The cave image deals with the actual habitation of human nature, that is, of the embodied soul, and with the painful steps and stations of its slow ascent.

1. Book VII begins with this invitation to Glaucon: “Now, after this, liken our nature, as far as education and the lack of education is concerned, to the following sort of state” (514al).

The sentence is dramatic. “After this” indicates that what has im­mediately preceded—that is, Socrates’ naming of the affections, the pathemata, of the soul, the last of which is eikasia (cf. also 51la7 for apeika­ zein)—is the necessary prelude to what is now to come; the word pathos has a tragic flavor, and the poetic position of the preposition peri after its noun is surely meant to enhance this (cf. Poetics 1459a2). Glaucon is now to use his power of eikasia to see (514al) the dark drama of human nature under an image. This image will show what human beings are and do within the whole.

Behold, he says, men living as in a cave-like underground habitation (oikesei, 514a3) with a wide entrance turned toward daylight. From childhood on, their legs and necks are fettered so that they can only see straight ahead but are unable to turn (periagein). Their light comes from a fire burning behind them. Between this fire and themselves runs a road, alongside of which a screen wall has been built. Behind this wall, men pass back and forth carrying artificial objects. To Glaucon’s exclamation, “What an out-of-the way [atopon] image and what out-of-the-way prisoners” (515a4) Socrates replies with quiet irony: “Like us” (515a5). And, he goes on, these prisoners see only their own and each other’s shadows, which are thrown on the wall they face, together with the shadows of the things carried about behind the wall. If they converse it is about these shadows, which are as truth to them; the echo of words spoken behind the screen wall seems to them to be the speech of these shadows. Now suppose a prisoner was released and forced to stand up and turn around, and was compelled to answer questions about the things formerly behind him; he would be “perplexed” (aporein), his eyes would hurt, and he would regard the shadows as having more being than the things now before him. And if someone dragged (e6) him up the steep road and out of the cave by force to look at the light of the sun, his eyes would be so pained that at first  he could see nothing. But after a while, he would be able to see “first” shadows, “after that” “images” (eidōla) of things in water, and “at last” the things themselves. From these, he could raise his eyes to see the moon and the stars at night, when the sun itself is absent. And finally, he would see the sun in its own place; after that, “he would infer” (syllogizaito) that the sun was “responsible” (516c2) for the seasons and years and was the caretaker of everything. Then, if he recalled his former habitation, he would feel that he was now happy. The honors given down there to those who were good at observing, remembering, and giving  oracles (c8) about shadows would be nothing to him and he would do anything rather than live like that (e2). But if he had to join the competition, his eyes being still full of darkness from his sudden descent, he would make himself ridiculous (cf. 509cl). Men would then say that by ascending upwards he had ruined his eyes and that it was not right to attempt to go up. And as for anyone who tried to release another, if they could catch him they would kill him (517a6).

This image (eikona, 517a8) “must now be attached” to what has been said before: Glaucon is to “liken” the “situation that appears through sight” to the cave-like habitation: The power of the sun to the light of the fire, the forced climb of the prisoner into the light of day to the ascent of the soul and its vision  in the place of thought. In a table:

music of the republic table

2. This correlation of the sun and the cave images seems, though brief, explicit enough, from the conjecturing about shadows at the bottom up to the lovely motion of the soul in the upper realm. Yet a certain reserva­tion is expressed. If you interpret the ascent (anabasis) in the former to be the upward way (anodos) in the latter, Socrates says, “you will not fail to fulfill my expectations. But perhaps only god knows if that is what truly is” (517b4).

Let us look independently at the interrelation of the two images. The sun image shows how the Good has everywhere prepared places for the soul to know. There is motion within these places but not straight ascent—the word anabasis is never mentioned. The cave image, on the other hand, deals with the actual habitation of human nature, that is, of the embodied soul, and with the painful steps and stations of its slow ascent. Further­more, in the first the Good itself is not actually represented but is to be caught by analogy, while in the second the sun represents the Good and an underground  fire is in turn contrived  to represent the sun. This means that in the given correlation of the images our visible world comes, curiously, to occupy different levels:

visible realm diagram

Still later in Book VII, after the detailed discussion of the mathematical arts that are to “haul” the soul toward being, Socrates himself blurs this correlation and seems to match the upward trek of the soul into the sun’s world with the raising of the bodily eye, the world outside the cave with the place of sight (532b6). Furthermore, in the sun image the Good is beyond the realms of being and becoming, while in the cave image its representative, the sun, is, of course, within and part of the world. And finally, while the sun image, as explicated by the Divided Line, refers only to different degrees of the capacity to learn but not to the incapacity of ignorance (cf. 585b3), the cave image is explicitly about both education and lack of education (514a2); it is very much concerned not only with “mindlessness” (aphrosyne, 515c5) and “want of knowledge” (amathia, 518a7) but even with positive deceit. For those who carry “idols” back and forth as puppeteers manipulate their “marvels” (thaumata, 514b6—Socrates plays on the double meaning “puppets: marvels”) are indeed engaging in that complex form of dissembling which the orator shares with the sophist (Sophist 268b; cf. 260c8).

3. Now at the very beginning of their conversation Socrates and Glaucon had determined that ignorance (agnoia)  must necessarily be assigned to non-being, knowing (gnosis) to being (478c3), and opinion (doxa) to an unnamed intermediate, partaking of both and later identified as becoming. It must be in order to recall this scheme that the main segments of the Divided Line are at one point called gnoston and doxaston (510a9). Thus, it is obvious that wherever becoming occurs non-being is implied. But since non-being is not explicitly named in either of the im­ages, Glaucon should conjecture that it is present somewhere somehow, in that manner appropriate to “that which is not.” The following new cor­relation, in which the levels of the “sensible world” in both images are made to coincide,  does reveal it:

sun and cave diagram

4a. To put in a word the effect or seeing the cave image in this new juxtaposition with the sun image: The cave image is intended to complete the image of the Whole, and that requires taking into account human badness in all its organized obtuseness and assigning it its place within being or rather non-being (Seventh Letter 344b; Plotinus, Enneads I.8,  in fact, locates evil in non-being). This is why its presentation ends with a brusque reference to that most telling crime, the execution of Socrates (517a6). The introduction of this factor, namely human badness, and its management, which is called politics, comes out clearly in the table that outlines the cave image. As opposed to the main segments of the Divided Line with their two subsections, each realm here has a third part, the screen wall with its puppeteers in the lower realm and the starry night sky with its moon, bright with reflected solar light (cf. 617al), in the world above. We may interpret the former as representing the politicians with their laws and ordinances, their “image-making,” their dogmata (cf. Statesman 303c). (Here we must recall that political deceit is practiced in any city, even in the just city, though there “nobly;” Republic 414b8; cf. 382d). The latter will then be their cosmic counterparts, the “laws of nature” (Timaeus 83e5), which are best studied in the nocturnal sky—although, Socrates thinks, better yet not studied at all  (529a).

4b. When Socrates first introduced the source of the visible world as a son, Glaucon had immediately inferred that as a parent the Good was a father (506e6). The cave image now provides the answer to the obvious question: Who is the mother? It is Non-being, the realm in which things are not in themselves but only in relation to another; in the terms of the Sophist, it is the realm of the Other (257b), whose human effects are aliena­tion  and ignorance (Republic 478c3) as well as privacy in the literal sense, privation. (The Greek word for private person is “idiot.”) These effects, in turn, lead to injustice and all sorts of evil (444al, b8). It is not easy to imagine, for in its elusiveness (Sophist 237b10) it is experienced only as a bewilderment of the eye, that positive apprehension of darkness which is felt after the descent into the infinity of “human evil” (517d5; cf. 445c6) so feelingly described by Socrates (517e3). The cave represents non-being under the guise of a womb, where, as in the Phoenician myth (414c), the “earth-born” race gestates. From the point of view of the human soul strug­gling with a body and with other men, the Good is at work throughout  the whole only “in a certain way” (516cl) but not directly. For its light never penetrates into the cave, where a counterfeit takes its place; to the lighted realm of being on which the true sun shines, there is opposed a dark realm of non-being (cf. Sophist 254a); between these realms is the steep road along which men “come into being,” the road of genesis or birth. Socrates’ cave is the very image of that “Indefinite Dyad” whose nature is womb-like, murky, material,  un-substantial,  bad  (cf. Note 35)

4c. Socrates, however, has a figure of his own for such life as goes on in the cave. Before, he had forbidden the poets to slander the underworld­ now he himself commits such a slander against our earth. Earlier, he had struck a line from the Odyssey (XI, 489), the one in which Achilles as a shade among shades laments, saying that he would rather be “a serf on earth slaving for another portionless man” (386c3) than a king among the dead—now Socrates himself puts this very line into the mouth of the man forced to descend once more into the cave, our habitation (516d5)!

Just as in the Phaedo there is proposed a place rather to be taken “as truly the earth” than the hollow in which we live (110a1), so in the Republic Socrates points to a place to be taken as truly the underworld, a truly shadowy and obscure Hades (508c, 517d)—a new realm distinct from the underworld of myth, the “invisible Hades,” the Aidēs a-idēs of after-life, which is invisible rather than dark, a place pure of all bodily sight (cf. Phaedo 79b7, 80d5, Cratylus 404bl), a “divine place” (topos daimonios, 614cl). The new Hades is the realm of living souls, Socrates’ mortal Hades. It, therefore, adds to  the “intelligible” and the “visible” place a third, a “sightless” place (cf. Phaedrus 248 ff. for another such myth concerning the places for the soul). Its inhabitants live in a dream-like isolation (533b8; cf. 476c4; cf. Heraclitus, Diels, Vorsokratiker Fr. 89) reminiscent of the mindless flittings of the shades in the traditional Hades; like the shades in Hades, they are incapable of touching each other ( Odyssey X, 494; XI, 204), while some go completely to sleep, having, as Socrates puts it, “ar­rived in Hades before they have woken up here” (534c7). We may conjec­ture that Aristotle’s own cave story, reported by Cicero (On the Nature of the Gods II, xxxvii, 95), was a counter-image to combat Socrates’ scan­dalous view. For the inmates of Aristotle’s cave, a well-furnished underground apartment, need only a chance to catch a glimpse of the up­per world with its sun by day and its stars in their regular courses by night, to know immediately that theirs is indeed a world ruled by gods. But this splendid world, Aristotle, contrary to Socrates, implies, whose divinity is immediately apprehended by anyone with unjaded vision, is, precisely, our own present habitation, toward whose beauty our senses have grown dull.

What is most characteristic of Socrates’ moral Hades is the wilfulness of its inhabitants, who resist and mock their liberator (517a). Again, Aris­totle’s cave image is instructive, for its inhabitants are prisoners by nature and must wait for the “jaws of  earth” to open before they can come up. But for Socrates’ men, the way is open; the Good has prepared other and better places for the soul, and there is no necessity to sit below;  they seem to cherish their chains—in a certain engraving of the “Antrum Platonicum” (1604 A.O.) the huddled prisoners very tellingly wear no visible chains at all. Perhaps, then, the most important aspect of the cave is that it is not a natural cavern but a “cave-like underground chamber” (514a3; cf. Ax­iochus 371a8), clearly an artificial prison made by men for men. The posi­tion of the prisoners itself indicates stubborn perversity; they are facing the wrong way round and have a perverted view; that is why they must first of all be “converted” (518c8), or, failing that, must be dealt with by “per­suasion as well as compulsion” (519e4). The cave is the human city always and everywhere, a prison  compound within which true community is to be  achieved only at rare propitious moments.

4d. Glaucon should have no difficulty in recognizing the place. He has some acquaintance with Pythagorean doctrine (53la4), and the notion of the world as a prison and life as a living death are both well known Pythagorean teachings (cf. Gorgias 493a), as is also that of the “descent into Hades.” Pythagoras himself is said to have “told how he descended (katabas) to look on the way of life of those who have gone below, to see how entirely different were the lives of the Pythagoreans” (Aristophon in Diogenes Laertius VIII, 38).[38] In fact, the dialogue of the Republic as a whole has a Pythagorean setting, for just as the lectures of Pythagoras were said to have taken place by night (Diogenes Laertius VIII, 15; cf. the “nocturnal council” of the Laws [961]; also Plato’s “night clock,” Athanaeus, IV, 174c), so it must be well into the night when the central part of the Republic is spoken. What is more, its very form has a Pythagorean cast, since it seems to be that of a Pythagorean exercise: It was evidently part of the discipline of a Pythagorean to attempt, before starting the day, to “re-collect” within himself in its entirety whatever conversation he had had the day before.[39] This would provide an additional reason why the dialogue is told by Socrates as having taken place not just recently, but “yesterday” (327al), and would explain why he does not address it to anyone: He speaks it within and to himself—Plato, even more truly than Alcibiades, can “open up” Socrates (Symposium 216d6). Certainly, if we are to take seriously the form of the Republic as a report of a conversation that lasted the better part of a day and a night, we shall find it to be a somewhat incredible feat, which needs to be accounted for by some such power as a special mnemonic discipline would give. In the Republic, we may infer, Socrates is shown as a master of the Pythagorean practice that provided a congenial discipline or askesis, useful in preparing the soul by a kind of habituation for that inward recovery of truth which is given a temporal cloak in the myth of recollection (Meno 81) and is particularly displayed in mathematical investigations (ibid. 82; cf. Note 27).

This is the eighth essay in this series. The other essays may be found here: I, II, III, IV, V, VIVII, IX, and XBooks by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 39, Number 1 and 2, 1989 – 1990) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).


[27] Throughout the dialogue, Socrates’ reiteration of themes, such as the “oft-told” tale of the one and the many, as well as the recapitulations he often elicits from Glaucon, have the effect of making Glaucon “recollect” (e.g., 507a7, 522bl, 544b4) from time to time the springs and the course of the argument. This is, obviously, not genuine Socratic recollection (see above, IV.E.4d) but an exercise of that power of memory which philosophers must possess as part of their natural en­dowment (535cl). Such memory-recollection (anamnesis) was especially cultivated by the Pythagoreans: “A Pythagorean man does not arise from his bed before he has recollected what happened yesterday. And he performs the recollections in this way. He tries to recover by means of the dianoia what he first said or heard.” (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 163, 20).  The passage goes on to describe the discipline of completely recalling the logoi and erga of the previous day, a discipline that was considered part of the training needed for the ac­quisition of knowledge. It is obviously a technique  Socrates himself had  mastered.

[28] The most important ancient reports of the “Unwritten Teachings” are conveniently collected in Gaiser, Platons ungeschriebene Lehre (Stuttgart 1963), pp. 445 ff. See also J.N. Findlay, Plato, the Written and Unwritten Doctrines (New York 1974).

[29] Klein, op. cit. (supra, 25), pp. 115-25, “The Dianoetic Extension of Eikasia.”

[30] Klein, ibid. 119 and note 27, where the proof according to Euclid V of the equality of the middle segments is given.

[31] Klein, ibid. pp. 191-99 on the “solidity” of the soul in the dialogues. For further sources on the “dimensional soul” see Gaiser, op. cit. (supra, N. 28),  pp.  545 ff.

[32] See Toeplitz, “Mathematik und Ideenlehre bei Platon,” Zur Geschichte der griechischen Mathematik (Darmstadt  1965), p. 59.

[33] The objects on the Divided Line are only twice referred to in terms of mimesis (510b4  and  532a2,  507c6).

[34] In the Philebus, the Good as a human good comes to Socrates as a dream-like reminiscence of a “third thing,” other than and above both pleasure and human wisdom (20b8), e., it is a “one” above the other “two.” It has three characteristics: It is “perfect,” “adequate,” and “choiceworthy” (20d); its power, again, cannot be “caught” in one idea but must be captured in three: beauty, symmetry, and truth (65a1); their relation is not unlike that of the three effects of the power of the Good, namely world, knowledge, and being, in the Republic. Again Eudemus (Wehrli, Fr. 31; cited by Gaiser, op. cit. p. 480, note) says that Plato distinguished three ways the Good functions: as productive, as end, and as exemplary cause; these again correspond roughly to the Good as father, as end of learning, and as pattern of being. The whole complex is caught in a German word-play: the Good is the “Ursprung,” that is, the “Ur-sache” of all “Sachen” and their “Sachheit” (M. Heideg­ ger, Platons Lehre van der Wahrheit [Bern 1954], p. 40).

[35] Gaiser, op. cit. (supra, 28), p. 531; see F. Cornford, Plato and Parmenides (New York 1957), pp. 3-11 for further references. For one playful allusion to the Indefinite Dyad in the Platonic dialogues themselves see J. Klein, “A Note on Plato’s Parmenides,” in Lectures and Essays, ed. R. Williamson and E. Zuckerman (Annapolis 1985), pp. 285-88.

Further terms used of the Dyad in Metaphysics 989b19 ff. material, the great and small, similar to the female, responsible for evil.

For Being as the eidetic Two, see J. Klein, Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra, trans. E. Brann (Cambridge 1968), p. 93.

The dialectical name of this or of any other eidetic number is not given explicitly in any ancient source. On the Good as the “First” and “the source which is the whole” see Klein, Meno, p. 123 and n. 39.

[36]The homoia and associated terms like paradeigma and analogia, reduced however to mere principles of classification, figure largely in the work of Speusippus, Plato’s successor in the Academy; see Pauly­ Wissowa, III, A. 2, pp. 1641-58. Themistius (Gaiser, op. cit., p. 535) says that Plato spoke of methexis in the Timaeus but called participation homoiosis in the Agrapha Dogmata.

[37] Adams op. cit. II, pp. 441, 470 ff.

[38] There is also a curious story about an artificial Hades that Pythagoras is said to have built—a little chamber under the earth into which he disappeared for a long time and then ascended, announcing that he had dwelt in Hades (Diogenes Laertius VIII,  41).

[39] Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras  165, 12; see Note 27.

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