Plato among his students, Pompeian mosaic, National Museum, Naples
An allegory can reveal a message more powerfully than long and abstruse discourses or compositions weighted with analysis and arguments. Many great teachers have used allegories or parables to expound or explain a message or a lesson. One of the most famous allegories in the history of human thought is found in the seventh book of Plato s Republic: "The Simile of the Cave ".
The main purpose of this allegory is to describe the ignorant state of humanity and its possible passage to a state of knowledge. According to Plato, most men are like prisoners tied in a cave since their childhood and able to see in only one direction, ignorant of all that is behind them and incapable of suspecting the existence of anything other than what is in front. If there were afire behind the prisoners and objects between them and the fire, they would see nothing but shadows cast on the wall facing them. They would not even suspect that there existed objects and fire of an unimaginable concreteness and splendour.
Entering into this allegory, one is reminded of the theory of Ignorance and Knowledge found in the Upanishads. Ignorance, according to the Upanishads, is the apprehension of multiplicity without the awareness of the underlying light of unity. The apprehension of the multiplicity is analogous to the prisoners perception of shadows. Knowledge, according to the Upanishads, is the concentrated vision of wily and a comprehending consciousness of unity-multiplicity. The Upanishads also declare that we are in a state of bondage or imprisonment, since we are tied by the senses which look outward (bahirmukha) and can apprehend only appearances, not
reality. The path of Knowledge, then, consists in turning inward (antarmukha), away from appearances and towards the inner self which is one with the universal and transcendent Self, Atman or Brahman.
Plato also makes a distinction between the objects of sense-perception and the objects of reason or the soul. The former are phenomena of becoming which are real-unreal and matters of opinion, while the latter are essences of real being, matters of knowledge. Describing the process of moving from ignorance to knowledge, Socrates, who, in Plato's dialogues, voices philosophy, says: "... This organ of knowledge must be turned around from the world of becoming together with the entire soul, like the scene-shifting periactus1 in the theatre, until the soul is able to endure the contemplation of essence and the brightest region of being. "
That a good teacher must possess knowledge may be universally acknowledged, but the controversies begin as soon as we try to define knowledge. For example, knowledge is often equated with information. In the Upanishads, however, knowledge is described as the realization of That, from the knowing of which everything becomes known. In Plato, too, knowledge refers to the soul's ideative perception of the real, the Good, from the knowing of which the cause of the shadows and appearances is known, and one ceases to be a prisoner and becomes free. A good teacher, according both to the Upanishads and to Plato, is one who has liberated himself from the bondage of believing in shadows and appearances and, thus knows the real.
But it is not enough to comprehend reality. Once the process of apprehending reality is known this knowledge must be applied in designing a process of education, From childhood, says Plato, our reason and soul should be hammered free of the leaden weight of ignorance and led towards the things that are real and true. Plato goes on to say: "It is the duty of us... to compel the best natures to attain the knowledge, which we pronounce 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 must not be allowed? It is a normal experience of all those who have ascended the heights that they linger there and are disinclined to return to the lower levels of existence. But, says Plato, the mark of a good teacher is that he returns "to go down again among those bondsmen and share their labours and honours,
1. Periaktoi, (Greek: "revolving"), ancient theatrical device by which a scene or change of scene was indicated. It was described by Vitruvius in his De Architecture, (c. 14 BC) as a revolving triangular prism made of wood, bearing on each of its three sides a different pictured scene. While one scene was presented to the audience, the other two could be changed.
whether they are of less or of greater worth. " In other words, the good teacher is moved to go down in order to uplift those who are still tied to ignorance, that they too can see the real and attain to freedom. Indeed, we have here the universal truth that the good teacher seeks pupils, even as good pupils seek good teachers.
The Platonic philosophy of education has deep metaphysical foundations related to the theory of Ideas and the theory of the immortality of the soul. In the simile of the cave, we find references to both these theories. There is also a reference to another important theory of Plato, according to which the knower of reality, the philosopher, should not only be a teacher but should also be the ruler or guardian of the State. Plato believes that government should be conducted by those who know how to govern, and only those know how to govern who have liberated themselves from the bondage of sense-perception by means of the ideative perception of the real. The good teacher, in this view, is also the good ruler, and, indeed, he is a philosopher as well.
Such is the message that Plato wishes to give us through the famous simile of tile cave. It is not necessary to accept Platonic metaphysics or Platonic political philosophy to be able to appreciate the main point of our interest, the characteristics of a good teacher. Not many will dispute that a good teacher must be a knower of reality, that he must be able to distinguish between appearances and reality, and that, having known reality, he should wish to uplift all those who are still in the bondage of ignorance. .
Painting by Bettina, Auroville
This graphic presentation tells us about two states of mind called by Plato in another analogy (the Line analogy) Belief and Illusion. We are shown the ascent of the mind from illusion to pure philosophy, and the difficulties which accompany its progress. And the philosopher, when he has achieved the supreme vision, is required to return to the cave and serve his fellows, his very unwillingness to do so being his chief qualification.
As a modern philosopher pointed out, the best way to under- stand the simile is to replace "the clumsier apparatus" of the cave by cinema, though today television is an even better comparison. It is the moral and intellectual condition of the average man from which Plato starts; and though clearly the ordinary man knows the difference between substance and shadow in the physical world, the simile suggests that his moral and intellectual opinions often bear as little relation to the truth as the average film or television programme does to real life.
I want you to go on to picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human condition somewhat as follows. Imagine an underground chamber like a A. cave, with a long entrance open to the daylight and as wide as the cave. In this chamber are men who have been prisoners there since they were children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads. Some way off, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them runs a road, in front of which a curtain-wall has been built, like the screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets."
"Imagine further that there are men carrying all sorts of gear along behind the curtain-wall, projecting above it and including figures of men and animals made of
wood and stone and all sorts of other materials, and that some of these men, as you would expect, are talking and some not."
"An odd picture and an odd sort of prisoner."
"They are drawn from life, "1 I replied. "For, tell me, do you think our prisoners could see anything of themselves or their fellows except the shadows thrown by the fire on the wall of the cave opposite them?"
"How could they see anything else if they were prevented from moving their heads all their lives?"
"And would they see anything more of the objects carried along the road?"
"Of course not."
"Then if they were able to talk to each other, would they not assume that the shadows they saw were the real things?"
"And if the wall of their prison opposite them reflected sound, don't you think that they would suppose, whenever one of the passers-by on the road spoke, that the voice belonged to the shadow passing before them?"
"They would be bound to think so."
"And so in every way they would believe that the shadows of the objects we mentioned were the whole truth."2
"Then think what would naturally happen to them if they were released from their bonds and cured of their delusions. Suppose one of them were let loose, and suddenly compelled to stand up and turn his head and look and walk towards the fire; all these actions would be painful and he would be too dazzled to see properly the objects of which he used to see the shadows. What do you think he would say if he was told that what he used to see was so much empty nonsense and that he was now nearer reality and seeing more correctly, because he was turned towards objects that were more real, and if on top of that he were compelled to say what each of the passing objects was when it was pointed out to him? Don't you think he would be at a loss, and think that what he used to see was far truer3 than the objects now being pointed out to him?"
"Yes, far truer."
"And if he were made to look directly at the light of the fire, it would hurt his eyes and he would turn back and retreat to the things which he could see properly, which he would think really clearer than the things being shown him."
"And if," I went on, "he were forcibly dragged up the steep and rugged ascent and not let go till he had been dragged out into the sunlight, the process would be a painful one, to which he would much object, and when he emerged into the light his eyes would be so dazzled by the glare of it that he wouldn't be able to see a single one of the things he was now told were real."4
"Certainly not at first," he agreed.
"Because, of course, he would need to grow accustomed to the light before he could see things in the upper world outside the cave. First he would find it easiest to look at shadows, next at the reflections of men and other objects in water, and later on at the objects themselves. After that he would find it easier to observe the heavenly bodies and the sky itself at night, and to look at the light of the moon and stars rather than at the sun and its light by day."
"The thing he would be able to do last would be to look directly at the sun itself, and gaze at it without using reflections in water or any other medium, but as it is in itself."
"That must come last."
"Later on he would come to the conclusion that it is the sun that produces the changing seasons and years and controls everything in the visible world, and it is in a sense responsible for everything that he and his fellow-prisoners used to see." "That is the conclusion which he would obviously reach." "And when he thought of his first home and what passed for wisdom there, and of his fellow-prisoners, don't you think he would congratulate himself on his good fortune and be sorry for them?" _ "Very much so."
"There was probably a certain amount of honour and glory to be won among the prisoners, and prizes for keen-sightedness for those best able to remember the order of sequence among the passing shadows and so be best able to divine their future appearances. Will our released prisoner hanker after these prizes or envy this power or honour? Won't he be more likely to feel, as Homer says, that he would far rather be 'a serf in the house of some landless man',5 or indeed anything else in the world, than hold the opinions and live the life that they do?"
"Yes," he replied, "he would prefer anything to a life like theirs." "Then what do you think would happen," I asked, "if he went back to sit in his old seat in the cave? Wouldn't his eyes be blinded by the darkness, because he had come in suddenly out of the sunlight?"
Painting by Rolf, Auroville
"And if he had to discriminate between the shadows, in competition with the other prisoners, while he was still blinded and before his eyes got used to the darkness — a process that would take some time — wouldn't he be likely to make a fool of himself? And they would say that his visit to the upper world had ruined' his sight, and that the ascent was not worth even attempting. And if anyone tried to release them and lead them up, they would kill him if they could lay hands on him."
"They certainly would."
"Now, my dear Glaucon," I went on, "this simile must be connected throughout; with what preceded it.6 The realm revealed by sight corresponds to the prison, and the light of the fire in the prison to the power of the sun. And you won't go wrong, if you connect the ascent into the upper world and the sight of the objects there with
the upward progress of the mind into the intelligible region. That at any rate is my interpretation, which is what you are anxious to hear; the truth of the matter is, after all, known only to god.7 But in my opinion, for what it is worth, the final thing to be perceived in the intelligible region, and perceived only with difficulty, is the form of the good; once seen, it is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right and valuable in anything, producing in the visible region light and the source of light, and being in the intelligible region itself controlling source of truth and intelligence. And anyone who is going to act rationally either in public or private life must have sight of it."
"I agree," he said, "so far as I am able to understand you."
"Then you will perhaps also agree with me that it won't be surprising if those who get so far are unwilling to involve themselves in human affairs, and if their minds long to remain in the realm above. That's what we should expect if our simile holds good again."
"Yes, that's to be expected."
"Nor will you think it strange that anyone who descends from contemplation of the divine to human life and its ills should blunder and make a fool of himself, if, while still blinded and unaccustomed to the surrounding darkness, he's forcibly put on trial in the law-courts or elsewhere about the shadows of justice or the figures of which they are shadows, and made to dispute about the notions of them held by men who have never seen justice itself."
"There's nothing strange in that."
"But anyone with any sense," I said, "will remember that the eyes may be unsighted in two ways, by a transition either from light to darkness or from darkness to light, and will recognize that the same thing applies to the mind. So when he sees a mind confused and unable to see clearly he will not laugh without thinking, but will ask himself whether it has come from a clearer world and is confused by the unaccustomed darkness, or whether it is dazzled by the stronger light of the clearer world to which it has escaped from its previous ignorance. The first condition of life is a reason for congratulation, the second for sympathy, though if one wants to laugh at it one can do so with less absurdity than at the mind that has descended from the daylight of the upper world."
"You put it very reasonably."
"If this is true," I continued, "we must reject the conception of education professed by those who say that they can put into the mind knowledge that was not there before — rather as if they could put sight into blind eyes."
"It is a claim that is certainly made," he said.
"But our argument indicates that the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man's mind, and that the organ by which he learns is like an eye which cannot be turned from darkness to light unless the whole body is turned; in the same way the mind as a whole must be turned away from the world of change until its eye can bear to look straight at reality, and at the brightest of all realities which is what we call the good. Isn't this so?"
"Then this turning around of the mind itself might be made a subject of professional skill,8 which would effect the conversion as easily and effectively as possible. It would not be concerned to implant sight, but to ensure that someone who had it already was not either turned in the wrong direction or looking the wrong way."
"That may well be so."
"The rest, therefore, of what are commonly called excellences9 of the mind perhaps resemble those of the body, in that they are not in fact innate, but are implanted by subsequent training and practice; but knowledge, it seems, must surely have a diviner quality, something which never loses its power, but whose effects are useful and salutary or again useless and harmful according to the direction in which it is turned. Have you never noticed how shrewd is the glance of the type of men commonly called bad but clever? They have small minds, but their sight is sharp and piercing enough in matters that concern them; it's not that their sight is weak, but that they are forced to serve evil, so that the keener their sight the more effective that evil is."
"But suppose," I said, "that such natures were cut loose, when they were still children, from all the dead weights natural to this world of change and fastened on them by sensual indulgences like gluttony, which twist their minds' vision to lower things, and suppose that when so freed they were turned towards the truth, then this same part of these same individuals would have as keen a vision of truth as it has of the objects on which it is at present turned."
"And is it not also likely, and indeed a necessary consequence of what we have said, that society will never be properly governed either by the uneducated, who have no knowledge of the truth, or by those who are allowed to spend all their lives in purely intellectual pursuits? The uneducated have no single aim in life to which
all their actions, public and private, are to be directed; the intellectuals will take no practical action of their own accord, fancying themselves to be out of this world in some kind of earthly paradise."
"Then our job as lawgivers is to compel the best minds to attain what we have called the highest form of knowledge, and to ascend to the vision of the good as we have described, and when they have achieved this and see well enough, prevent them behaving as they are now allowed to." "What do you mean by that?"
"Remaining in the upper world, and refusing to return again to the prisoners in the cave below and share their labours and rewards, whether trivial or serious."
"But surely," he protested, "that will not be fair. We shall be compelling them to live a poorer life than they might live."
"The object of our legislation," I reminded him again, "is not the special welfare of any particular class in our society, but of the society as a whole; and it uses persuasion or compulsion to unite all citizens and make them share together the benefits which each individually can confer on the community; and its purpose in fostering this attitude is not to leave everyone to please himself, but to make each man a link in the unity of the whole."
"You are right; I had forgotten," he said.
"You see, then, Glaucon," I went on, "we shan't be unfair to our philosophers, but shall be quite fair in what we say when we compel them to have some care and responsibility for others. We shall tell them that philosophers born in other states can reasonably refuse to take part in the hard work of politics; for society produces them quite involuntarily, and it is only just that anything that grows up on its own should feel it has nothing to repay for an upbringing which it owes to no one. 'But/we shall say, 'we have bred you both for your own sake and that of the whole community to act as leaders and king-bees in a hive; you are better and more fully educated than the rest and better qualified to combine the practice of philosophy and politics. You must therefore each descend in turn and live with your fellows in the cave and get used to seeing in the dark; once you get used to it you will see a thousand times better than they do and will distinguish the various shadows, and know what they are shadows of, because you have seen the truth about things admirable and just and good. And so our state and yours will be really awake, and not merely dreaming like most societies today, with their shadow battles and their struggles for political power, which they treat as some great prize. The truth is quite different: the state
whose prospective rulers come to their duties with least enthusiasm is bound to have the best and most tranquil government, and the state whose rulers are eager to rule the worst.'"
"I quite agree."
"Then will our pupils, when they hear what we say, dissent and refuse to take their share of the hard work of government, even though spending the greater part of their time together in the pure air above?"
"They cannot refuse, for we are making a just demand of just men. But of course, unlike present rulers, they will approach the business of government as an unavoidable necessity."
"Yes, of course," I agreed. "The truth is that if you want a well-governed state to be possible, you must find for your future rulers some way of life they like better than government; for only then will you have government by the truly rich, those, that is, whose riches consist not of gold, but of the true happiness of a good and rational life. If you get, in public affairs, men whose life is impoverished and destitute of personal satisfactions, but who hope to snatch some compensation for their own inadequacy from a political career, there can never be good government. They start fighting for power, and the consequent internal and domestic conflicts ruin both them and society."
"Is there any life except that of true philosophy which looks down on positions of political power?"
"But what we need is that the only men to get power should be men who do not love it, otherwise we shall have rivals' quarrels."
"That is certain."
"Who else, then, will you compel to undertake the responsibilities of Guardians of our state, if it is not to be those who know most about the principles of good government and who have other rewards and a better life than the politician's?"
"There is no one else."
From Plato, The Republic, translation Desmond Lee
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), pp. 316-3¦
1. Lit: "like us". How "like" has been a matter of controversy. Plato can hardly have meant that the ordinary man cannot distinguish between shadows and real things. But he does seem to be saying, with a touch of caricature (we must not take him too solemnly), that the ordinary man is often very uncritical in his beliefs, which are little more than a "careless acceptance of appearances" (Crombie).
2. Lit: "regard nothing else as true but the shadows". The Greek word alethes (true) carries an implication of genuineness, and some translators render it here as "real".
3. Or "more real".
4. Or "true", "genuine".
5. Odyssey, XI, 489.
6. I.e. the similes of the Sun and the Line. The detailed relations between the three similes have been much disputed, as has the meaning of the word here translated "connected". Some interpret it to mean a detailed correspondence ("every feature ... is meant to fit" — Cornford), others to mean, more loosely, "attached" or "linked to". That Plato intended some degree of "connection" between the three similes cannot be in doubt in view of the sentences which follow. But we should remember that they are similes, not scientific descriptions, and it would be a mistake to try to find too much detailed precision. Plato has just spoken of the prisoners "getting their hands" on their returned fellow and killing him. How could they do that if fettered as described at the opening of the simile? But Socrates was executed, so of course they must.
This translation assumes the following main correspondences:
Tied prisoner in the cave Illusion
Freed prisoner in the cave Belief
Looking at shadows and reflections in the world
outside the cave and the ascent thereto Reason
Looking at real things in the world
outside the cave Intelligence
Looking at the sun Vision of the form of the good.
7. Plato tends to use "gods" (plural) or "god" (singular) indifferently. When he speaks of "god" we must not interpret him in terms of simple monotheism. He thought that the myths of Greek polytheism were crude and misleading. He does seem to have believed (like most Greeks) in a supreme god, but he would not have regarded that belief as precluding the existence of a multiplicity of spiritual powers of whom many could rank as (subordinate) gods. This is the sort of theology we meet in the Timaeus and Laws.
Biography of Plato
Plato was born c. 427 BC to one of the most distinguished families of the Athenian ruling aristocracy. Through his father Plato was supposed to be descended from Poseidon, the god of the sea and horses. Through his mother he was descended from Solon, the wise-man and law-giver of Athens.
Plato's early years coincided with the disastrous Peloponnesian War which shattered the Athenian Empire. He must have known Socrates from boyhood, and his early manhood must have been spent among the most brilliant men of the time. It would have been natural for him to play a prominent part in Athenian politics, but he felt disgusted by the violence and corruption of the city's political life, and concluded that he could collaborate with neither democrats nor oligarchs. In 399 BC he was especially sickened by the execution of his friend and teacher, Socrates.
After this event, Plato went on a series of travels, as he reflected on the life and teachings of Socrates. He was now brought to his mission of seeking a cure for society's ills not in politics but in philosophy, and he arrived at his fundamental conviction that those ills would never cease until philosophers became rulers or rulers philosophers. Plato's travels included Egypt and Italy, and at the age of forty he was invited to Syracuse, Sicily. The country was ruled by the tyrant Dionysius I, and Plato was asked to educate the tyrant. The visit was short and uneventful.
When Plato finally returned to Athens he presumably had completed some of his dialogues, notably those celebrating Socrates. He joined a group of friends who wanted to establish an institution of science and education. This was the famous Academy, the first permanent institution devoted to philosophical research and teaching, and the prototype of all western universities. Plato presided over the Academy for the rest of his life, making it into the intellectual centre of Greek civilization. In twenty years it collected the most brilliant minds of the time, great mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers, including Aristotle. From Aristotle we can infer that Plato lectured without manuscripts and that "problems" were posed for solution by joint researches of the students. During these years more dialogues were written, which included most probably the Republic.
In 367 BC, at the age of sixty, Plato was again invited to Syracuse to undertake the task discussed years earlier, this time with Dionysius II who had just assumed power. Plato's reluctance to take on the task was overcome partly by "a feeling of shame ... lest I might someday appear to myself wholly and solely a mere man of words." Apparently, serious efforts were made by both teacher and tyrant, but court intrigues and quarrels intervened and Plato returned to Athens and never again directly intervened in political affairs. Plato now wrote the so-called later dialogues, He continued to teach at the Academy and to play a leading role in the research "problems". He died in 346 BC.
Plato wrote over twenty philosophical dialogues and his literary activity extended over half a century. Few other writers have exploited so effectively the precision, grace and power of Greek
prose. Along with Socrates and Aristotle, Plato stands as one of the great shapers of the whole intellectual tradition of the western world.
The Republic, in fact is a long book, covering many topics, and the impression it makes on us depends to some extent on the eyes with which we look at it. The principal question that the Republic deals with is: what is justice? Let us, however, remember that a great deal of the Republic is not about politics at all. A large part of it is about education, and has been a continuing source of stimulus to educational thinking; there is a great deal about individual morality — the balance of impulses under the control of reason, the passionate desire for truth, the underlying religious seriousness. There is literary criticism, there is philosophy, there is a wealth of incidental comment on many things. When we do come to politics we find that Plato has little sympathy with the kind of outlook we should call "democratic". He had seen democracy at work in Athens, and was too deeply critical of its faults to regard it as a desirable form of government (though he was equally critical of other forms). And if we disagree with him, we should start by trying to understand his criticisms and the problems he was trying to solve.
The Republic consists, broadly, of three parts. The first (to near the end of Book V) consists in the construction of an ideal commonwealth; it is the earliest of Utopias.
One of the conclusions arrived at is that the rulers must be philosophers. Books VI and VII are concerned to define the word "philosopher." This discussion constitutes the second section.
The third section consists of a discussion of various kinds of actual constitutions and of their merits and defects.
The Republic is in dialogue form and its style is conversational. The dialogue form was used by some of Plato's contemporaries, Xenophon, for example, as well as by Plato himself; and many have used it since his day. In a work of the length of the Republic the dramatic and conversational element can vary; in much of the argument there is very little of it. But none the less the general impression left is that of a conversation.
The following is a list of dialogues written by Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Minor, Ion, Protagoras, Meno, Gorgias, Phaedo, Menexenus, Euthydemus, Cratylus, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, Theaetetus, Critias, Philebus, Timaeus, Laws.
Cornford, P.M. Plato's Cosmology. London: Kegan Paul, 1937.
Crombie, I.M. An Examination of Plato's Doctrines. 2 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.