because they can’t turn around to see that the images are being projected from the light of a fire behind them. There are people making shadow puppets on the wall in order to deceive the prisoners.
Many people have right noticed the similarity between this imagery and the modern movie theatre: The light from the fire is like the projector, and the images we see on the screen seem more real than the people we are sitting with. There is what Glaucon calls a ‘great compulsion’ (492d) to accept as normal what is portrayed in such a way. To borrow language from Foucault, these prisoners are bound by bonds more real than their chains; they simply have no idea that there is any other kind of reality.
Now, imagine that one of these prisoners is freed and forced to look behind him at the source of the shadows he’s taken for reality all this time. It would hardly be an illuminating experience for him; at first he would be even more blinded than he was to begin with. Only after his eyes are able to adjust will he be able to see and then to understand that the images he’s looking at now are more real than the shadows on the wall. What has happened is that his reality has changed. From shadows to real objects; from two dimensions to three; from monochrome to full-color. There’s no question that his reality is more complete, more vibrant, in a sense more true.
But there’s even more illumination in store for him. If he were to walk out of the cave entirely, and into the light of the sun itself, wouldn’t he again be blinded by the greater brightness? For Plato, what makes our perception of even a concrete object both possible and true is it’s correlation to an idea. Heraclitus says that the incredulous escapes recognition. When we look at something, we look for something that we already have in mind. If the object itself is what is visible, it is the idea we have of it, which is invisible, that makes the object visible, or ‘intelligible’ (507b). Plato uses the example of light (or the sun) to illustrate this: ‘Sight may be present in the eyes, and the one who has it may try to use it, and colors may be present in things, but unless a third kind of thing is present…sight will see nothing, and the colors will remain unseen.’ This third kind of thing, of course, is light (507d-e). We can’t see light itself, but without it we can’t see anything else. In the same way, we cannot actually see ideas, but it is ideas that enable us to discern other things.
When the newly-released prisoner first ‘sees’ the light of the sun, she will see nothing. Her eyes aren’t accustomed to seeing in such brilliance. But of course this is the very source of even the meager illumination she had while still inside the cave looking at shadows on the wall. Sooner or later she will come to understand this and, should she find herself back in the cave with the other prisoners, she will all the better understand what they are looking at for having seen it’s source.
Now, what this allegory is expressly not about is the importance of leaving the cave. In fact, the central theme here is that abstract philosophical reflection is not totally incongruent with political practice. The best natures, Plato says, should be encouraged to make the ascent out of the cave; but they should not be allowed to stay there. They should be required to return to the cave and share their insight with those below. The darkness of the cave will be disorienting to them, just as the brightness of the sun was. But the very purpose of education, for Plato, is to constitute laws that, he says, ‘bind the city together’ (520a). This is another kind of chain, but one that amounts to justice. There is no question of simply releasing people from their bonds to reality; rather, the point is to transform their bonds (the social norms that constitute our view of reality) from ones that encourage despotism to ones that encourage justice. How will anyone come to be ruled by reason? By living in a society where justice is the norm. How will one best constitute laws that make justice the norm? By having a clear idea of what justice is—i.e., through philosophical reflection.
Philosophical reflection has been not only the theme but also the effect of this dialogue. As we have thought along with Socrates, we have gained insight into what justice is (phronēsis)(cf. 504d-505b). Having insight into the good means that we not only understand it better, but that we have been motivated to become more just. Plato has used the notoriety of Socrates to affect the purpose that his great teacher lived and died for.
* * * *
Concluding thought assignment: If you were asked to play a role in our drama, which of these characters could you play most convincingly?
Excursus of Notes from Gadamer
‘Life experience and the study of Plato had led me quite early to the insight that the truth of a single proposition cannot be measured by its merely factual relationship of correctness and congruency; nor does it depend merely upon the context in which it stands. Ultimately it depends upon the genuineness of its enrootedness and bond with the person of the speaker in whom it wins its truth potential, for the meaning of a statement is not exhausted in what is stated. It can be disclosed only if one traces its history of motivation and looks ahead to its implications. From that time forward this became one of my guiding hermeneutical insights’ (Reason in the Age of Science 44).
‘[T]he main issue in all understanding concerns the meaningful relationship that exists between the statements of the text and our understanding of the reality under discussion’ (RAS 98).
‘Once we presuppose that there is no such thing as a fully transparent text or a completely exhaustive interest in the explaining and construing of texts, then all perspectives relative to the art and theory of interpretation are shifted. Then it  becomes more important to trace the interests guiding us with respect a given subject matter than simply to interpret the evident content of a statement. One of the more fertile insights of modern hermeneutics is that every statement has to be seen as a response to a question and that the only way to understand a statement is to get hold of the question to which the statement is an answer’ (RAS 105-6).
‘The real question is not what justice, as the ideal health of state and soul, looks like but how justice has the power to bring itself about and preserve itself’ (Dialogue and Dialectic 89).
‘The complete separation of a world of the ideas from the world of appearances would be a crass absurdity. If Parmenides, in the dialogue of the same name, consciously pushes us in the direction of that complete separation, he does so, it seems to me, precisely in order to reduce such an understanding of the chōrismos to absurdity (see Parmenides 133b ff)’ (The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy 16).
‘In any case, in the Republic Socrates treats the idea of the good as something that is difficult to grasp and that can be observed only in its effects. Like the sun, which by granting warmth and light, gives everything visible its being and perceptibility, the good is present for us only in the gifts that it bestows, gnōsis kai alētheia, insight and truth’ (TIG 28).
‘In the context of the Republic…the good is presented as the unifying one of the many’ (TIG 28).
‘Aristotle has a way of taking statements not as they were intended, but literally, and then demonstrating their one-sidedness’ (TIG 60).
‘One thing is clear in any event: this ideal state cannot be actualized. All the preconditions for it—from the sharing of women and children to the rule by philosophers to the exodus of all those older than ten years from the city to be reorganized—all these things demonstrate its impossibility. Glaucon hesitates visibly at 484b when he can find no other answer to the question of who would be the right leaders of the polis than “the philosophers.” And he remains a hesitant partner to the end: see 541a, “eiper pote gignoito” (if it were to come about sometime), and 592a-b, where this is even more pronounced. But what is the whole point of Plato’s invention? That we see its absurdity? Is it meant to highlight the impossibility of the ideal? Are we supposed to read this political utopia only negatively and be convinced by it only of the irreconcilability of theoretical and civic life? If so, a great expenditure of intelligence and wit has been wasted. For a blind man would see that such a state is impossible, and precisely its impossibility is underscored by the clumsy and circuitous demonstration of its possibility. Does Plato seek nothing more than to show that the conflict between theoria and politics is irresolvable?
‘On the contrary. Surely one must read the whole book as one grand dialectical myth. On occasion Plato himself virtually says that dialectic is its principle. (See 497e: “tounantion ē nun” [the  opposite of what is now].) Surely one must take all the institutions and structures in this model city as dialectical metaphors. Of course, reading dialectically does not simply mean taking the opposite of what is said, to be the true belief. Here, reading dialectically means relating these utopian demands in each instance to their opposite, in order to find, somewhere in between, what is really meant—that is, in order to recognize what the circumstances are, and how they could be made better. Per se, the institutions of this model city are not meant to embody ideas for reform. Rather, they should make truly bad conditions and the dangers for the continued existence of a city visible e contrario. For example, the total elimination of the family is intended to display the ruinous role of family politics, nepotism, and the idea of dynastic power in the so-called democracy of Athens at that time (and not only there).
‘Indubitably, one must read the argument for the rule of philosophers just as dialectically as everything else that is said about this splendid state in the clouds. This argument is not meant to specify a way to actualize the ideal city. But it is not intended either solely as a negative demonstration of its impossibility. Rather it uncovers something—and not only the obvious fact that no polis would let itself be governed by such philosophers. Is the paradox of the philosopher-king not also meant to give us the positive insight that both aiming at the good and knowing reality pertain to the political actions of the true statesman as well as to the true theoretical life?’ (TIG 70-71).
‘In respect to interpreting the allegory of the cave, reading dialectically entails that we abandon all attempts at an exact interpretation of this wonderful and many-layered metaphor regarding its bearing on the of scientific knowing. Instead, we must focus on only one point, namely, what function the allegory has within the course of the discussion. Here there is no ambiguity: it is intended to dispel the illusion that dedication to philosophy and the theoretical life is wholly irreconcilable with the demands of political practice in society and the state. The theme is the blinding by the brightness that befalls  those accustomed to the dark, and conversely, the blinding of those who leave the brightness and enter the dark. The allegory is supposed to explain why those caught up in the practical life consider the theoretical life worthless (515d and 515e). The story is intended to enlighten us regarding this putative worthlessness of the theoretical human being in practice. One must not only get used to the light; one must also get used to the dark. Those who return from the light of the true day to the twilight of the cave are also blinded at first by the contrast in brightness. That they are does not mean that they are really blinded or are incapable of getting oriented there. Plato says that their blindness passes quickly (517a)’ (TIG 74-5).
‘Aristotle…always takes Plato word for word’ (TIG 95).
‘[I]t is vital to read Plato’s dialogues not as theoretical treatises but as mimēses (imitation) of real discussions played out between the partners and drawing them into a game in which they all have something at stake’ (TIG 97).