According to Socrates, to save Philosophy, to save young souls destined for greatness, to save human society itself, the true, philosophic nature must be freed from the corruptive influences that have formed him and receive the best education. The soul must be turned around.
I forgot that we were playing and spoke rather intensely. For, as I was talking I looked at Philosophy and, seeing her undeservingly spattered with mud, I seem to have been vexed and said what I had to say too seriously as though my spiritedness were aroused against those who are responsible. (VII.536c)
Socratic dialogues are always dramatic, and the Republic is no exception. Opinions are revealed by the characters who hold them. Thrasymachus frightens Socrates by the forcefulness with which he expresses his opinion that justice is the rule of the stronger. So when we see something as unusual as Socrates admitting to being upset, we should pay careful attention. This hardly ever happens. Even when Socrates attended a performance of Aristophanes’s Clouds, he didn’t erupt or storm out; instead he stood so the crowd could see how like him was the comic mask worn by the stage Socrates. But at the end of Book VII of The Republic, in the privacy of a group of friends, Socrates’ love of Philosophy makes his blood boil at the ridicule he and it receive from society and its leading elements. This is not simply a personal matter. Socrates seriously believes the greatest goods for mankind and human societies are at stake; a proper reverence for philosophy and the philosopher is necessary if “the city and the regime are to be saved.”
Socrates grows angry because he thinks he knows who is responsible for the insults and abuse heaped upon Philosophy. Aristophanes simply dramatized the common opinion that Philosophy is practiced by charlatans and humbugs; he did not make their opinions. Who is responsible? The answer to this question drives the movement of the dialogue from the end of Book V through Book VII, and provides the context for some of the most famous images in literature, particularly the Cave allegory at the beginning of Book VII. I hope that understanding this movement will help us to understand The Republic better, but also provide us with important reflections as teachers and students of philosophy.
1 The Philosophic Nature
This part of the drama begins near the end of Book V. Book V began with Socrates somewhat unwillingly presenting key changes a regime must experience if the just Republic described in Books II-IV is to really come into being. The hardest thing to swallow—harder than the common education of women and men, harder than the community of women and children—is that either philosophers must rule, or rulers must become philosophers. He knows how “paradoxical” this will seem, and is not surprised at all when Glaucon expresses dramatically how insane, and even dangerous, most people will think such a claim. Adeimantus later states what experience has shown: those who spend too much time in philosophy tend to become “quite queer, not to say completely vicious; while the ones who seem perfectly decent . . . become perfectly useless to the cities.”
Socrates immediately blames this reaction on the caricature of the philosopher that most people have. Naturally, the idea of Aristophanes’ Socrates being a ruler is crazy. So Socrates has to try to establish an accurate image. He does this by argument, starting with the drive that marks a young person as a budding philosopher—a youthful omnivorous appetite for learning: “The one who is willing to taste every kind of learning with gusto, and who approaches learning with delight, and is insatiable, we shall justly assert to be a philosopher.” In response to a criticism from Glaucon, Socrates clarifies. Some people love to learn about all the fair things and fair ideas, the different views of justice and of holiness, to be found among different kinds of people. They know that none of those is absolute justice, and are glad of it. In fact, they get angry with anyone who would say that the fair and the just and the holy are really the same everywhere. Though they are lovers of learning, they are not philosophers; philosophers are passionate about learning what the fair and just and holy really and simply are. “About philosophic natures, let’s agree that they are always in love with that learning which discloses to them something of the being that is always and does not wander about, driven by generation and decay.”
Socrates’ complete vision of the philosopher might seem the idle dream of a besotted lover: “a rememberer, a good learner, magnificent, charming, and a friend and kinsman of truth, justice, courage, and moderation.” But he makes a strong case. The one really passionate for wisdom would love truth and hate lies. He would love the pleasures of the soul and forsake the pleasures of the body, and therefore be moderate. Money would hold little interest for him. His speech will be weighty; he will be great-souled through his “contemplation of all time and all being.” He will be courageous through having an accurate judgment about human life and death. Justice will come naturally to him, and he will easily work with others. Add to this the necessary intellectual gifts, and you end up with an impressive package, one truly worthy to be made into a ruler.
Socrates arrives at this image through argument. But he admits that experience produces very different images, which he must account for in order to have his claims taken seriously. True philosophic natures are extraordinarily attractive and natural-born leaders. For this reason, they receive great praise, flattery, and promises of reward from their youth in the hopes that they will follow the path to greatness approved by everyone. Most will succumb to this kind of flattery. Those who don’t, who show a magnanimity that makes them immune to the lures of society, end up being distrusted by most people. They lead quiet, private lives that will keep them from getting into trouble, but make them useless.
So the positive images of the philosopher are unavailable to experience. But false images are plentiful. Those who claim to pursue philosophy do not have the passionate commitment to real learning characteristic of the true philosophic nature. Most of these are small souls, who make philosophy look pedantic and ridiculous, but pose no threat to anyone. They are attracted by the pretensions that philosophy gives them in looking down on those who pursue the ordinary interests of life. Apollodorus, the character who narrates The Symposium, seems a prime example. He abandoned his business life to follow Socrates around and make himself into a little image of him. “There was a time when I was running about the world, fancying myself to be well employed, but I was really a most wretched thing, no better than you are now. . . . I pity you who are my companions, because you think that you are doing something when in reality you are doing nothing.”
But sometimes a soul made for greatness will dabble in philosophy long enough to become very dangerous. When natures passionate for greatness receive bad instruction, they become “exceptionally bad,” “the source of great injustices and unmixed villainy.” Alcibiades is the tragic figure of Philosophy. As Plutarch relates:
The affection which Socrates entertained for him is a great evidence of the natural noble qualities and good disposition of the boy, which Socrates, indeed, detected both in and under his personal beauty; and, hearing that his wealth and station, and the great number both of strangers and Athenians who flattered and caressed him, might at last corrupt him, resolved, if possible, to interpose, and preserve hopeful a plant from perishing in the flower, before its fruit came to perfection. For never did fortune surround and enclose a man with so many of those things which we vulgarly call goods, or so protect him from every weapon of philosophy, and fence him from every access of free and searching words, as she did Alcibiades; who, from the beginning, was exposed to the flatteries of those who sought merely his gratification, such as might well unnerve him, and indispose him to listen to any real adviser or instructor.
In spite of his best efforts, Socrates finally failed to fix Alcibiades’s affection on philosophy. This was not only a personal disaster for Socrates (who had to content himself with the Apollodoruses of the world), but also brought shame and suspicion to philosophy. Alcibiades’s Trump-like flaunting of the social norms of Athenian culture, and his subsequent abandonment of Athens for Sparta, and then Persia, could easily be blamed on his strange association with that strange man, Socrates. “Corrupting the youth” was the charge that finally brought Socrates to his death.
Socrates warns Glaucon and Adeimantus against believing this charge. Young men such as Alcibiades have indeed been corrupted by their education. But the corrupter is society itself.
Isn’t it rather the very men who say [that sophists privately corrupt the most promising youth] who are the biggest sophists, who educate most perfectly and who turn out young and old, men and women, just the way they want them to be? [This happens] when many gathered together sit down in assemblies, courts, theaters, army camps, or any other common meeting of a multitude, and, with a great deal of uproar, blame some of the things done, and praise others, both in excess, shouting and clapping; and besides the rocks and the very place surrounding them echo and redouble the roar of blame and praise.
To save Philosophy, to save young souls destined for greatness, to save human society itself, the true, philosophic nature must be freed from the corruptive influences that have formed him and receive the best education. Socrates spends a great deal of time talking about the kinds of studies that will help in this educational effort. But he also makes clear that just presenting the studies is insufficient to ensure the benefits. In fact, without great care being taken, the very studies meant to save the philosophical nature and bring it to its natural greatness will undermine everything. The Cave allegory illustrates the difficulties.
II. The Cave
Few images in all of literature have had the lasting power of Plato’s allegory of the cave. “Next, then, make an image of our nature in its education and want of education.” So begins Book VII of the Republic. I have been captivated since youth by the image of imprisoned dwellers in a cave, knowing nothing of what is real but shadows. It inoculated me against the stupidity of the world and its ways, though it also fed a sense of superiority and disdain. I think it helped keep my heart steadily fixed on coming to know what is really true and good and beautiful, and prepared me for the spiritual/intellectual ascents found in Catholic authors such as St. Augustine, St. Anselm, and St. Bonaventure. I believe it has had a similar impact on others.
But the moral impact of the cave image may be negligible because its moral character was never really seen. Many students may only see shadows of the cave itself, because they read it through a deformed Phil 101 version of Plato’s Forms. They interpret the cave image primarily or exclusively through an epistemological lens, in which the shadows represent sensible particulars of dogs and petunias and mud; the point of the image is to illustrate that they are not really objects of knowledge because they are not really real themselves. The prisoners are freed and begin the journey to the outer world by realizing that “dogness” and other Ideas exist in themselves, and are the real objects of knowledge. Most students do not buy into Plato’s Forms, so for them the Cave Allegory remains a quaint though memorable story of a somewhat silly philosophical position.
That is the Phil 101 version, which presents the Cave Allegory in isolation from its larger context. Even students who have read the entire Republic tend to isolate the allegory from the political and philosophical questions which dominate the book—“What is justice? Where can it be found? Why can’t it be found in any of our real cities?” In a recent classroom discussion, an excellent group of intelligent and eager students limited their examples to Fido and furniture compared to “dog-ness” and “table-ness.” They strongly affirmed that the allegory is essentially about an individual alone; whether other prisoners are in the cave is irrelevant. Students usually find something strange and even sinister about the people carrying artifacts along the wall behind the prisoners, but that only confuses them. Who are these people? Did they imprison the poor souls? What does that have to do with epistemology anyway?
Students never seem to pick up on the discrepancy between their examples of forms and Plato’s. Plato doesn’t speak of dogness and treeness, but rather the Beautiful, the Just, the Equal and the Unequal, the Good. As he begins to speak of the greatest of studies that philosophic souls must be prepared for, he reminds Glaucon of what he has “often repeated on other occasions . . . that there is a fair itself, a good itself, and so on for all the things that we then set down as many.” Understandably, the last part encourages our natural drift towards the animals we instinctively view as substances. But Plato, or at least Plato’s Socrates, seems not to care about natural substances, generally, and certainly not in the context of the Cave. The philosopher’s journey of soul culminates in a vision of the Good which reveals the Right and Fair. The Allegory’s central theme is that of the Republic itself—Justice; the soul who comes back into the cave, having seen “justice itself” is forced to enter contests “about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself.”
Socrates perhaps unwittingly misleads a modern audience, with our distorted images of what philosophy is and what the philosopher does, by likening the prison home to the visible world and the light of the fire in the cave to the sun. But the dialogues all suggest that what Socrates sees all day every day by the light of the sun is the world of men, men scheming and striving, men preening and searching, men arguing and laughing, men fighting and killing and dying. Socrates explains to Phaedrus (in the dialogue of the same name) why he is out of his element in a beautiful natural setting: “I am devoted to learning; landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me – only the people in the city do.” He explains his lack of interest in debunking nature myths by saying, “I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that. . . . Am I a beast more complicated and savage than Typhon, or am I a tamer, simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature?”
The sun reveals for all who live in political communities first and foremost the daily lives of men, dominated by implicit and explicit views of what is worth living and striving for. Young eyes open to the lives of adults and absorb patterns into the soul. Education in stories—fact and fiction, gossip and legend—provide other models. The laws of our societies imply an image of what is just. As the young mature, they wittingly or unwittingly begin to model their own lives after the patterns of those they find successful, beautiful, glamorous, strong, even when they judge themselves failures for not living up to them. They instinctively avoid what seems ugly, often influenced by the sneering laughter of those around them. Tolstoy reports of Ivan Ilyitch: “At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.”
As we have seen, in Book VI Socrates accuses society of poorly educating the best souls about the most important things. The language of his diatribe closely anticipates the cave—many, sitting down, shouting and clapping, rocks resounding—and Socrates reminds us of it when he promises that the man freed from the cave would finally be immune to the memory of the “honors, praises and prizes for the man who is sharpest at making out the things that go by.”
Within this context, we can profitably interpret many of the details of the liberating journey. Let’s begin with common questions. Who chained the prisoners? Significantly, the prisoners are prevented from turning around by chains, not by being sick or paralyzed or quadriplegic (which our doctrine of original sin might suggest). Socrates wants to drive home that it is not our nature that keeps us in ignorance and error, but the external chains of societal custom, and especially the desire to be approved by the multitude which “honors, praises and prizes the man who is sharpest at making out the things that go by, and . . . who is thereby most able to divine what is going to come.” This man is fixed in thinking that the lives of the temporally important, which come to be and pass away with startling rapidity, are the only things that matter. The man approaching philosophy is anything but a tabula rasa, though his soul remains capable of seeing what really is, if he can force himself to look long enough.
What are the shadows, which the prisoners take for the truth about themselves and others? Socrates tells us later in the allegory, when he says the man returning from the light is “compelled in courts or elsewhere to contest about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself.” This gives us a glimpse into both the shadows and the artifacts carried behind the wall, which include things like tables and couches, but also statues of men and animals. The shadows are of justice and/or of its representations. If the shadows are primarily to be understood as the lived lives of men in community, particularly when they draw the attention of others as being praised and honored, blamed and disgraced, the artifacts would represent the ideals or abstract models which justify the shadow-lives that impress the multitude. These are the laws and regimes (political orderings), the great works of literature and tales of heroes and heroic actions, great works of craft and enterprise that awe visiting foreigners. Pericles did not model his life simply according to the praise and blame of the multitude; rather he led his Athens according to Solon, Homer, the great deeds at Marathon, and the thirst for beauty in architecture and art.
The shadows can arise either directly from imperfect grasps of justice or, perhaps more often, from imperfectly living according to the ideals. Unlike the shadows, the artifacts have color and depth and substance in themselves. Looking at them brings about pain, which tempts the freed captive to long for the “leeks and onions of Egypt.” How often have we heard the chief ideals of our democratic Cave—freedom, equality, rights—used to justify the most despicable lifestyles of first the rich and famous, and then everyone else? Those captivated by the glamorous promise of license have little interest in or capability of understanding the ideals that founded our nation. They twist the stories of our heroes into images of their lust, or delight in besmirching their heroic character. It can be very painful for one immersed in this environment to begin to see that the life favored by the multitude, the only life he has known, is judged to be a shadow in the light of these ideals.
Are these image-makers sinister? Not always? Not intentionally? In Book VIII, Socrates goes through what seem to be a number of different caves—the timocratic, the oligarchic, and the democratic. Their ideals of what is right and fair differ according to what they believe is the good. “The good that they proposed for themselves and for the sake of which oligarchy was established, was wealth, wasn’t it? . . . And does the greediness for what democracy defines as good also dissolve it? . . . Freedom. For surely in a city under a democracy you would hear that this is the finest thing it has, and that for this reason it is the only regime worth living in for anyone who is by nature free.” This is the fire, the artificially contrived vision of the good that men in different regimes establish for themselves. The laws celebrated by Pericles in his funeral oration enshrined freedom and equality, and the poets (like Aeschylus) and historians (like Herodotus) celebrated it as well.
III. Turning the Whole Soul—The Education of the Philosophic Nature
Socrates draws out from his allegory the real task of education. Education does not put knowledge into the soul. Rather, it focuses the soul’s own power to learn on what is judged to be important. The best education turns that power “around from that which is coming into being together with the whole soul until it is able to endure looking at that which is and the brightest part of that which is,” the good. The soul must be turned around, for it has already been educated to dwell on shadows by its society. Education is “the art of this turning around, concerned with the way in which this power can most easily and efficiently be turned around.” In terms drawn from the earlier part of the Republic, the whole soul includes the desires, the spirit, and the calculating, as well as the imagination.
Because of his concern for the whole soul, Socrates thinks educators must be very careful to present their training in stages appropriate to age, and only allow those who have shown themselves dedicated and capable to encounter the most advanced parts of philosophy. Turning the soul is made easier by preventing the young from developing tastes for the pleasures of sophisticated daily life, by putting before them the best stories to form their imaginations, by developing body and spirit in athletic contests and love for the beautiful through singing. Such an education makes the chains thin, but the virtues developed through proper gymnastic, music, and education in story are not based on understanding. They are founded on a trust in the goodness of the specific traditions and laws of their particular society. In the terms of the cave allegory, these guardians have little trouble turning to look at the images carried above the wall, in the light of the good of their society, but have no incentive to begin looking beyond these images.
Socrates is leery of challenging those images at any time during youth. In most of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is shown trying to shake the complacency of older, established men, the leading members of society. That kind of procedure is dangerous for the young. In the Apology, he seemed to express some concern about the idle sons of wealthy men who enjoyed watching him reveal the pretenses of their elders, and even made themselves annoying by imitating him. He won’t even introduce Glaucon, who may have been in his thirties at the time of the dialogue, to dialectic. Dialectic has done harm to society and philosophy by encouraging those too young or too flippant about real learning to engage in arguments that challenge their “childhood convictions about what’s just and fair by which we are brought up as by parents.” When they can’t answer difficult challenges, they often come to “the opinion that what the law says is no more fair than ugly,” just than unjust, good than bad. The result can be an outlaw.
Mathematics provides for the young the proper incentive and bridge to lead the soul to look towards the world that is. That Socrates would choose math is perhaps surprising. When in The Apology, Socrates pursued those who seemed to be wise, he went to the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen. He did not approach mathematicians. Mathematicians don’t pretend to be wise; at least they don’t aspire to political power nor to insight into justice and legislation. But they do claim to have knowledge, and in many ways a kind of knowledge that removes them from the daily hustle and bustle of political frenzy. Archimedes’ death while contemplating a mathematical diagram during Rome’s invasion of Syracuse expresses the spirit.
Although mathematics arose out of a desire to apply knowledge to build buildings and canals, and astronomy out of the desire to plot the heavens for religious and agricultural purposes, Greek mathematicians became enamored of the mathematical world itself. Real mathematicians use diagrams and symbols which can be seen, but they know they are not thinking of these things. Amazingly they are gathering eternal truths about unseen objects. They know that they are not making proofs about tangible bodies; they draw figures but they know the accuracy of the figure is not essential, because the argument does not depend upon sight. “(The study of calculation) leads the soul powerfully upwards and compels it to discuss numbers themselves. It won’t at all permit anyone to propose for discussion numbers that are attached to visible or tangible bodies. For surely, you know the way of men are clever in these things. If in the argument someone attempts to cut the one itself, they laugh and won’t permit it.”
Mathematics has a natural charm, as evidenced by the way solid geometry developed even though society saw no use in it. Its charm will win young souls to think about what is beyond sense, while being accessible to them because of its use of images and still practical enough to keep their practical side from causing resistance. Mathematics also tests mental agility and the aptitude for serious study necessary to really advance in philosophy. Socrates recommends not making it compulsory, but offering it as a playful, leisurely activity. Those young budding leaders who enjoy mathematical problems and push themselves to understand their solutions are the ones who are most likely to have the best dispositions to the fullness of philosophy (like Theaetetus).
Even so, mathematicians are not themselves out of the cave. “And as for the rest, those that we said do lay hold of something of what is – geometry and the arts following on it – we observe that they do dream about what is; but they haven’t the capacity to see it in full awakeness so long as they use hypotheses and, leaving them untouched, are unable to give an account of them. When the beginning is what one doesn’t know, and the end and what comes in between are woven out of what isn’t known, what contrivance is there for ever turning such an agreement into knowledge?” Mathematicians do not raise natural questions about their starting points. How can what is one not also be many, since every one that we see is also many? How can we determine what is really equal or really straight, since these things look also unequal and unlevel? Where do we get the ideas of perfect circles and exact ratios? Philosophical natures ask these kinds of questions naturally, insistently; mathematicians brush them aside. This was true of my own high school experience, when I could not find anyone who cared to know whether a differential is a really thick point, or what the heck it is. That killed my ability to do calculus.
The one who asks these questions is beginning to get outside the cave. If he is sufficiently old and serious, he is ready to be introduced to dialectic, the art of argument. Socrates cannot give Glaucon an image to capture what dialectic itself is. But he does give several characteristics of it. It is the highest of the arts. It works through argument alone, not through anything sensible or imaginable. It seeks to understand what each thing worth knowing really is, so that it might eventually understand what the Good itself is. It can then give an account of each thing that is (and seems). It does this by “destroying the hypotheses” that are the foundations of cave knowledge. Dialectic shows by argument that the hypotheses cannot stand as they are thought to. This goes not only for the foundations of mathematics, but also for the foundations of society. The opinions about the just and fair that are enshrined in law, tradition, and heroic stories are just the sorts of things which “look somehow both fair and ugly,” just and unjust, holy and unholy. This is the frightening part of education, the one that must be most carefully guarded so that only those who have shown themselves truly devoted to learning, and most truly devoted to their cities, are allowed to enter.
Socrates believes the philosophical souls should spend their early thirties engaged in serious dialectical arguments, having their earlier opinions challenged at every level, while they never lose hope of coming to an ultimate understanding of what is true, just, holy, and beautiful. However, he does not expect them to resolve their difficulties during these intellectual “gymnastics.” Rather, they must be sent back at this time to serve in the cave for FIFTEEN YEARS! This will give them the experience they need so that when they finally achieve rule they will not appear ridiculous. But he also says that it is a continuation of the test. Will one who has been led to question the assumptions of the society he serves finally turn against it? Or will his love for it endure, will his conviction that it is just to serve “stand firm or give way when pulled in all directions”? Perhaps it will also help in the final task of approaching the good to have seen the different dreams of the good reflected in the lives of many different people, including themselves. Finally, when they are 50 years old (hey, who do I know like that?), they can be led to see the good itself, which they can then use as a pattern for ordering the city.
Let me end with questions that Plato raises for us as students and educators.
Has he properly identified the philosophic nature? Do we seem more like Apollodorus than Alcibiades?
Is he right about the effects of custom, of praise and blame, on our opinions? Is it possible that even good customs leave us asleep in the cave?
Is philosophical education a moral as well as intellectual journey? Do we really have to turn our whole souls? Should accustoming to delight in thought be a central part of the education of the young?
Is he right about the role mathematics should play in all this?
Is he right that dialectic should be delayed until older? That it has dangerous effects when engaged in by the young?
Is he right that experience in serving offices is important? Is it philosophically important or only necessary if we happen to need to serve society?
We must take good care of all such things since, if we bring men straight of limb and understanding to so important a study, and so important a training and education then Justice herself will not blame us, and we shall save the city and the regime; while, in bringing men of another sort to it, we shall do exactly the opposite and also pour even more ridicule over philosophy.
Republished with Dr. Seeley’s gracious permission.
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 Plato, The Republic, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2004): 473d.
 Ibid., 487d.
 Ibid., 475c.
 Ibid., 485b.
 Ibid., 487a.
 Ibid., 486a.
 Plato, The Symposium, trans. Christopher Gill (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2003): 173c.
 Plato, The Republic, 491e.
 Ibid., VI. 492c.
 Ibid., 514a.
 Ibid., 507b.
 Ibid., 517b.
 Ibid., 517d.
 e.g. ibid., 517b.
 Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Classics, 1995): 230d.
 Ibid., 230a.
 Plato, The Republic, 516c; cf. 426c.
 Ibid., 516c.
 Ibid., 517d.
 Ibid., 562b-c.
 Ibid., 518d.
 Ibid., 522a.
 Plato, The Apology, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Bulgaria: Demetra Publishing, 2019): 23c.
 Plato, The Republic, 539e.
 Ibid., 525d.
 Ibid., 528c.
 Ibid., V. 479a-b.
 Ibid., 537d.
 Ibid., 540a.
 Ibid., VII. 536b.
The featured image is Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (c. 1791) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.