Socrates and Plato - Session 17 (18 September 2001)

I said yesterday it was somewhat difficult but we pass from difficult to difficult and at times we take a journey off a little so that you may relax a little and that relaxation can be useful. So I thought we shall read something from Plato which is not so difficult and which having read will give you a further light on what we spoke on yesterday. This is a passage which comes in a book called Republic. Republic as you know is the main book written by Plato in the form of a dialogue and this particular passage begins with a question: What is a philosopher? Yesterday I had told you the difference between the man in the street and a philosopher and I said that even when a man of street uses universals in his thinking, he is not aware of it whereas a philosopher is aware of it, he knows where exactly he is using universals and then he tries to reconcile and bring together universals in a kind of a symphony. Many of you are musicians so you know what is a symphony and these harmonies of universals, there are hundreds of universals like cattiness, horseness, so many universals in the world, chairness, kaleidoscope of the ideal bad and all other are copies of an ideal bad, it is a universal bad as it were. So there are hundreds of universals then combine those universals until you come to a great large synthesis of three greatest universals of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. And then again you reconcile these three universals and come to the Supreme universal which he calls The Good and then this Good is the Supreme Idea, Supreme Universal and then I told you yesterday Sri Aurobindo’s concept of Real Idea, the Supreme Good, Supreme Universal manifested by the Reality itself in which the Idea expresses exactly what is in Reality so there is no contradiction between the two, no distortion, it’s a straight ray as it were on Reality without any distortion, no crookedness. Now this whole idea which if you repeat becomes very simple afterwards and we shall repeat several times. And I want to repeat again and again because to be in the company of Plato is one of the greatest honours of human life. It is like visiting one of the greatest cities of the world and Plato is one of the greatest cities of the world himself. If you look into his ideas and if each idea is like an object in a city and then the whole city is full of ideas of Plato, so if you sit with Plato in a big city it is a tremendous honour and that is why I choose very often Plato as an illustration of a mind in company with whom you feel yourself elevated and you feel a tremendous joy. So now it is this Plato who has in order to explain his own philosophy he has given a kind of analogy, earlier I have explained to you analogical argument, analogy is a simile, you compare one object with the other and then say just as this object is like this, this object is like this, this object has this quality that object has this quality; then you say since this quality is exists here this quality also should be existing here this is called analogical argument.

Now Plato in order to explain his philosophy he has given an analogy, it is called The Simile of the Den or The Simile of the Cave. If you enter into a cave he says then you find in the cave—pillars. Now to each pillar there is one human being or one slave as it were tied to the pillar and is tied in such a way that the slave can see only on one side, he cannot turn back and see what is behind. He can only see what is in the front, it’s an analogy between a man of perception and man of reason. A man of perception is tied only to his senses and he cannot turn back and see what is behind so he has only perceptions and nothing more. Now if there is a big fire behind the prisoners then they will see what is on the wall. You can imagine supposing there is a fire behind and the prisoners are tied to the pillars, what will they see on the front in the wall? You will only see shadows. So perceptions are always perception of shadows according to Plato, they will not even know themselves, the prisoners will not know. They will only see that there are shadows and nothing more than that. Now suppose one day one prisoner comes out of the imprisonment, somehow he unchains himself, he breaks the knot by which he was tied to the pillar then he looks behind and Lo and behold, he sees the great fire, which he had not imagined ever; there is no comparison between fire and shadows, he had only seen shadows he could not have even imagined there could be something like fire and he could not have imagined that it was because of the fire that shadows are created. So the origin of shadows he could have never imagined and then as he moves out of the cave he finds the huge sun outside in the sky in comparison with this fire is nothing, it’s a huge fire which you call the ball of the sun in the light of which everything is so clear and so wonderful. Similarly if you unchain yourself from the sense perception, look behind with reason and you find the light behind, you find the universals and you go behind the universals and you see the Supreme Universal—the sunlight. And then you feel compassion for those who are imprisoned and you come back and tell everybody: Look! My dear friends this is not all, this is nothing, this is only a kind of a trivial thing that you are seeing, splendid things are behind. So the whole philosophy of Plato is explained in the form of a story. So if you know the story quite well, if you know this simile quite well it will be very easy for you to remember Plato’s theory. So let us now read this Simile of the Den page number 129. This is taken from The Republic, of Plato it is a dialogue in which the main speaker is Socrates and the other one who is talking to him and hearing and talking to him is Glaucon, another friend of Socrates, it’s a dialogue between the two, may be there may be many others also at the same time in the dialogue. There is an introduction to this and let us read first a few lines of the introduction.

This is a more graphic presentation of the truths presented in the analogy of the line in particular it tells us more about the two states of mind call in 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 understand 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.

This is only an introduction, not a very brilliant one but still something, anyway let us go to the main text. In text when it begins the word ‘I’, I want to go on to picture the enlightenment or ignorance. Now their ‘I’ refers to Socrates. Socrates who is speaking to Glaucon He says “I want to go on to picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human condition somewhat as follows.

Imagine an underground chamber like 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."

Clear idea? Right.

So Glaucon says "I see."

Now Socrates continues and says: "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."

Glaucon says: "An odd picture and an odd sort of prisoner."

Socrates says: "They are drawn from life," 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?”

You will see here a picture drawn by Rolf from here, you know Rolf in Auroville, he has done a picture of the vision that Socrates’ is presenting. The curtain wall and the shadows.

Glaucon says: "How could they see anything else if they were prevented from moving their heads all their lives?"

Socrates says: "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."

"Yes, inevitably."

"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 truer 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."

"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."

"Of course."

"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', 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 this."

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.


"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. 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. 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's 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 highest of all realities which is what we call the good. Isn't this so? Yes. Then this turning around of the mind itself might be made a subject of professional skill which would affect the conversion as easily and effectively as possible. It would not be concerned with implant sight. But to ensure that someone who had it already was a knight not either turn in the wrong direction or look the wrong way. That may well be so the rest therefore of what are commonly called excellences 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 those 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 are small minds but the site is sharp and piercing enough in matters that concern them it is not that the site is weak but they are forced to serve evil so that the keener their sight the more effective that if it is. That's true. 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 fasten on them by sensual indulgences like gluttony which twists their minds vision to lower things and suppose that when so freed they were turned over the truths. Then the same part of the same individuals would be asking a vision of truth as it is of the objects on which it is at present terms. Very likely and is it not also likely and you need 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 and purely intellectual pursuits the uneducated or no single aim in life to which all directions public and private are to be directed. The intellectuals will take no practical action of their own accord fencing themselves to be out of this world in some kind of earthly paradise. True, then our job as low viewers is to compare 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 then 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 the 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 the envelope and I went on. We shouldn'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. Feel it has nothing to repay for an upbringing which it rose to no one. But we shall say we have bred you both for your own sake and that of the community to act as leaders and king bees in the higher 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 the shadow battles and the struggles for political power with retreat has 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 descend and refuse to take their share of the hard work of the government. Even though spending the greater part of the 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 agree. 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 their life better than the 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 you hope to snatch some compensation for their own inadequacy from a political player there can never be good government. They start fighting for power and the consequent internal and domestic conflicts ruin both them and society. True indeed is there any life except that of true philosophy which looks down on positions of political power none whatever but what we need is that the only man to get power should be men who do not love it. Otherwise we should have rival squirrels that is certain who else then would you compare 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 politicians there is no one else. Now you can see here in one simple story the entire philosophy of Plato. You hear a picture of Plato also. A good picture of Plato. The whole argument is that it is only philosophers who have seen highest good who should be requested, persuaded to come back to the world and to govern this world even when they would like to live more in the world of ideas and the world of the good even they are much more happy there we should request them, ‘Sacrifice your happiness, come down here on the earth, help the people to come out of their imprisonment and seethe Good that is the role of philosophers. Philosophers should be the kings or kings should be philosophers and those who are only philosophers or only politicians are to stand aside then only they will see the light of the day. Right, this is The Simile of the Cave.

Oh! Already the time is up. I think tomorrow we shall read the text of our paper because it will become easier for us to read it.

Now many of you are painters, no? Try to draw a picture of this cave. Rolf has made one picture, don’t be bound by that picture, make your own picture. Let us see, one day not now immediately but keep in your mind that one day you’ll make a good picture of this cave and also a good picture of one who escapes from the cave and then looks at the fire and then looks farther at the sun by what is he dazzled and by what he is not dazzled then he only sees the stars at night it is easier but when he sees the sun in the daytime it is much more difficult for him to see but gradually when he is accustomed to it he can then see the daylight and therefore him to see the darkness is more difficult, your eyes become much more accustomed to light than to darkness, when you go into darkness you have to strain yourself, it’s an opposite story which happens. Right, we will therefore do a picture here because it is a very good simile; it shows where we are and what is the goal of our life, where we should reach. We are all like prisoners seeing only the shadows and we are required to turn our whole body not only our eyes, not only the head but the whole body to be able to see the light behind. Alright, thank you.